• Don Carlo Educator Guide

Background Information and Fun Facts


The Work: Don Carlo

Music by Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901)

An opera in fifive acts, sung in Italian.

Original French libretto by Joseph Méry and Camille Du Locle, based on the play Don Carlos by Friedrich Schiller. Italian translation by Angelo Zanardini

First performed in French on November 3, 1867 at the Académie Impériale de Musique, Paris, France


Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Conductor

Nicholas Hytner, Production

Bob Crowley, Set and Costume Designer

Mark Henderson, Lighting Designer


Marina Poplavskaya (Elisabeth de Valois)

Anna Smirnova (Princess Eboli)

Roberto Alagna (Don Carlo)

Simon Keenlyside (Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa)

Ferruccio Furlanetto (King Philip II)

Eric Halfvarson (The Grand Inquisitor)


About the Director

Director Nicholas Hytner has staged works ranging from Shakespeare to Boublil and Schönberg’s Miss Saigon to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials—not to mention Schiller’s Don Carlos, the source of what he calls “the quintessential Verdi opera.” In Don Carlo, the director explains, “there is an implacable expression of impending doom and, on the other hand, a succession of the most gloriously open-throated arias, the most fantastically determined music.” Hytner, who has been artistic director of London's National Theatre since 2003, won Tony Awards as Best Director for his productions of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel (1994) and Alan Bennett’s The History Boys (2006).

About the Conductor

This Live in HD production is conducted by one of the brightest rising stars in the opera world, 35-year-old Yannick Nézet-Séguin (ya-NEEK nay-ZAY say-GHEN). Maestro Nézet-Séguin led last season’s acclaimed HD production of Carmen. This season, he not only adds Don Carlo to his Met repertoire, but also takes over as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, while continuing as music director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic, principal guest conductor of the London Philharmonic, and music director of Montreal’s Orchestre Métropolitain. “The very special color of the music, the incredible unity of this large-scale work, the unusual historical and political background—all of this contributes to make Don Carlo a unique opera,’ says Maestro Nézet-Séguin. “But above all, it is the incredible emotional beauty of the music that makes it so special.”

El Escorial

Nicholas Hytner’s approach to this production of Don Carlo was inspired by the Escorial, the massive Spanish royal palace northwest of Madrid. King Philip II himself was the complex’s co-designer, together with his architect-royal, Juan Bautista de Toledo. Both palace and monastery, the Escorial embodies the entwinement of Spain’s royal government with the Roman Catholic Church. But Philip also intended the Escorial as a tomb: the final resting place of his father, Emperor Charles V, his mother, Isabella of Portugal, himself, and all Spanish kings to come.

This aspect of transformation—from palace to monastery to tomb—is not only central to Verdi’s opera, but integral to the design of the current Met production, which continually shifts perspectives to convey the implications of being inside or outside the Escorial, in terms of its multiple identities. Today, the Escorial is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an important destination for visitors to Spain. Students can explore the complex online via a live webcam (updated every 30 seconds).

The Real Don Carlo

Carlos, Prince of Asturias, eldest son of King Philip II of Spain, is a figure cloaked in mystery. While there is no reason to believe he was ever in love with, much less betrothed to, his father’s third wife, Elisabeth of Valois, there may have been bad blood between the real Don Carlo and the real King Philip. On the other hand, it may be that his father was simply trying to care for a young man who was not capable of caring for himself.

Carlos has been described as both eccentric and paranoid. Rumor had it that he did once plan to leave Spain for northern Europe. Whether or not this was a reason, the king ordered Carlos confined to his room in the palace for the last several years of his life: house arrest or convalescence? Carlos died in 1568, at age 23, under circumstances which historians have called mysterious. A century later, in 1672, a French writer called César Vichard de Saint-Réal wrote a novella in which Carlos shares a secret, illicit love with his stepmother, Queen Elisabeth. The rest, as they say, is history. 

