Women in Opera: Ever Torn, Lusty And Constrained

Robert Brubaker, Griffin Reese and Sarah Joy Miller as the celeb family in 'Anna Nicole' by Mark Anthony Turnage at BAM 2013 (Stephanie Berger)
Robert Brubaker, Griffin Reese and Sarah Joy Miller, tabloid family, in ‘Anna Nicole’ by Mark Anthony Turnage
BAM Opera 2013 (Stephanie Berger)
By Susan Brodie

Two new operas about women, opening the seasons in New York and San Francisco, prompted some thoughts about how females have been portrayed in operas over the last four centuries. What a Pandora’s box! A fleeting and oversimplified glance at the history of Western opera shows a second sex, living under the same constraints faced offstage, exhibiting manipulative, loyal, lust-filled or conflicted behaviors with few glimmers of nobility.

Patricia Racette as Margherita in Boito's 'Mephistopheles' 2013. (Cory Weaver-San Francisco Opera)
Racette as Boito’s Margherita. (Cory Weaver-San Francisco Opera 2013)

San Francisco Opera’s current season showcases Patricia Racette in two contrasting visions of woman. In Boito’s Mephistopheles, she incarnates the innocent Margherita who, on bad advice, accidentally poisons her mother so that she can meet her lover. Seduced and abandoned with an infant, she goes mad and drowns her child. Condemned to death, she receives salvation on the strength of her faith. Even though the Devil made her do it, she is depicted as a flighty, gullible woman without sense or virtue, quickly dispatched. (Gounod’s version of Marguerite is more complex, but her end is the same.)

In the title role of Tobias Picker’s and J.D. McClatchy’s new opera Dolores Claiborne, Racette plays a working-class woman in rural Maine married to an abusive alcoholic who molests their daughter. Dolores works for Vera Donovan, a wealthy, demanding widow with whom she forges an unexpected bond. When Dolores breaks down at work over her husband’s latest outrages, Vera tells her, “Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman can hold on to.” Claiborne resorts to extreme means, but all three women in the opera struggle against the injustices of a world that favors men. The price of their survival is loneliness and alienation.

But even among contemporary operas, Dolores’s (mitigated) triumph isn’t the rule. Ending its first U.S. run at New York City Opera (which announced it will start bankruptcy proceedings soon), Anna Nicole (2011) by Mark Anthony Turnage presents yet another alluring gold-digger who comes to a bad end. Librettist Richard Thomas describes the title character as “a single mum trying to do whatever she can for her child,” but soprano Sarah Joy Miller cites “her desire for a big life and her desire to be loved” – in other words, she’s Manon with silicone implants. The can’t-look-away spectacle is a larger-than-life rendition of her infamous tabloid career; the snappy narration of the Greek-like chorus heightens a sense of inevitability of her fall. “I came so close,” she sings – but her exploitation by her lawyer-companion strips away her autonomy and dignity.

Stéphanie d'Oustrac in 'Atys' (Pierre Grosbois-Opéra Comique, Paris)
Stéphanie d’Oustrac in ‘Atys.’ (Pierre Grosbois-Opéra Comique 2011)

How did we arrive at this point? The earliest Baroque operas drew on classical myths for their subject matter, and the first operatic heroine, by most accounts, was Euridice, the beloved bride whose fatal curiosity led to tragedy. The god Jupiter’s love objects made for a procession of innocents who paid for their ambitions, or at least for their beauty (Calisto, Io, Semele). Some libretti portrayed powerful women: the aspiring priestess of Lully’s Atys; the Christian martyr in Handel’s Theodora; or Queen Dido in Purcell’s compact masterpiece, torn between love and duty. As opera moved from the court to public theaters, spectacle, dramatic conventions and vocal display took priority over realistic drama; women were for the most part depicted as stereotypes. Since castrati were the most important high-voiced singers (outside of France), the female vocalists who appeared would not be cast in heroic roles. Readily identifiable stereotypes – the ingénue, the virtuous wife or fiancée, the hysterical harridan, the aged nurse (often a travesty role) – made it easier to dash off a score and give audiences a ready handle on the plot.

Susanna (Danielle de Niese, at right) is the maid heroine in Mozart's 'Figaro.' (Dan Rest, Lyric Opera Chicago 2010)
Danielle de Niese, right, as maid Susanna in ‘Figaro.’
(Dan Rest, Lyric Opera Chicago 2010)

Mozart wrote in a variety of operatic styles over his career. But while his libretti conform to contemporary norms and cast women in roles typical of their time, his best operas use the music to delineate layers of complexity, both in characterizations and story lines. The real heroine of The Marriage of Figaro, based on Beaumarchais’ revolutionary play, is Susanna, a clever maidservant who escapes the clutches of a master eager to exercise his droit de seigneur, colludes with her mistress against the master, pays off her fiancé’s debts and ends up with her man. Other Mozart operas rely more heavily on casting stereotypes, but the music reveals complex characters with more depth than their roles in the plot would indicate.

