Character-Narrators in Opera. Aesthetics Work Group. College of Charleston. March 31, 2017

Invited Talk

This paper is drawn from a book in progress on the nature of operatic storytelling. This chapter explores the role narrators play in opera, presenting the first taxonomy of types of character-narrators. I begin with the question of whether all narratives require fictional narrators. Scholars who have responded in the affirmative (e.g., Chatman 1990, Levinson 2006, Wilson 2011) have argued for the necessity of there being an agent in the fictional world who is the imagined author or presenter of the text, audio-visual display, or performance (a “controlling narrator” in Currie’s [1995] terminology). For example, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw invites readers to imagine that they are reading a governess’s account of a haunting. Benjamin Britten and Myfanwy Piper’s operatic adaptation, by contrast, does not invite spectators to imagine that the Governess is the source of everything that they are seeing and hearing. This is particularly implausible for the music, which draws comparisons between her behaviour to the children and that of the ghosts. Even if Britten had composed music that better accorded with the Governess’s point of view, it would still not be true in the story that the Governess has written, composed, and staged the performance we are watching. Controlling operatic narrators are rare, but not unheard of. I argue that the gods and allegorical figures in many Baroque opera prologues, the Speaker in Stravinsky’s Oedipus rex, and the monks in Britten’s church parables perform such a role.

Service Performed By


  • March 31, 2017

Service or Event Name

  • Aesthetics Work Group

Host Organization

  • College of Charleston