I was recently reminded of the 1949 film, “Everybody Does It," a comedy about a husband who tries to thwart his not-so-talented wife’s ambition to become an opera singer. In the opening scene, the husband, apparently dragged to the opera by his wife, sleeps through the entire performance. It occurred to me that today this husband would not sleep through a performance of Mozart’s “Idomeneo” but would remain wide-awake from fear that the opera house might be attacked by Islamic terrorists angered by what they consider an affront to Mohammed — one scene depicts the severed heads of Poseidon, Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed.
The director of the Berlin Deutsche Oper recently cancelled a performance of the Mozart opera after someone suggested that followers of Mohammed might be offended although there had been not been any objection to the performance. This over-reaction to a potential insult to the sensitivities of an aggrieved group has become a fairly common occurrence.
But very few people would have a problem with Mozart’s “Idomeneo” because they realize composers should be allowed artistic expression, even if it is controversial. In fact, a Berlin Jew jokingly claimed to be offended that the severed head of Moses was not included along with the other religious leaders. Also, to my knowledge, there have been no complaints made against Richard Strauss’s “Salome” in which the head of John the Baptist is displayed on a platter. Indeed, for centuries, opera composers have utilized sensational, and often tragic, scenarios to enhance their musical dramas.
However, the portrayal of women in opera’s standard repertoire is now under attack by radical feminists. This group’s disapproval of opera was formally expressed in a 1979 book by French feminist, Catherine Clement: “Opera: The Undoing of Women.” She views opera as characterized by female oppression and male domination. Opera’s heroines are victims; usually powerless in the grip of their own emotions; ruining their lives for the love of a man. These women are helplessly tossed about by the vagaries of their circumstances and their lives often end tragically.
It is true that most women in opera do not lead happy lives and often their lives do indeed end tragically. A brief look at some of the most frequently performed works will bear this out: “Tosca” — its heroine, Floria, leaps to her death from the parapet of a castle after her lover has been executed; “Madama Butterfly” — the fragile little geisha, Cio-Cio-San, commits hara-kiri upon learning that Lieutenant Pinkerton has left her for an American bride; “Tristan und Isolde” — Isolde dies of a broken-heart after Tristan’s death; “Lucia di Lammermoor” — Lucia goes mad and dies when she realizes that a forged letter tricked her into losing her true love; “Aida” — when her love, Radames, is sentenced to be buried alive, Aida conceals herself inside the tomb so that she may die with him, and “Carmen” — when this coquettish gypsy falls for a bullfighter she is murdered by her jealous former lover.
Two of the most famous opera heroines, Violetta and Mimi, (“La Traviata” and “La Boheme”) waste away slowly from tuberculosis. No sooner has the courtesan Violetta reconciled with her lover after a misunderstanding than she collapses and dies in his arms. Similarly, Mimi dies shortly after she and her love reunite after a quarrel.
These are the kinds of scenarios that Clement attacks in her book. She wants to remove opera’s “ideological bias” against women but she is a little vague as to how this should be accomplished. Her book, which has been translated into English, has attracted a feminist following and is now included in syllabi of many Women’s Studies Programs. One such program includes this language in the course description: “This course will examine the issues explored and debated in recent studies of gender, power, identity, and music from diversified cultures, including western art music, popular musics, and world musics.” We will investigate “how gender ideology, contextualized by sociocultural conditions, both constructs and is constructed by musical aesthetics, performance practice, creative processes, as well as the reception of music.”
We can only try to guess the meaning of that pedantic course description but Clement’s attack on opera is a good fit for Women’s Studies Programs. Opera heroines follow traditional female roles in which femininity is cast as the opposite of masculinity. But, to feminists, such an equation gives too much power to men and Women’s Studies are designed to “empower” women. According to feminists, women can only have power by abandoning traditional female roles.
But feminists are missing the essence of opera; the music, which is more important than the story. Although opera heroines go mad, commit suicide, are murdered or die prematurely from disease, they do so accompanied by some of the world’s greatest music. This music helps showcase the vocal talents of opera’s prima donnas, who are often the stars of the performances, upstaging the male singers. So tragic libretti is necessary to provide these divas with the spectacular arias so appreciated by opera lovers.
Unfortunately, it is the portrayal of women in opera, and not the music, that is being scrutinized in Women’s Studies Programs. And I think we can expect that, in the near future, there will be an attempt by feminists to revise the story lines of certain operas or try to have them banned. This will be consistent with campaigns from other disgruntled groups that we have witnessed over the last few decades that resulted in the revision or banning of other works of art, including novels and films.
But how will feminists change opera’s portrayals of women? Will Carmen abandon her lovers and flirtatious ways to pursue a career as Seville’s first female bullfighter? Will Cio-Cio-San tire of her closeted life and leave her comfortable situation with Lieutenant Pinkerton in order to enter the officer candidate school of the Imperial Japanese Navy? Will Violetta flee her dissipated Paris lifestyle for a cure at a mountaintop tuberculosis sanitarium, afterwards becoming an Inspector-General with the French Ministry of Health?
Changes like these might please feminists but a night at the opera will never be the same.
Gail Jarvis [send him mail] is a free-lance writer.