The topic of suicide is a serious issue facing society today, but of course it is not just a contemporary issue. In the late 18th century, the German writer Wolfgang von Goethe wrote a novel called The Sorrows of Young Werther that involves a suicide.

The story became wildly popular and was turned into an opera by the French composer Jules Massenet. The book also, unfortunately, inspired a spate of copycat suicides. It's called the "Werther effect" or "Werther fever."

Michelle Faubert, ​professor of English, Film and Theatre at the University of Manitoba is giving a talk on the subject and tenor Robert MacLaren, also from the U of M, will sing some arias from the opera as part of the event.

"I think that one of the main reasons why that notion was so attractive to people was that it suited the taste for excess emotion that was so celebrated in romantic era literature," explained Faubert.

"It's what we would call melodrama today, this idea of "delicious tears." There was something very enjoyable and satisfying about sorrow and woe and tragedy."

In Goethe's story, Werther falls in love with Charlotte but she rejects him and marries another man, driving him to despair and eventually suicide.

MacLaren has sung the role of Werther in Massenet's opera countless times. He says Werther is a very driven, romantic character.  

"He's been so sheltered," he said. "His previous life was in books and poetry, so because of that he idealized women. He never really had a grasp of real human relationships and what they entailed."

Professor Michelle Faubert

Michelle Faubert presents The Werther-effect and Romantic-era Perceptions of Suicide at the Millenium Libary on March 10. ( Javier Uribe)

Faubert feels a discussion of this topic is relevant today.

"I think it will help us to understand why we find it hard to talk about suicide," she said. "We're afraid to talk about it because of notions like the Werther effect, this idea that if we talk about it we might encourage people to do it, to commit suicide"

MacLaren agrees. "It's a very teenage thing," he said. "The cause of that is feelings of alienation and almost every teen goes through that. We see this in the contemporary debate about bullying. Literature and opera should be holding up a mirror to society and be a catalyst for conversation, for debate."

Michelle Faubert presents "The Werther Effect and Romantic-Era Perceptions of Suicide," including some arias from Massenet's Werther sung by Robert MacLaren, at the Millenium Library in the Carol Shields Auditorium March 10 at 7:00 p.m.

Opera lovers take note, Massenet's Werther from the Metropolitan Opera in New York will be shown at Cineplex theatres on Saturday afternoon, March 15.