The Real Philip II

Philip II became King of Spain in 1556 at the age of 29, when his father, Emperor Charles V, stepped down from the throne to live out his years in a monastery. By then, Philip was technically King of England, since he had married Queen Mary I two years earlier. Two years later, his reign in England ended when Mary died and her successor, Elizabeth, refused Philip’s offer of marriage.

England’s Mary was Philip’s second wife. His first, Princess Maria Manuela of Portugal—mother of Carlos—had died in childbirth. He married his third wife, the French princess Elisabeth of Valois, in 1559, the year after Mary’s death. Elisabeth was 14, Philip 32—significantly older than his bride, but hardly the greybeard depicted in Don Carlo.

Though Philip’s navy, the Spanish Armada, was defeated by England in 1588, his foreign adventures were largely successful. He broadened Spain’s borders, incorporating Portugal and, briefly, much of France, suppressed uprisings in the Protestant Netherlands, and ended Ottoman Turkish expansion in the Mediterranean. History—particularly in Protestant Europe—long remembered Philip as an evil despot, but historians caution that he allowed no written records of his personal life or correspondence—records that might have improved his reputation. By all accounts, however, this devout Catholic monarch  was no a adversary of the Grand Inquisitor. He strongly supported the Inquisition in its persecution of infidels, and especially Protestants, in Spain proper and abroad. 

The Inquisition

The Spanish Inquisition began in 1478 when Ferdinand and Isabella, the King and Queen of Spain, authorized trials of Christians suspected of secretly adhering to Islam or Judaism. Controlled by the Roman Catholic Church and administered by Dominican monks, the Inquisition introduced its trademark public event, the auto-da-fé, in February 1481. Six alleged infidels were burned at the stake following the religious ceremony. By 1530, the Inquisition is believed to have burned some 2,000 people alive, the vast majority of them Christians who had been born Jewish. In 1492, in the spirit of the Inquisition, Spain expelled all Jews who had not joined the Catholic Church.

The Inquisition continued through the centuries, turning its attention to Protestant Christians, and torturing and killing thousands more before it was officially abolished in the early 19th century. Its practices became the subject of writers from Voltaire in France (Candide, 1759) to Poe in the U.S. (The Pit and the Pendulum, 1842), to Dostoevsky in Russia (“The Grand Inquisitor” section of The Brothers Karamazov, 1880)—as well as Friedrich Schiller in Germany (Don Carlos, 1787) and, of course,  Giuseppe Verdi.

The Real Eboli

There really was a Countess of Eboli, Ana de Mendoza y de la Cerda. She was five years older than Carlos, and there’s no reason to believe she ever had a crush on him. Doña Ana, as she was known, is seen in all her portraits wearing an eye patch; she only had one eye. (According to some histories, she lost the other while play-fighting as a child.) Yet she was considered one of the great beauties of Spain. Doña Ana was reputedly involved in numerous intrigues at the Spanish royal court. Those in Don Carlo, however, were invented by Friedrich Schiller.

Will the Real Don Carlo Please Take the Stage?

Verdi’s Don Carlo exists in a number of versions. Following its 1867 premiere in Paris, performed in five acts and sung in French under the title Don Carlos, the opera went through a series of cuts and revisions over a period of almost 20 years. For its first performances in Italy, the libretto was translated into Verdi’s native language. Later, the composer cut the original first act, while moving some of the material to the former second act. In the 1970s, the Italian publishing firm of Ricordi released an edition of all the existing material that Verdi wrote, making up a total of eight separate versions of the opera. The Met’s new production presents Don Carlo in its original five acts, sung in Italian—a compromise that most current stagings and recordings have adopted.

Fun Facts

Verdi was not the first composer to base on opera on Schiller’s Don Carlos. His predecessors include:

  • Michael Costa: Don Carlos, 1844
  • Pasquale Bona: Don Carlos, 1847
  • Antonio Buzzolla: Elisabetta di Valois, 1850
  • Vincenzo Moscuzza: Don Carlos, Infante di Spagna,1862

While the original French version of Don Carlos was in rehearsal, some parts were cut from the score to make it shorter, partly so that the audience could catch the last trains to the suburbs of Paris.