From the Welsh National Opera’s staging of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande.
These days, we hear soloists, ensembles, and choruses of women singing out against abusers. But the courage expressed by these female choirs has made me question my enjoyment of another kind of music. I’m talking, of course, about opera. In this modern moment, it’s difficult not to hear opera as the highly aestheticized echo of our deeply sordid reality, a harmonization of voices wrung from women’s suffering. Louder and clearer than ever, I’m hearing opera as critics like Catherine Clément long have: as the undoing of women by men.
From an early age, my daughter (let’s call her O. to protect her privacy until she’s ready to tell her own story in the way she wants to) also recognized that there was something seriously wrong going on between men and women in opera. Carmen is her favorite opera. It used to serenade us on our daily commute to her nursery. She especially loved the children’s chorus—“Taratata, taratata!”—as they imitated the marching soldiers bugling and fifing out the old guard for the new. We even watched Francesco Rosi’s cinematic montage of bullfighting and lust in the dust of Seville. Then, one day, she asked me, “If Don Jose loves Carmen so much, why does he kill her?”
It’s tricky to know how to answer that question, especially when it is posed to you by your three-year-old. As a university professor who’s taught and thought about Carmen for years, I had on the tip of my tongue many themes with which to improvise an answer. Everything from the rejoinder generic—“It’s a tragedy. What did you expect?”—to the freewill retort—“Does he kill her? Or does she decide to die on his blade?” But neither of those nor the many other ripostes that I have previously pondered seemed satisfactory outside the classroom. When I thought about how I wanted my daughter to live and be loved, Carmen made for an appalling example.
And it’s not just operatic lovers, either. Operatic fathers have a lot to answer for, too. When O. was nine, we went to her first live opera: Verdi’s Aida. Verdi had a thing about fathers and daughters. Perhaps with good reason: his two children died when the composer was in his twenties. In Aida, Verdi doubles up with two father/daughter sets. And then there’s Rigoletto, Simon Boccanegra, and, in a certain way, La traviata and Otello, as well. Given Verdi’s inclination toward the tragic, things tend not to go well for his operatic daughters. And, as my own daughter has pointed out to me, it’s mostly their fathers’ fault. The fathers interfere in the love lives of these young women in a way that winds up getting people killed: their daughters, themselves, their daughters’ lovers, and anyone else who gets pulled into their (often) well-intentioned but (always) poorly orchestrated plots.
So I have to ask myself, especially today: How can I justify raising my daughter to love an art form that seems to delight in the pain it causes women while all too often letting their abusers go scot-free? (The question gets even more complicated, because, as a man from the working classes, I saw opera as a liberation from the violent, dead-end options for my own future. Opera comforted me in the world I was born to, opened my eyes and ears to a different one, and inspired me to find that different world beyond.)
Exposing my daughter to opera has been a calculated risk. Together we watch, we listen, we discuss. And I’ve discovered that opera’s self-same abusive and violent themes often give my daughter and me a forum in which to talk about issues she (thankfully) otherwise rarely encounters. She recently summed up Rossini’s Barber of Seville as being “like all the movies I’m not allowed to see all rolled up into one.” According to her, in opera, “all the rules are broken.” Social and cultural taboos are flaunted in this art form, where hundred-piece orchestras back up singers who emphatically repeat things that in the real world would make them repeat offenders.
But honestly, my concerns are not those Socrates worries about in The Republic. Namely, that theater is dangerous because it gives impressionable youths bad role models. Crazy gods, weeping heroes, patricides, matricides, infanticides—O. seems to readily grasp the difference between her world and the operatic world. To begin with, the operatic one is bigger. It is what Herbert Lindenberger memorably calls an “extravagant art.” Or, in O.’s words, “Everything in opera is ten times greater than in real life.” Passion in that world is not like love in ours. “In opera, everyone is willing to kill for what they want,” she tells me. “In real life, only a few people are.”
Deborah Warner’s staging of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas.
In contexts like the university classroom, I am generally uncomfortable hunting the takeaway in art. There I am constantly vigilant against students who reduce Hamlet to hubris, boil down Austen to her titles, or see little more in Oedipus Rex than the moral of “pride goeth … etcetera.” But there are cases where I cannot resist questioning the moral dimension of certain art forms and certain artists, especially ones that are so seductive, so destructive. Does enjoyment of the Ring cycle insidiously lead us toward intolerance? Does Stephen Foster’s “Oh! Susanna” tempt us to sentimentalize out of existence the horrors of slavery?
In our discussions of these issues, O. sometimes comes up with some rather interesting morals for her favorite operas. For Aida, it’s: “Don’t make enemies that are high up.” For Carmen, it used to be: “Don’t fall in love with random people.” But, now ten years old, and with a keen interest in other games of power, she recently likened the killing of Carmen to chess: “You sometimes have to sacrifice something to get something you want more.” In a painfully prescient definition of abuse, Don Jose, she explains, kills his queen for total control.
Critics like Clément have long seen operatic music as a way to sugarcoat the very bitter pill of plots designed to abuse and kill women. In its most brutally brief definition, opera is posh snuff porn where women die at the height of climax. And yet, as scholars like Carolyn Abbate and Paul Robinson have pointed out, we tend to remember not how divas expire but how they express themselves. True, operatic music may be read as the seductive siren song of the patriarchy. But it can also be read as an aural revolt against men. The female voice can breach, overcome, and triumph over male voices, and over the orchestra, the libretto, the plot—over everything. The music itself sides with women, with their voices, and encourages their passion even in the face of difficulty and defeat.
As she dies, Dido sings one of the most poignant lines in all of opera: “Remember me, but forget my fate.” And so we do. We remember her aria, not the little man who wronged her and left her to die. We forget the bonfire of the vanities that engulfs her body in the end, and retain her incandescent voice shining down the years. And that is what I hope will inspire my daughter: to see that she, too, can make herself heard above the noise of petty plots designed to silence her.
Daniel H. Foster teaches music, theater, and literature at the University of East Anglia and is the author of Wagner’s Ring Cycle and the Greeks. His work has appeared in the Huffington Post, Smithsonian’s What it Means to Be American series, and Zócalo Public Square.
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