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EDITORIAL | Is Opera A Misogynistic Art Form, Or A Chance At Redemption?

By Matthew Timmermans on March 8, 2018

Nora Sourouzian as Carmen and Gerard Michael D’Emilio as Morales in the Minnesota Opera production of “Carmen.” (Photo: Michel Daniel)
Nora Sourouzian as Carmen and Gerard Michael D’Emilio as Morales in the Minnesota Opera production of “Carmen.” (Photo: Michel Daniel)

In the advent of International Women’s Day March 8, Decca Classics launched a playlist called “Women in Classical.” Unlike what you might expect, the playlist is not composed of songs written by women, but women performing famous classical pieces created by men.

When listening to the playlist, I couldn’t help but contemplate the 21st-century debate about misogyny in classical music. In opera, for example, we see misogyny in both the institution and the art. The virtually non-existent female presence in positions of musical authority can be seen blatantly in the saturation of male composers and conductors in the Metropolitan Opera’s 2018–19 season. Of course, one might think this is simply a symptom of the few female composers in the operatic canon. However, there are many operas written by women over the past a hundred years that simply haven’t found their way into the spotlight. Although Opéra de Montréal’s current season of only five operas boasts Ana Sokolovic’s Svadba, it is rare that one finds an opera composed by a woman produced at a major opera company in North America, including our very own Canadian Opera Company (COC).

When it comes to the art, I do not think the debate is as black and white. Although one cannot deny that the majority of operas’ narratives devour and obliterate women, the music’s performance returns some of the agency denied to these women. Perhaps, through the performance of this music, we might exonerate the arias included on the “Women in Classical” playlist.

Disturbing Depictions of Women

It is undeniable that almost all opera plots are degrading to women. Since the most often performed operas today were composed in the 19th and early 20th-centuries, it is hardly surprising that this is the case. During this time women’s place was in the home. In the 20th-century, when women began to explore new roles previously held by men, they were seen as a threat to society’s well being. Operas composed at this time, like any art form, are symptomatic of that period’s values.

As you can imagine, one does not need to look very hard to find examples. Like every opera company around the world, the COC’s season always includes women that die, are mutilated, or maybe even worse, denied happiness. Recently, we saw Gilda dominated by two men in the COC’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto (1851). Not only is Gilda confined from the world by her father, but she later kills herself in the place of a “lover” who views her as nothing more than another sexual conquest. In past seasons, we saw Salome in Richard Strauss’ opera of the same name (1905) literally crushed under the shields of the King’s warriors to extinguish her unbridled feminine sexuality. In Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), the title character collapses into madness and dies after being forced into an arranged marriage by her brother and chaplain. In Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung (1876), after destroying the corrupt world order, Brünnhilde throws herself –– and her horse, to add insult to injury –– onto her unfaithful husband’s funeral pyre. The most famous and widely digested example of female violence is Bizet’s Carmen (1875). Here, the title character is a sexually liberated and “dangerous” woman who is symbolically stabbed to death by her lover for choosing to leave him. The imagery is hardly subtle; in the final scene, Carmen is compared to an enraged bull, and as the matador tames a bull, she is stabbed by her lover, Don José. The message here is that women must love only those they are told to love, and those who transgress are extinguished as a result of their sexual appetites.

However, there are examples where the women in opera live. The COC will open their 2018–19 season with Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s most famous opera, Eugene Onegin (1879). This opera is a condensed version of Alexander Pushkin’s classic novel that tells the story of Tatyana, a young girl who learns of romantic love from the fantasies told in gothic novels. Unlike in these books where the women are saved by the dark and mysterious men they fall in love with, Tatyana is scorned by Onegin for her overzealous proclamation of love. After Tatyana is married, Onegin belatedly discovers his passion for her and declares his love for her, but it is too late. Despite returning his love, Tatyana chooses her duty as a wife. Although she does not die, she suffers an emotional death trapped in the societal expectations of wedlock.

Having said all this, you might be thinking, “why then do we still perform these operas, are we simply as misogynistic as we were two hundred years ago?” Although I think women’s rights is an ongoing struggle, I do believe we have come a long way from the contexts in which these operas were written. As to why these operas are still performed, it is often argued that the timelessness of the music redeems these antiquated plot lines. However, this argument is also problematic.

