Co-authored by a Professor of English Literature and her physician husband, a Professor of Medicine, this is a readable interdisciplinary commentary on fourteen operas (19th and 20th century) in which particular diseases are represented, including mostly epidemic infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, syphilis, cholera, and AIDS. The analysis of each opera combines solid literary analysis of language and metaphors with fascinating historical information on the contemporaneous medical understandings of the diseases, and a sophisticated discussion of the social, sexual and cultural representations of these diseases.

The most persuasive chapters include "The Tubercular Heroine" in La Boheme, and La Traviata; "Syphilis, Suffering and Social Order" in Parsifal; "The Pox Revisited" in 20th century operas, Lulu and Rake’s Progress; the final chapter, "Life-and-Death Passion" compares theatrical representations of AIDS in Angels in America (see annotation) with cholera, TB, and syphilis.


Excerpts from the book provide useful information on the medical and social/cultural history of a number of epidemic diseases or "plagues" like TB, syphilis, cholera, and HIV/AIDS, and introduce students and non-specialists to opera in a non-threatening way. When paired with excerpts from opera performances (subtitled in English) and available in DVD or VHS format, students are able to observe some of the cultural representations/misrepresentations of these diseases, as well as medical historical details. Similarly, excerpts form this book can be paired with Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors (see annotations).


The Hutcheons are on the faculty of the University of Toronto.

Primary Source

Text and Contexts Series


Univ. of Nebraska Press

Place Published

Lincoln, Nebraska and London, England



Page Count