Opera and the Seven Deadly Sins

By:  Mary-Lou Vetere, PhD


Vanity, Gluttony, Avarice, Sloth, Envy, Wrath, Lust….

Mix these frightening behaviours with Brad Pitt, Morgen Freeman, and Kevin Spacey, and you are watching “Seven” in which the Seven Deadly Sins are outrageously represented in a series of gut-wrenching murders.  The spectacular thing about the film “Seven” was not that it was about a serial killer, but that each sin was represented in the detailed, meticulous, deranged mind of the killer.  The seven deadly sins aren’t new, even if the film brought new and modern attention to an old biblical detailing of what you ought to avoid if you’re going to live a “sin-free” life.

The Catholic Church divides sin into two categories: venial sins, in which guilt is relatively minor, and the more severe mortal sins. Theologically, a mortal or deadly sin is believed to destroy the life of grace and charity within a person and thus creates the threat of eternal damnation. “Mortal sin, by attacking the vital principle within us – that is, charity – necessitates a new initiative of God’s mercy and a conversion of heart which is normally accomplished [for Catholics] within the setting of the sacrament of reconciliation. According to Catholic moral thought, the seven deadly sins are not discrete from other sins, but are instead the origin (“capital” comes from the Latin caput, head) of the others. “Deadly sins” can be either venial or mortal, depending on the situation, but “are called ‘capital’ because they engender other sins, other vices”.

There have been many sources in which the Seven Deadly Sins have been highlighted, for example:

Perhaps the most spectacular representation of the sins are in Dante’s “Divina Commedia” in which the tryptic (Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso) each represent a meeting with a character or demon who embodies the sins, but what of an investigation of the sins in opera?  Immediately, Kurt Weill’s “The Seven Deadly Sins” or Die sieben Todsünden comes to mind, a satirical ballet chanté (“sung ballet”) in seven scenes (nine movements) composed to a German Libretto by Bertolt Brecht in 1933.  It was later translated into English and would be the last major collaboration between the two.

In music, and opera particularly, this subject has been avoided likely because of the numerous operas that could be categorized within the spectrum of the seven sins;  however controversial, the idea of correlating operas with the deadly sins is titilating and exciting.  Applying such a study to the enormous operatic repertoire seems a daunting exercise, and yet beckons the question:  What criteria would one use to select operas that relate to the seven sins?  Referring to any of the above texts might provide viable criteria, however rather than make this a cerebral or academic exercise, it is more fun to base this particular one on emotional content and, moreover, visceral, bodily, and psychological warfare.   As in the film “Seven”, it is the shock element that attracts us most.  The gaze (most often affiliated with film studies on Hitchcock thrillers) comes to mind:  the more disturbing the subject matter, the more we are drawn to stare, to look, to digest.

SLoth from SEven

The presentation of “Sloth” in “Seven”

Stare much?…

Initially, it seemed appropriate to associate full operas with each sin, but I was inspired by the dichotomous photo above in which each beautiful woman represents a sin.  I immediately  thought of Eve and the forbidden fruit, so I decided it would be much sexier to associate female characters in opera to these sins, mainly because female protagonists are often referred to as “operatic heroines,” so I thought I might shake things up.  And while there could be many characters (male and female) associated with each sin, these are personal choices.  At the end of this article, you will have a chance to offer your own opinions and choices in a poll.  I will post your suggestions at a later date.  For now….to Wrath



Wrath (Latin, ira), also known as “rage”, may be described as inordinate and uncontrolled feelings of hatred and anger. Wrath, in its purest form, presents with self-destructiveness, violence, and hate that may provoke feuds that can go on for centuries. Wrath may persist long after the person who did another a grievous wrong is dead. Feelings of anger can manifest in different ways, including impatience, revenge, and vigilantism.

Wrath is the only sin not necessarily associated with selfishness or self-interest, although one can of course be wrathful for selfish reasons, such as jealousy (closely related to the sin of envy). Dante described vengeance as “love of justice perverted to revenge and spite”. In its original form, the sin of anger also encompassed anger pointed internally as well as externally. Thus  was deemed as the ultimate, albeit tragic, expression of hatred directed inwardly, a final rejection of God’s gifts.

The women in opera who, in my opinion, most prominently express the attributes of Wrath are:

Cherubini’s Medea


Puccini’s Tosca

Puccini’s Turandot

Verdi’s Azucena

Janacek’s Katya Katabanova

katya kabanova 1

Janacek’s Kostelnicka

Cilea’s Principessa De Bouillon 

Puccini’s Zia Principessa

Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor

Strauss’ Klytemnestra

Mozart’s Queen of the Night



Lust or lechery (carnal “luxuria“) is an intense desire. It is usually thought of as excessive sexual want; however, the word was originally a general term for desire. Therefore lust could involve the intense desire of money, food, fame, or power as well.

In Dante’s Purgatorio the penitent walks within flames to purge himself of lustful/sexual thoughts and feelings. In Dante’s Inferno, unforgiven souls of the sin of lust are blown about in restless hurricane-like winds symbolic of their own lack of self-control to their lustful passions in earthly life.

Mozart’s Cherubino

Bizet’s Carmen

Strauss’ Salome

Berg’s Countess Geschwitz


Puccini’s Giorgetta

Janacek’s Emilia Marty

Puccini’s Tigrana



Derived from the Latin gluttire, meaning to gulp down or swallow, gluttony (Latin, gula) is the over-indulgence and over-consumption of anything to the point of waste.