Early 19th century comic operas often featured spunky women who prevailed through determination and charm, though not always good behavior: Marie, Donizetti’s tomboyish Daughter of the Regiment, Rosina in The Barber of Seville and Norina in Don Pasquale draw power from the fleeting assets of their youthful allure. They could be considered the spiritual daughters of Mozart’s Susanna, using their wiles to manipulate the system to get their way.

oan Sutherland as Lucia (Louis Mélançon, Metropolitan Opera 1961)
Joan Sutherland as mad Lucia. (Louis Mélançon, Met Opera 1961)

The more tragic bel canto heroines, like Bellini’s Norma and Donizetti’s Tudor queens (Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Elizabeth I in Roberto Devereux), are both elevated and confined by aristocratic or priestly status that limit their options; their frustrations give rise to some of the more glorious vocal outpourings of the repertoire. The noble-born Lucia di Lammermoor, tricked by her brother into a forced marriage, is driven mad at having to give up her own love. Her tragedy yields exasperation at the futile waste of a life, as well as some unforgettable arias. The Druid priestess Norma is unable to reconcile her emotional life with her duties toward the cult and chooses death.

Things don’t improve much through the 19th century, as melodrama calls for catastrophic fates. What role is more emblematic of the silencing of women than the title character of the first French grand opera, Daniel Auber’s 1828 La muette de Portici? Seduced and abandoned by a prince, Fenella literally cannot utter a sound. Miming her story to her brother, who swears to avenge her, she nonetheless vows to save her erstwhile lover and ends up committing suicide while her brother dies.

French grand opera abounds in temptresses who come to a bad end: the manipulative Dalilah, the courtesan Thaïs, the gypsy Carmen, the original material girl, Manon Lescaut. More nobly, Queen Dido reappears in Berlioz’s Les Troyens, but in the end fares no better than in Purcell’s earlier version.

In Italy, Verdi’s women are largely secondary to the political actors in the historical allegories that occupied the composer. Whether faithful wives or obedient daughters, they often act against their own desires or self-interest. This self-sacrificing impulse reached its perverse nadir in Gilda, the innocent daughter in Rigoletto who, like Fenella before her, dishonored by her father’s careless employer, sacrifices her own life for his.

Anna Smirnova as jealous Eboli (Ken Howard, Met Opera 2013)
Anna Smirnova as lying Eboli. (Ken Howard, Met Opera 2013)

As Verdi’s work matured, wives remained too good to be true, though other women transgressed with gusto. Nabucco’s delusionally ambitious Abigaille attempts to overthrow the king but is struck down by God. While Elisabetta (in Don Carlo), reluctant but faithful trophy wife of King Phillip, endures insults at court, her lady-in-waiting, Eboli, reveals Elisabetta’s supposed infidelity to the king – who is her lover. The jealous princess Amneris, in Aïda, lets Radames die rather than yield him to another woman.

Even in La Traviata, the courtesan with a heart of gold finds true love but is persuaded by his unyielding father to give him up. Her reward is the return of her beloved Alfredo, who arrives just in time to watch her die, ill and penniless. Not until Verdi’s valedictory comedy Falstaff do the women get the upper hand.

Most of Wagner’s women fare even worse. They’re mostly symbolic figures who die when Wagner is done with them, though the women of the Ring, especially Brünnhilde, provide the moral compass of the great cycle; I’ve written more here.

Nadja Michael as Salome (bayerische.staatsoper.de in 2014)
Nadja Michael as lust-driven Salome. (Bavarian State Opera for 2014)

Richard Strauss wrote operas in a world whose understanding of human behavior was changed by Freud. His first success was Salome, about a spoiled, seductive, narcissistic, lust-driven teenager, the epitome of feminine vice. Elektra put the spotlight on a woman’s murderous and ultimately self-destructive rage; supporting characters include her sister, who longs for children, and her mother, torn between her marriage and her maternal love. Strauss retreated from these blood-soaked renderings of Greek tragedy with lighter, more conventional theater featuring women who could reflect on the constraints with which they had to conform. Der Rosenkavalier provided a contrast between a mature and self-aware matron and a silly young girl, with both undergoing transformation. Arabella sees the taming of a proud beauty and of her tomboy sister. Yet Strauss also returns to stereotypes: in Die Frau ohne Schatten, women are defined in terms of childbearing capacity, and Ariadne auf Naxos contrasts Ariadne’s anguish over heartbreak and Zerbinetta’s more pragmatic point of view (shades of Così fan tutte!).

