"Opera is pitiless," says French feminist philosopher Catherine Clement in the most original and controversial book about opera in a long while. She means, specifically, that opera treats women mercilessly, and she could be talking about the opera season that opens with a bang this week in Washington.
The title of Clement's book (as translated from the French and published by the University of Minnesota Press) almost tells the story: "Opera, or the Undoing of Women." But she goes into a lot more detail -- 200 pages of angry detail, including cool philosophical analyses and violent stream-of-consciousness reactions to operatic experience:
"Oh voices, sublime voices, high, clear voices, how you make one forget the words you sing! How beautiful is suffering's melody ... the stories repeated a thousand times by men who pursue women and reduce them to nothing."
Whether you agree with her completely or not, she is on to something. In the five operas that will be shown here between now and Nov. 10, two women will die of tuberculosis; one (a vampire) will be stabbed to death with a silver dagger; and Salome, a teenage sex kitten for whom John the Baptist literally loses his head, will be killed by Herod's royal guard while she kisses John's cold, dead lips served up on a silver platter. One woman will not kill or die in the course of the opera named after her, but Agrippina, mother of the emperor Nero, will engage in some very dirty political scheming before Handel brings his "Agrippina" around to a mandatory happy ending.
What is going on? Opera: the theatrical art that brings raw, primitive emotion bubbling up from the subconscious like molten lava from Earth's core. This season, like any operatic season, exemplifies an old show-business axiom -- one that, in light of recent news, we might name the 2 Live Crew principle: You can get away with anything as long as you sing it.
Opera has been getting away with murder since about the year 1600 and, without getting statistical, observation seems to support Clement's thesis that a disproportionate number of the victims have been women. We're not even talking about openly anti-feminist operas such as "The Magic Flute," which will be here at the end of the year and which includes such lines as "A woman does little, chatters a lot," "Beware of women's wiles" and (disdainfully) "She is a woman with the mind of a woman." We're talking about the operatic top 40: "La Traviata," which the Prince George's Opera will be performing at home this week and in the Lisner Auditorium downtown next week, and "La Boheme," which the Washington Opera will present for seven performances beginning Nov. 10.
In both operas, the medical diagnosis is that the soprano dies of tuberculosis, but both of them really die of 19th-century bourgeois morality. In the curious theatrical logic of that era (which was also generally observed in Hollywood up to World War II), these women must die before the final curtain because they have been intimate with men to whom they were not married; Mimi with the poet Rodolfo, Violetta with a variety of men (it was her profession), but particularly with young Alfredo Germont, the only one she really loved and, therefore, the one she had to renounce.
In "Salome" by Richard Strauss (with libretto by Oscar Wilde), which opens the Washington Opera's season Saturday night, the title character's death is more obviously her own doing. It is an opera about many things, including vanity, vindictiveness, sexual and religious obsessions, but above all it is about going too far. After reducing Herod to helpless submission with her dance of the seven veils, she forces him to behead John the Baptist. But when the king sees her kissing the severed head of the prophet, who refused to let her touch him while he was alive, it is too much. The opera's last words are Herod's shout to his guards: "Kill that woman!"
On the other hand, Leonora di Sangue dies with two things in her heart -- a silver dagger, to be sure, but also an assurance of divine forgiveness from a heavenly voice that comes on just before her mad scene and death scene. Leonora will make a one-night stand in the Terrace Theater tomorrow in the title role of David Clenny's opera "La Contessa dei Vampiri" ("The Countess of the Vampires"), which will have its Washington premiere under the auspices of the Handel Festival Orchestra.
The point of the heavenly voice has a wider application than this single, strange opera, namely that composers don't kill sopranos because they hate them but because they love them. Sopranos die onstage because there is nothing more dramatic (or melodramatic) than a death scene and nothing (except maybe a mad scene) inspires more memorable music. Clenny not only wrote that kind of music, in a style that very precisely imitates the bel canto idioms of 150 years ago, he also wrote the libretto (in Italian that is always eloquent and frequently grammatical) and sings the title role. What more can a creator do for his heroine?
Sopranos are not the only ones who have a high mortality rate in opera; poets do even worse. Consider: Lensky, killed in a duel with his best friend in "Eugene Onegin"; Manrico in "Il Trovatore," executed by the Count di Luna, who does not realize that they are brothers; Werther, committing suicide with a gun borrowed from the woman who rejected his love; Andre Chenier sentenced to the guillotine.
When they are not killed, the poets often lose that which gives their life meaning -- i.e., the sopranos who die so prettily. In "La Boheme," for example, Rodolfo's life becomes pointless when Mimi dies. It can be argued that a poignant death is preferable to a joyless survival. As one soprano put it when the soprano death rate was brought up in conversation, "What part would you rather sing -- Butterfly or Pinkerton?"
Consider Orpheus, the archetypal poet and perennial operatic subject, who goes down into Hades in search of his dead wife, Euridice, wins her release from the lord of the underworld and then loses her again, irrevocably, on their return journey to Earth. At the end of the opera, he seems much more pitiful than she.
Or meditate on the treatment of old men in opera and ask yourself whether it is worse to die exquisitely like Mimi and Violetta or to be subjected to shame and ridicule like Falstaff, Don Bartolo, Don Pasquale -- even, ultimately, Wotan. The ridiculing of old men -- usually because they aspire to the love of younger women -- is as much an operatic staple as the exquisite death scene. "La Boheme," which manages to get by with only one tubercular soprano, has two ridiculous old men -- the landlord Benoit in Act 1 and Alcindoro, Musetta's sugar daddy, in Act 2.
Not all opera kills its heroines or treats them as objects. Comic opera generally is kinder to women (and harder on men) than tragic opera, and one great comic opera composer, Gioacchino Rossini, seems to have made a specialty of operas with resourceful heroines. All three of his best-known operas, "The Barber of Seville," "Cenerentola" and "L'Italiana in Algeri," are about women who find their wishes fulfilled because they are smarter than the men who strut and posture around them.
Still, no matter how well sopranos do in comic opera, no matter how symbolic and beautiful are the soprano sufferings and death scenes in tragic opera, and no matter what opera does to poets and old men, there is still a whiff of sexism about the treatment of women in much of the standard operatic repertoire. Inevitably, the question arises: How do all these varied kinds of archaic and sexist nonsense continue to attract audiences in our present age of enlightenment? One answer is music, the preservative that keeps alive, under the name of opera, many obsolete social, emotional and theatrical conventions that were laughed off the spoken (the so-called legitimate) stage long ago. Another answer is that opera, in its own curious and often distorted way, reflects with a special poignancy a real world where beauty is born, lives all too briefly and dies.
But the ultimate answer is also the answer to the more general question of why we have so much violence in our entertainment: Opera, on the whole, is not about nice things happening to nice people; if it were, nobody would buy tickets. If you want to change the orientation of this art, you must first change the interests of the people who support it -- the vast majority of whom, by the way, are women.