Meaningless Music or Another Form of Oppression?

Most opera devotees are drawn to the genre because of its seductive music, rather than the verbal text, which most people couldn’t understand without live translation. But while audiences might describe the music as “transcendental,” scholars such as Catherine Clément and Susan McClary explain that most spectators lack the tools to decode the imagery it contains. The question then, is whether the music reiterates the misogynistic messages in the text.

In her 1991 revolutionary book on feminist musicology Feminine Endings, McClary argued that the text and music in Carmen depict the obliteration of this provocative female. In Carmen’s first aria, better known as the habanera or “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle,” she describes the untameable nature of love. Here, her famously chromatic vocal line sung to the word “L’amour” predicates and makes us desire her eventual destruction which aligns with the music’s resolution:

The final resolution happens at the end of the opera after she is violently stabbed by Don José. The opera is brought to a close with a startling, yet satisfying, tonic cadence that reinstates male order by wiping out all of Carmen’s tantalizing chromaticisms:

One might argue that because most audiences cannot understand this meaning, the music seems “safe” to listen to, thereby redeeming the disturbing images on stage. However, as McClary argues, it is still there.

Musically, Carmen is only one of many operas in which this occurs.  Not only does Salome embrace her femininity and sexuality by removing seven veils, but the scene that follows contains some of the most chromatic and adventurous music in the operatic canon. However, at the end of the opera order is once again violently restored. Accompanied by a chord so elusive it rejects definition, Salome kisses the severed head of Jochanaan (John the Baptist), only to be crushed when the tonic is reassuringly reinstated:

What I am alluding to with these examples is that the resolution we long for at the end of an opera, the tonic which restores balance, is often associated with male oppression. In tonal harmony, the tonic or harmonic resolution is considered structurally strong and masculine while the less stable chromatic ones are feminine. As seen in the examples above, this engendered theoretical understanding of music impacts the how these stories of female oppression are represented. The tonic destroys the transgressive female, a thinly concealed reflection of cultures association with men and dominance.

Can we Interpret Opera more than Misogyny?

Although thus far I have made a very strong case for misogyny in opera, I also think there is another, often underrepresented, side to this argument. The very bodies that portray these stories of misogyny on stage contradict the oppression engrained in them. For example, Carmen dies at the end of the opera, but when mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča lies dead on the floor, we see that she is still breathing. We know that she will get up and bow at the curtain call, and then perform another Carmen later that week. We the audience love it because we didn’t come to just see Bizet’s Carmen, we also wanted to see Garanča live, as evidenced by our applause.

The fact that living women can perform these roles despite their oppressive messages in a way contradicts the patriarchal narrative. For several centuries the operatic stage has been a place that female bodies have found what might be described as freedom through their living contradiction of these narratives and working outside the home. Nowhere can this be better seen musically than in operas from the Baroque (early 17th-century Italian opera) and Bel Canto (19th-century Italian opera) periods. In these repertoires, performers reinforce their own individuality by ornamenting their music. Not only does this mean that women changed the composer’s score (arguably a frame created by a man allowing them to do so), but audiences would come to see particular divas much like we do today. The audiences came to see the living and working female as opposed to the destroyed representation.

An interesting example is Lucia’s “mad scene.” Although Lucia has been driven mad by her male oppressor’s attempt to control her, musically she breaks out of Donizetti’s mould by changing the vocal line he has written in her final cadenza. A cadenza is meant to be “improvised” or created by the performer to display their own artistry or show off. The cadenza often heard in contemporary performances of Lucia is no longer the one suggested by Donizetti, rather it was created by famous soprano Nellie Melba’s teacher and performed by Melba herself in the late 19th-century. This moment of madness and then death can be reinterpreted as a moment for the eagerly awaiting audience of diva worshippers to celebrate female virtuosity on the page and in live performance.

The Dominance of the Prima Donna

In these particularly pernicious examples of female oppression, it is interesting to note that the women sing the most music written in the score. Although it might be argued that this is pre-empting their destruction, it is also symptomatic of the composer acknowledging the audience’s desire to revel in the diva’s performance.

