Friday, November 6, 2009

Opera To Die For

The first opera I ever saw: La Boheme.  Kingsbury Hall at the University of Utah. I was sixteen. In the last act, Mimi died flat on her back.  Singing. It was the most amazing thing I ever saw or heard. I went gaga (sorry, Lady). I saved the program and vowed I would do this one day.  Die dramatically and beautifully. Singing what I felt until the last breath and beyond. Ignoring moral and social laws and having people applaud me for it. Count me in.

It wasn't until I was older and studying and performing operas that I began to notice that while both men and women enjoyed the same liberation on stage, more women were dying because of it than men. This disturbed me. But the music was still beautiful.

I have stewed about this duality in opera for years. I think women in opera are archetypes.  Carmen is the image of a woman who refuses masculine definitions and must pay for it with her life, much like Thelma And Louise (now that would make a great opera!) Women are mere symbols on stage. They are expendable.  Men are substantial and real.

I am often taken back to my first opera and Mimi's singing death. Do women die in opera because it is the only way they can be reborn? As Mimi dies, she is reborn simultaneously as she sings - the music is the resurrection, the redemption of her dying spirit. Sound waves are infinite so Mimi doesn't die, because her music lives on; the sound waves are captured in memory - on tape - and stream on endlessly in the universe.

But should women in opera have to settle for being eternal wispy waves? They are created to be victims in an art form that demands their submission or death for the sake of good closure to the story.

Let's go through the list: Aida is buried alive when made to betray her lover rather than her country. Carmen loves whomever she wants and dies for it. Desdemona is killed by Othello because she is too blond for her black Moorish husband. Too fair, too trusting, too loyal. Violetta dies because she breaks away from her courtesan image and actually loves and allows herself to be loved. Tosca, an opera singer, jumps to her death because she has been tricked into causing the death of her true love. She also breaks a few rules when she kills the chief of police. Butterfly, an innocent Japanese girl who has been taught by her culture to love only one man, is asked to give him up because another culture doesn't consider it a real marriage -  then traditional honor codes require her suicide. Does this sound fair?

Men do die in operas, but it is because they are losers. They are defeated and weak. Or they are lame, hunchback, foreign, old...MEN WHO ARE LIKE WOMEN. The triumphant men in opera are fathers, kings uncles, lovers. The authorities are always triumphant...and so are Churches.

So opera reflects society. Opera was born in courts where Kings had total control. In this era, opera was aimed primarily at the middle class. It was how moral codes were disseminated. It was how women were told what their role should be.

In the Renaissance, women who sang in public or who tried to publish their poetry were regarded as courtesans and were pressured to grant sexual favors in exchange for being permitted to participate in cultural productions.

I think a similar phenomenon exists today. I have witnessed situations in my limited singing career where men in power demanded sex from aspiring sopranos in exchange for roles. Later, these same men would condemn those women for having slept their way through their careers.

In history and everywhere in the world today there is a strong suggestion that women need to know their place. Remember the Gulf War? The pictures of the Saudi Arabian people trying to escape the bombings? Women, who are not allowed to drive, actually had the nerve to get into cars to try and save themselves from being blown to bits. Later, they had to stand trial for this offense and after a lot of discussion, were reprimanded and released to the care of their fathers and husbands.

So, there are sociological implications to a woman's role anywhere, including opera.

Why do we so blindly, or deafly accept all the killing of women in opera? - (and the ones I have listed are just a smattering of the many women slain in opera..)

Is it because the beautiful music makes it all right? Is it OK to kill someone if you have an amazing musical arrangement?

Does the transcendent nature of music let us escape logical argumentation?

Maybe women die in operas because they have not seen to their creative needs - they are living others' rules - society's, families - MEN'S.

As I have thought about these sociological implications, I think this killing off of women in opera could represent the death of the soul for both men and women. Call the soul what you like: identification with the wild, hope for the future, passionate curiosity, Stanley.....This is that nebulous thing that I'm after in opera -  through  all music - all art. I'll do whatever it takes to maintain the vitality and endurance of the human spirit - and even die on stage, singing about it.
see "Opera, Or The Undoing of Women," by Catherine Clement


  1. This is one powerful article. There is so much here that could be debated for days. I have to admit I never considered the connections you make but they make sense.

    Several times I stopped to catch my breath because you captured women's place in society so well. "In history and everywhere in the world today there is a strong suggestion that women need to know their place."

    This posting belongs in Women's Studies at some university. (I doubt if a music department would be brave enough to include it.)

    If they ever do make an opera of Thelma and Louise I want a part because it is one of my faves.

    "Thelma And Louise (now that would make a great opera!) Women are mere symbols on stage. They are expendable. Men are substantial and real."

    The story of my life.

  2. Kathy, this is an outstanding commentary, and I agree that it should be published somewhere.
    Brava, well done, well sung.

  3. Christella - Thank you for your most kind comments. These ideas of mine about women in opera are hardly original. There's a book, "Opera, or, The undoing of women" By Catherine Clément that deals in detail with the sociological implications. I probably should have quoted it. Also, there was a course at the University of Georgia called Opera Heroines: The Powerful Victims of Music.
    I'm sorry to hear how closely you identify with women being put in their place. - But I guess it's quite universal in our society.

  4. Yes, it is universal, and opera is, too. Thanks for responding. The idea might not be original but your post was wonderful.

    I like Marie saying, well sung.

  5. You've chosen an interesting way to make a point, Kass, and you won't get an argument from me.

    Opera is a product of culture, but women have had a rough go of it throughout all of recorded history, and not just culturally. Doesn't matter what we examine - theology, culture, politics, economics, sociology, anything and everything - the two genders have never been considered equals. And, except for the fabled Amazons, women have never been allowed to claim top rank.

    The only exception that comes to mind is found within the ranks of our close primate cousins, the bonobos, that live in matriarchal societies. And they sure do live interesting lives. Having said that, the almost (genetically) identical chimpanzees are highly patriarchal. Go figure.

  6. This is such an interesting essay, K.
    You and I grew up within an especially patriarchal community. I for one bristled loudly about that starting in my 20's -- have never cowed to it, or felt victimized by it. Have you?

    Patriarchal men nowadays steer clear of strong women and often lose power in the process. I wonder when men finally realized that burning us at the stake was pointless?

    I spent my life blessed with a man who doesn't fit the "opera" stereotype, one who champions strong women finding their voices.

    Further, I believe that sometimes the way women treat other women is actually worse than in the opera least that has been my experience.

    But promise me you won't die singing. Just live singing.

  7. Bravo! I'm currently taking a 12 week opera course, watching a different opera each week. Without that Mediterranean code of honor many operas wouldn't have a story, the woman is rarely an independent person and when she is as, in a limited way Violetta in in La Traviata, she's sick [and dies]. Operas are a product of their times, but the times, as you so rightly say, rarely give the woman any real power, certainly if they do she gets punished, in opera mostly by dying.

    We still have a lot of battles to win, but we in Western society are mostly breaking those reins -- unfortunately our counterparts in many other parts of the world remain dependent within their families and households.

  8. Something is wrong when I try to access your blog. I click Star Wars from my reading list and it says, "Page not found. Sorry, the page you were looking for in the blog The "K" Is No Longer Silent does not exist. If I click The K is No Longer Silent, the Opera posting shows up.

    This has happened to me before and I thought I should let you know.


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