In Christian religions, it is considered a sin because of the excessive desire for food, and its withholding from the needy.

Because of these scripts, gluttony can be interpreted as selfishness; essentially placing concern with one’s own interests above the well-being or interests of others.

Medieval church leaders (e.g., Thomas Aquinas) took a more expansive view of gluttony, arguing that it could also include an obsessive anticipation of meals, and the constant eating of delicacies and excessively costly foods. Aquinas went so far as to prepare a list of six ways to commit gluttony, comprising:

  • Praepropere – eating too soon
  • Laute – eating too expensively
  • Nimis – eating too much
  • Ardenter – eating too eagerly
  • Studiose – eating too daintily
  • Forente – eating wildly

I had an inordinately difficult time trying to think of a female character who is Gluttonous, and unless one thinks of gluttony as a thirst for blood, perhaps the only true character in this case is the glutton of opera, Sir John Falstaff.

Verdi’s Falstaff



Greed (Latin, avaritia), also known as avarice or covetousness, is, like lust and gluttony, a sin of excess. However, greed (as seen by the church) is applied to a very excessive or rapacious desire and pursuit of material possessions. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “Greed is a sin against God, just as all mortal sins, in as much as man condemns things eternal for the sake of temporal things.” In Dante’s Purgatory, the penitents were bound and laid face down on the ground for having concentrated too much on earthly thoughts. Scavenging and hoarding of materials or objects, theft and robbery, especially by means of violence, trickery, or manipulation of authority are all actions that may be inspired by Greed. Such misdeeds can include simony, where one attempts to purchase or sell sacraments, including Holy Orders and, therefore, positions of authority in the Church hierarchy.

As defined outside of Christian writings, greed is an inordinate desire to acquire or possess more than one needs, especially with respect to material wealth.

Verdi’s Lady Macbeth

Handel’s Cleopatra

Massenet’s Manon

Puccini’s Manon Lescaut



Sloth (Latin, Socordia) can entail different vices. While sloth is sometimes defined as physical laziness, spiritual laziness is emphasized. Failing to develop spiritually is key to becoming guilty of sloth. In the Christian faith, sloth rejects grace and God.

Sloth has also been defined as a failure to do things that one should do. By this definition, evil exists when good men fail to act.

Over time, the “acedia” in Pope Gregory order has come to be closer in meaning to sloth. The focus came to be on the consequences of acedia rather than the cause, and so, by the 17th century, the exact deadly sin referred to was believed to be the failure to utilize one’s talents and gifts. Even in Dante’s time there were signs of this change; in his Purgatorio he had portrayed the penance for acedia as running continuously at top speed.



Like greed and lust, Envy (Latin, invidia) is characterized by an insatiable desire. Envy is similar to jealousy in that they both feel discontent towards someone’s traits, status, abilities, or rewards. The difference is the envious also desire the entity and covet it.

Envy can be directly related to the Ten Commandments, specifically, “Neither shall you desire… anything that belongs to your neighbour.” Dante defined this as “a desire to deprive other men of theirs”. In Dante’s Purgatory, the punishment for the envious is to have their eyes sewn shut with wire because they have gained sinful pleasure from seeing others brought low. Aquinas described envy as “sorrow for another’s good”.

Verdi’s Amneris

Cilea’s Principessa di Bouillon

Puccini’s Tosca

Massenet:  Manon

Verdi’s Eboli

Strauss’ Marschallin



In almost every list, pride (Latin, superbia), or hubris (Greek), is considered the original and most serious of the seven deadly sins, and the source of the others. It is identified as a desire to be more important or attractive than others, failing to acknowledge the good work of others, and excessive love of self (especially holding self out of proper position toward God). Dante’s definition was “love of self perverted to hatred and contempt for one’s neighbour”.  In perhaps the best-known example, the story of Lucifer, pride (his desire to compete with God) was what caused his fall from Heaven, and his resultant transformation into Satan. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the penitents were forced to walk with stone slabs bearing down on their backs to induce feelings of humility.

Verdi’s: Amneris

Puccini’s Tosca

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur

Puccini’s Manon Lescaut

Bizet’s Carmen

Opera studies today have merged with many other disciplines and, personally, I find it fascinating to gaze at familiar characters with multi-coloured spectacles that might provide different interpretations and correlations, sometimes exposing aspects of a character that may not be as visible, or one that might allow a performer to bring that character to life in a more realistic way.   The Seven Deadly Sins have marked history with fascination and intrigue because they were once thought to govern every day life.  Do they still?  Are you guilty of the sins these characters possess?  Do you see yourself as a Manon Lescaut, wanting riches and beauty instead of love only to find out you really wanted love in the first place? Or are you Tosca, who although pious brims with rage at the torture of the man she loves, rage enough to kill?  We often skirt over the fact that these characters are victorious in the challenges life throws at them, but that they are victorious only by committing some horrific act or simply by being so wrapped up in their own persona that they fail to notice what they are actually doing.  Some, on the other hand, are absolutely aware and revel in the acts they commit.  Would you do the same?

The History Channel’s Documentary on

The Seven Deadly Sins

I’d love to hear your choices for these sins, so post your comments and suggestions on TLV.


Published in: on September 4, 2013 at 5:14 am  Comments (4)