Opera’s awful role models and the #MeToo moment

A typical work has as much sex and violence as “Game of Thrones”, but a less plausible plot. Should we expose our children to such filth?

Nearly all the great operas are crammed with gore, crudity and all the things from which right-thinking parents seek to shield their precious progeny. And the main characters, especially the female ones, make appalling role models. They fall for the worst sort of men: jealous, violent soldiers (“Carmen”, “Otello”) or unprincipled rakes (“Rigoletto”, “Don Giovanni”). They die horribly: Aida is buried alive; Madame Butterfly stabs herself; Tosca throws herself off a castle parapet. Even the ones who do not die violently succumb to unpleasant diseases (“La Boheme”, “La Traviata”).

Operatic heroines often make awful decisions. Gilda, in “Rigoletto”, sacrifices her life to save the Duke who raped her, because she loves him, even though she overhears him seducing another woman with the same lies he once used on her. Carmen lacks even basic common sense. Confronted by a homicidal ex-boyfriend who whips out a knife and demands to know if she still loves him, she should have played for time. There’s a bullfight nearby, it’s almost over and the crowd will be out in a few minutes. Just keep him talking, for heaven’s sake, and you’ll be safe. Instead, she throws the ring he gave her in his face—whereupon he stabs her to death.

“How can I love an artform that is so consistently, insistently cruel to its female characters?” asks Charlotte Higgins in the Guardian, wondering if opera is “the most misogynistic art form”. She has a point. In the age of #MeToo, some directors have decided to adapt old plots to make them more female-friendly. At the Maggio theatre in Florence this month, Carmen avoids being stabbed by stealing Don Jose’s pistol and shooting him (pictured). “It was just the last 30 seconds and we wanted to draw attention to one of the plagues of our society,” the theatre superintendent told the Financial Times. Changes like this are rare, however. In most productions, it ain’t over till the fat lady bleeds all over the stage. This being the case, can a sensitive, caring dad take his daughter to the opera?

Yes of course, for several reasons. First, as “Rigoletto” so vividly illustrates, over-protective parenting does not work. Gilda’s father, Rigoletto, keeps her sequestered for her entire life and allows her out only to go to church. This backfires spectacularly when the Duke of Mantua, a kind of 16th-century Harvey Weinstein, finds her. Having been shielded from the world, she is so naive that she believes everything he tells her when trying to get her into bed.

Second, operas portray so many honey-voiced but duplicitious seducers that they are a useful inoculation against believing anything a young man says under such circumstances. A young female opera fan who meets a real-life Don Giovanni or Lieutenant Pinkerton will know what to say to him. They don’t teach life skills like that in school.

Third, opera gives young girls a valuable sense of historical perspective. Since the best ones were written at least 100 years ago, they brim with old-fashioned sexist assumptions, such as that a woman who loses her virginity is ruined. A modern listener does not adopt these mores; she marvels at how far women have progressed. Asked if she wanted to copy Gilda’s supremely self-sacrificing approach to romance, your correspondent’s daughter replied: “No, the opera made it quite clear that people who act like Gilda end up shanked and in a bag.”

Finally, and most importantly, the music is sublime. As the daughter put it: “I enjoyed the evil minor key and the cheerful flutes. Overall, it was incredibly sweet to the ear.”

Readers may enjoy this short selection of arias that either celebrate male chauvinism or hint at women’s experiences of it:

“ La donna è mobile”
“Women are fickle”. Sung with brio and hypocrisy by the licentious Duke in Rigoletto
«Madamina, il catalogo è questo”
Don Giovanni’s servant lists his master’s conquests, including 1,003 women in Spain
“Près des remparts de Seville”
To avoid prison, Carmen woos a violent, jealous soldier
«Vissi d’arte»
After being told that she must sleep with Baron Scarpia or he will have her lover executed, Tosca is upset. She later stabs him
«Un bel dì vedremo» 
One fine day, Madame Butterfly sings, my sailor-husband will return. He does, but with a new wife

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