Music in the Museum: An Operatic Demise

The (currently defunct) musical audioguide at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts paired different artworks with various musical selections. I was a big fan of the experience, and I was particularly moved by the pairing of a painting and an aria inspired by the tragic fates of two women.

October Tissot Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

The painter James Tissot was living in London in the 1870s when he met Irish divorcée Kathleen Newton. The two fell in love. Tissot painted Newton frequently, including in the painting above, October. The couple was incredibly happy, living in "domestic bliss" according to Tissot. But it was not to last long. Newton contracted tuberculosis, and Tissot was devastated. She couldn't stand seeing his grief, so she overdosed on laudanum in 1882. She was just 28 years old.

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts paired this painting with another 19th century creation: an aria from Verdi's La traviata (The Fallen Woman)In this famous opera, Violetta and Alfredo fall madly in love, but any chance of lasting happiness is dashed when (*spoiler alert*) Violetta succumbs to tuberculosis. 

The aria chosen by the museum is È strano! ... Ah, fors'è lui. In Act 1, Violetta wonders if Alfredo is the love of her life. She is "torn by conflicting emotions—she doesn’t want to give up her way of life, but at the same time she feels that Alfredo has awakened her desire to be truly loved" (Met Opera). It is a song of the joy and trepidation of falling in love.

October Tissot Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
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When I gazed at the painting while listening to the aria, I could feel the crispness of fall scene, a season which comes with death. This woman's last automnal fire flames brightly, before winter comes. Brilliant dancing leaves make swirls of light and shadow, inscribing this woman into a tapestry of euphoric love, lost youth, and untimely death. She plays her role—unchosen—with dignity and beauty. 

When I looked into the woman's eyes, the clothing of the era became timeless as I saw a woman full of life; she could have been me. Her humanity was striking. Perhaps this was because her face is that of Ms. Newton, perhaps because I could hear her 'voice' singing in my ears.

The painting and the aria both portray a beautiful flame in the face of a tragic fate.

October Tissot Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

For more on the musical audioguide, check out my experience with a 14th century French statue and motet or with a Polish princess and Chopin.


Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

Address: 1380 rue Sherbrooke Ouest, Montréal ∣ MétroStation Peel or Station Guy-Concordia (Green Line) ∣ Opening hoursTuesday to Sunday from 10am to 5pm, major exhibition open until 9pm on Wednesday