Operas Based on the Works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

By David Salazar

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, born on August 28, 1749, is one of the great German writers in history.

Unsurprisingly, his literary prowess has inspired a wide range of operatic works, many of which are staples of the canon. Here is a survey of operas based on the works of Goethe.


Goethe’s masterwork is undeniably the source of many operas. The three most renowned of these works, by far, are Gounod’s “Faust,” Boito’s “Mefistofele,” and Berlioz’s “La Damnation de Faust.”

Of the three, only Boito’s really takes stock of the two parts of Goethe’s parts. Gounod’s hues closely to the first part of Goethe’s “Faust,” while Berlioz’s take is a loose adaptation of Part one.

But that isn’t the only opera to be based on Goethe’s Faust. Hervé’s “Le Petit Faust” is an operetta in four acts that parodies Gounod’s work, even casting Mephisto as a trouser role, Marguerite as a woman of questionable morals, and Faust as a man who sells his reason instead of his soul for youth.

Finally, there is also a setting of the final scene of Goethe’s work in Mahler’s Eighth Symphony.


Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther” is arguably the source of the greatest opera based on his works. Massenet’s masterpiece obviously does away with the epistolary style of the novel, but the French composer captures the emotional intensity, agony, and poetry of Goethe’s text. It isn’t the only adaptation of “Werther” as operatic versions exist from Kreutzer and Pucitta as well.


Goethe’s “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship” was adapted into a French grand opera by Ambroise Thomas. The work has never been a repertory staple, though it has been a vehicle for mezzos, such as Risë Stevens and Marilyn Horne over the years. The work has also found itself referenced James Joyce’s “The Dead” and “The Professor’s House” by Willa Cather.  The original novel was once called one of the four greatest novels ever written by none other than Arthur Schopenhauer.

Le Chalet 

Adolphe Adam’s work is based on the singspiel “Jery und Bätely.” Unsurprisingly, the text for this work was already set to music by other noted composers such as Donizetti, Kreutzer, and Rietz, among others. The opera by Adam premiered on Sept. 25, 1834.

Das Märchen von der Schönen Lilie

Composer Giselher Klebe and his wife Lore Klebe, the librettist, created this work for the Schwetzingen Festival in 1969. It is based on the fairy tale by Goethe known as “Das Märchen.”


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