Amanda Echalaz as diva Tosca. (Ken Howard-Santa Fe Opera 2012)
Amanda Echalaz as diva Tosca. (Ken Howard-Santa Fe Opera 2012)

Puccini is an interesting contrast: his women are surprisingly modern for turn-of-the-century Italy, where women were limited by old-world expectations. Driven by traditional feminine foibles, they are surprisingly independent for their time. Tosca is a public performer, a grand diva who consorts openly with a known revolutionary. She initially comes off as a jealous, fluttery little woman, but her determination to save her imprisoned lover drives her to murder. Alas, she trusts when she should not, things go horribly wrong and she leaps from the parapet after her lover dies.

Other Puccini heroines follow more conventional trajectories. The spirited and alluring Manon Lescaut is brought down by her material ambitions. La Bohème’s Mimi, a typical Parisian grisette of easy morals and slender means, also purchases protection with her favors, though she is ultimately conquered by poverty. Madama Butterfly’s Cio-Cio San matures from naive, smitten teenager to self-sacrificing mother. Is there a more hateful woman than Il Trittico’s Zia Principessa, whose double cruelty toward her niece, an unwed mother confined to a convent, drives the desperate Suor Angelica to suicide? (Possibly Turandot, whose fear of sexual domination means death not only for her suitors but also for the faithful, loving Liù.)

Ah Hong as Nero's lover Poppea. (Opera Vivente, Baltimore, 2009)
Ah Hong as Nero’s lover Poppea. (Opera Vivente, Baltimore, 2009)

Occasionally an operatic heroine prevails, though she rarely survives the final curtain. Seventeenth century Venetian carnival audiences thrilled as Monteverdi’s Poppea successfully schemed to marry her lover – the emperor Nero – and gain the throne (though anyone conversant with history knows how that turned out). Beethoven’s dramatically flawed Fidelio celebrates the courage and determination of Leonora, who assumes male disguise to save her imprisoned husband. Puccini’s tough but tender saloonkeeper, Minnie, The Girl of the Golden West (a lady with questionable taste in men), uses guile and guts to save her lover, but she had to leave everything behind to make a life with him. In Poulenc’s Dialogue of the Carmelites, the timorous, aristocratic Blanche, who has retreated to the convent to escape the world, finds courage and grace to join her sisters in martyrdom.

It should be noted that both Dolores Claiborne and Anna Nicole are married (or divorced) women with children. Picker’s earlier operas, Emmeline and An American Tragedy, are based on older American novels in which a woman pays the price – sometimes with her life – for giving in to her own desires, mostly involving a child out of wedlock. As in real life, a different kind of story became possible when an illegitimate child was no longer the required outcome of a woman acting on desire – and when bearing a child out of wedlock lost its shame.

Allison Cook as lusty duchess in Thomas Adès’s 'Powder Her Face.'(Carol Rosegg, NYCO 2013)
Allison Cook as lusty duchess in Thomas Adès’s ‘Powder Her Face.’
(Carol Rosegg, New York City Opera 2013)

That said, even in operas written within the last decade, women are still punished for sexual expression. In Thomas Adès’ Powder Her Face, the Duchess of Argyle pays dearly for her extravagant sexual appetites. In André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire, the self-deluding Blanche DuBois is trapped in her lies about her long-ago sullied purity. The Mormon wives in Nico Muhly’s Dark Sisters are unwilling to challenge the male hierarchy to protect their daughters. When the young wife Agnes, in George Benjamin’s dark medieval Written on Skin, grows from innocence into carnal knowledge, she blossoms as a human being, but dies. It’s all enough to make a feminist despair.

While contemporary operas continue to put forth less-than-inspiring depictions of women, the prevailing dramaturgy is a logical reflection of audiences’ taste for Schadenfreude – tragedy makes audiences forget their own troubles, and the spectacle of other people’s mistakes makes audiences feel superior.

On the bright side, even though new operas continue to show women who pay the price for stepping out of line, at least women are seen as more than powerless helpmates or wicked hussies, capable of rational thought and motivated by more than raw instincts. Yet an operatic tradition of heroic and successful women has yet to emerge. Victoria Woodhull, the flamboyant protagonist of Victoria Bond’s Mrs. President, has more in common with Joan of Arc than Horatio Alger. We may not be ready for Anita Hill, the Opera, but Xena the Warrior Princess might make a good start.

Susan Brodie writes about music, the arts and life from New York City and Paris. Follow her at @Susan_Brodie (Twitter) and Toi Toi Toi!