Guns and show business are found together almost as frequently as politicians and TV cameras. Opera is no exception Below are eight operas, well the last one is a trespasser, in which guns are part of the action. In some they are pivotal. My only requirement for inclusion in this article is that gunshots must be heard during the performance. A description without a shot is not enough for inclusion.

In the first of these, Der Freischütz, they are the whole story. The opera is a Singspiel with spoken dialogue like Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Beethoven’s Fidelio. Max wants to marry Agathe the head forester’s daughter, but to do so he has to prove his prowess as a marksman. The opera opens with Max losing a shooting contest to a peasant, Kilian, who is proclaimed ‘King of marksmen’. Max is overcome by despair that he will lose Agathe if his aim doesn’t improve. Agathe has rejected Kaspar who is the assistant forester and accordingly, he hates her, her father, and Max. He’s out for revenge. Kaspar is in league with the Devil who goes by the name Samiel. He’s been making magic bullets. He gives Max his last one and tells him to shoot an eagle far above outside of the range of any gun not loaded with a magic bullet. Max aims at the bird and is amazed to score a lethal hit. Kaspar persuades Max to meet him at midnight in the terrible Wolf’s Glen to cast seven more magic bullets. Six will hit, but the seventh belongs to the Samiel who can guide it wherever he pleases. 

By the time Act 3 arrives they have made seven magic bullets. Each has used six. The last one is Max’s – the Devil’s bullet. Kaspar has sold his soul to the Devil and payment is now due. He makes a deal with Samiel that if Max kills Agathe with the seventh bullet, he, Kaspar, will get a three year reprieve and Max will go directly to Hell. What Kaspar doesn’t know is that Agathe is wearing a magic wedding gown that will protect her from harm. At the marksmanship trial, Max takes his shot which instead of hitting Agathe hits and kills Kaspar. The local prince sentences Max for making magic bullets to a probational year after which he can marry Agathe.

Der Freischütz was a huge success after its premiere in 1821 and is considered the first German romantic opera. It’s still occasionally performed. The Met last did it in 1970.

There’s a single shot in Carmen. It’s fired in Act 3 after Micaëla’s aria. Don Jose is keeping lookout when he sees an intruder. He fires but misses as he is as lousy a shot as he is a lover. The intruder is Escsamillo the famous bullfighter. Jose is first delighted to meet the star torero but turns ugly when he realizes that Escamillo is intent on seeing Carmen. They fight, but the rest of the gang shows up and stops the altercation. Jose shoots but misses

Tchaikovsky’s most performed opera, Eugene Onegin, features a duel to the death in Act 2. Onegin and Lensky are very close friends but get into a stupid argument when the former dances with the latter’s fiance. Onegin kills his friend who never gets off a shot. Puskin who wrote the verse novel on which the opera is based also died in a duel. Onegin duel

The entire plot of Verdi’s La Forza Del Destino stems from an errant shot. In the opera’s first scene, Don Alvaro drops his pistol in submission to the Marquis of Calatrava who has caught him about to elope with his daughter Leonora. In an example of anything that can go wrong will go wrong, the gun goes off mortality wounding the Marquis who curses his daughter with his dying words. The following excerpt is from a legendary performance of the opera in 1956 featuring Zinka Milanov, Richard Tucker, Leonard Warren, and Cesare Siepi. Gun goes off

In Act 3 Don Alvaro makes friends with Don Carlo, Leonora’s brother, whose mission in life is to kill Alvaro. They’re both using aliases and don’t recognize each other. This friendship proves one of the shortest in human experience. They run off to fight the Battle of Velletri which is over in about a minute. There are a lot of gunshots that are often omitted, but the Met was firing cannons and muskets in 1956. Battle of Velletri

In Puccini’s Tosca each of the three principals dies differently. Baron Scarpia is stabbed by Tosca. Cavaradossi is executed by firing squad, which Tosca thinks is firing blanks, and after everything has gone wrong she jumps off the Castel Sant’Angelo exclaiming that she and Scarpia will meet before God. Firing squad

When Puccini wrote a cowboy opera, The Girl of the Golden West, it was inevitable that a pistol would be discharged. Several of them go off in Act 2. Dick Johnson, a bandit in disguise, visits Minne (the eponymous Girl) at her house. The local sheriff and his deputies have discovered his identity and are looking for him. He and Minnie fall in love. When he’s about to leave amid a snowstorm several shots are fired and he realizes the danger of leaving when the posse after him is so close. He accepts Minnie’s chaste invitation to stay the night. Sherrif Rance appears and discloses Johnson’s true identity. She tells him to leave and after explaining how his impoverished background led to a life of crime he goes only to be promptly shot. He staggers back into the house where Minnie hides him. Puccini’s opera is now recognized as the masterpiece it is. He thought it the best he had done to the time of its composition. While it will never be as popular as Bohème, Tosca, or Butterfly it is a work of extraordinary beauty and construction. First the gunshots in the distance, then the one that wounds Johnson. Minnie is Renata Tebaldi, Johnson is Mario Del Monaco. Both were at their vocal zeniths when this recording was made in the mid 50s. Notice how Puccini weaves melodies of great beauty as the dialogue proceeds – a skill granted to only a handful of composers.

Prokofiev’s opera War and Peace is only slightly shorter than the novel on which it is based. It’s in two parts and 13 scenes, the last of these depicts the fates of the veteran Platon Karataev and Pierre Bezukhov – the latter a protagonist of both the novel and opera. They have been rounded up by the French as prisoners and are with them as they retreat from Russia. Karataev cannot keep up and is shot, but Pierre and the others are rescued by the partisans. The first shot is the one that kills Karataev. This alerts the partisans to the French troops’ location and they attack with many volleys. Karataev’s execution and the rescue of Pierre.

The last work is not an opera though it has been performed by opera companies. Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story is loosely based on the plot of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Tony has killed Bernardo in Act 1. At the end of Act 2, he is shot by Bernardo’s friend Chino. Tony had been told that Maria was murdered and wants Chino to kill him. Tony’s death scene is below in a video taken from the 1961 movie.

There are doubtless more operas with gunshots, but the ones above are those that came to me without having to exert myself by doing some research and searching.