I've found real joy and insights out of reading the books and plays that operas are based on!
These works tell you more about the characters and situation than you might get out of a sing watch of an opera. It can enrich your next experience of that opera greatly.
Most of these are easily found for free on Ibooks or whatever you like to use!
Scenes of Bohemian Life by Henri Murger (La Boheme) There’s a lot more going on and a lot more characters than in La Boheme but you wont regret delving into this wonderful collection of stories!
Carmen by Prosper Mérimée(Carmen) The original book has much to reveal about Don Jose and Carmen. Fascinating!
Dumas’ Lady of the Camellias (La Traviata) Well worth a read, you get more depth of story than you get to see in La Traviata. Marguerite (Violetta) is juggling a lot different men out of financial need. The character of an older–retired-courtesan is also heartbreaking as she is dependent on Marguerite’s generosity to simply survive. You also get a more detailed look at “Alfredo’s” love and emotions. You won’t forget when he has her body exhumed for “closure”.
John Luther Long's Madame Butterfly (Madama Butterfly) While it’s hard to get past how the author writes her broken English, you may be pleased (or not) with the different ending. I quite like it and think about it anytime I see Madama Butterfly.
Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (Werther). I was forced to read this not once but TWICE in college. I hated it and had no sympathy for the guy who can’t pull himself together and sees a bullet as the answer. A couple years ago I re-read the book. While he still tries my patience, I realize now that he probably needed medication for depression which did not exist in his day. I discovered that my impatience with him stems from a word in the title: young. Goethe does an excellent job of showing a man who does not yet have enough life experience to temper his emotions both good and bad. But I still think college students would be better off reading Faust.
New Addition: Elly Uncomposed by Valerie Niemerg - A modern woman is whisked back to the world of the Marriage of Figaro but something is wrong with the plot and she needs to fix it! Available for purchase on Amazon and other platforms.
Goethe’s Faust (Faust) You get so more out of this read than from the opera which glances over the narrative. It is a play, technically in a poem form, but a good translation is easy to follow. Whenever I read it, I just want to write down endless witty or deep rhyming bits. Goethe is older when he writes this and has lots of neatly sized chunks of wisdom to impart.
Pushkin's Eugene Onegin (Eugene Onegin) This is poetry, not prose and it did not endear me any further to Onegin. I think Tatyana probably had a lucky escape and decides rightly to spurn him in the end.
Prevost’s Manon Lescaut (operas by Puccini/Massenet) I have a hard time liking the character of Manon, who seems quite selfish and has brought a lot of her troubles on herself. BUT it is a good story if only for the visualization of a very primitive New Orleans.
The Bride of Lammermoor by Sir Walter Scott (Lucia di Lammermoor).This one takes a while to get rolling – I admit I skipped a bit of the beginning. But it is a VERY good read and some of the characters that didn’t make it into the opera are fantastic. The differences between the opera and the book ate intriguing and you will finish up wishing someone would do a remake incorporating what was left out.
The Lady of the Lake also by Sir Walter Scott. (Rossini’s La donna del lago) Worth a read, like anything by Scott!
David Belasco's Girl of the Golden West (Puccini's La Fanciulla del West) Loving the opera, I just loved this and you get a better understanding of both Minnie and Dick and their backgrounds.
Tales of Hoffmann - These form the basis of stories of several ballets and of course the opera. Early… what would we call it? Sci-fi/fantasy/horror? There are many collections. Wikipedia can help you discover which stories were used in Offenbach’s opera as well as the ballets The Nutcracker and Coppellia.
Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach (Parsifal). There are many versions of the Grail stories but this version greatly influenced Wagner and gives even more to you than Wagner’s 5-6 hour opera does. Once you get into its rhythm, it’s a brilliant saga across generations.
The Saga of the Volsungs and The Prose Edda (The Ring).I was a fan of mythology before I was seriously into opera. When I learned about the Ring Cycle, I was curious – who is this guy (Wagner) who can't get any part of the story right? But my interest in these tales led me into a Ring obsession that was my gateway into my opera journey.
As an aside- if you like the Ring you will really enjoy this book in which Stephan Grundy brings the mythology to life with gorgeous visualization and historical detail. Click for Amazon link: Rhinegold
Did I miss some? Let me know! firstname.lastname@example.org
Explore the collections based on many of these operas on my "Shop by Opera" page: Click Here