For example, the last 30 minutes of Salome are a one-woman show. It begins when the soprano performs the dance of the seven veils, which is basically a ten-minute striptease. Although this “dance” is often performed by a body double, most spectators prefer it to be the soprano because they want to celebrate her embodiment of the entire character. This is an ironic performance tradition, because the singer usually cannot dance as well as a hired dancer, but it proves that we are interested in the live performing bodies on stage, not their representations. After the dance, Salome sings a quasi-aria that can last from fifteen to twenty minutes before she dies. Again, her transgressive music is quashed by the opera’s resolution, but look at how much life and exploration she is given in comparison to that short chord. Even more poignant is the fact that it is her life that most audiences remember. Here is a clip of the same Salome seen above, Maria Ewing, performing the “Dance of the Seven Veils”:

Another intriguing example is Brünnhilde at the end of Götterdämmerung. Although she valiantly takes her own life after her husband’s death, she does so after saving the world while singing a thirty-minute aria. Brünnhilde, already a vocal tour de force stretched over three operas –– Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung –– sings some of her most challenging music in what is called the Immolation scene. I think this clip will serve my point:

Female Empowerment through Staging

In addition to the music, staging can also challenge the antiquated ideas of femininity harboured in these operas. Sometimes referred to as Regietheatre or “director’s theatre,” contemporary directors will frequently alter the visual representations written in the opera––and sometimes even the words themselves––to challenge and question the representation of women. These productions provoke the audience to reconsider what these operas might be saying. They make art more than consumerist entertainment, bringing us face to face with humanity’s embarrassments and asking us to reconsider the human condition.

Both of the COC’s winter productions altered the composer’s vision. For example, in Christopher Alden’s production of Rigoletto, the story is told through the male gaze of the title character. This retelling reinterprets Gilda’s demise as a consequence of Rigoletto’s attempt to control her. Alden goes so far as to let Gilda live at the end. Instead of dying as the 19th-century tells us she should, Gilda symbolically exits the stage. It is as if she were leaving to another place where she will continue her story devoid of oppression.

Wajdi Mouawad’s production of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail has a similar message. By rewriting the dialogue, Mouawad gives the women more agency by letting them tell their own side of the story. His dialogue exposes how men dominate women by with the justification of their own “self-sacrificing” love. The happy ending of Mozart’s opera is unsettled in Mouawad’s production, leaving the audience wondering what happens next despite the opera’s tonal closure.

Additionally, Mouawad uses his minimalist staging to deconstruct motifs used in 19th-century Orientalist painting, exposing their representations of female oppression. For example, the main attraction in the staging was a spinning globe. In the last act, the inside of this globe is revealed by a man posing as the Greek god Atlas as the harem. In Orientalist painting, circles are often used to frame the harem and depict the male gaze. Mouawad applies this style in his staging. The globe representing the circular frame in the painting is re-interpreted as a cage, entrapping the women in the harem. The cage becomes a symbol for what Mouawad’s text is trying to deconstruct, the western male gaze embodied by Atlas oppressing women.

What then is Next for Female Empowerment?

Perhaps because opera has an extensive history as the most epic, expensive, and arguably misogynistic genre, it is important that directors and performers re-appropriate these stories. In doing so, we can re-engage and “correct” the misogynistic messages the lie in these works, and still lurk in society today under more subtle guises. Since its inception, the operatic stage has been a battleground on which negative and positive social representations play out. It seems only fitting that we continue this lineage by re-engaging them once again with our modern awareness. By involving more women in all of opera’s facets, as producers, directors, conductors, and performers, they can bring help repurpose these works to educate a new generation –– by deconstructing the old we can usher in the new.

The COC’s upcoming production of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, which tells the story of Anne Boleyn’s beheading, gives us another opportunity to question the representation of women in the opera. Although concerning the narrative, she is a righteous victim of King Henry VIII’s adultery, since its inception this opera has been a vehicle for many divas. This celebration of female virtuosity in this role spans from its creator Giuditta Pasta in 1830 to its 1957 revival starring La Divina Maria Callas. Appropriately it will be performed at the COC by one of the world’s most famous 21st-century sopranos, Sondra Radvanovsky. One of the attractions this role is the twenty-minute mad scene before Bolena’s beheading. Despite her death at the end, it is not difficult to imagine how this opera might also be performed as a display of feminine defiance. I will give you a hint with this final clip of her last aria “Coppia Iniqua”:


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