A Feminist Guide to Opera or Why I Read the Subtitles

by Lisa Gaufman



How is that for a Hollywood movie scenario: a young woman starts dating a poor student, but then dumps him for a rich old man, whom she tries to relieve of his treasures before getting arrested. Not too feminist, eh? And yet, it’s a rough sketch of the Manon Lescaut opera that was successfully performed at Salzburg Festival in a breathtaking interpretation of Anna Netrebko. When people listen to classical opera, they don’t necessarily bother deciphering the lyrics. Even if you have subtitles your gaze will be torn between the action on stage and the screen above it.  It might be worth while taking a closer look.

Most operas will probably fail the famous Bechdel test: you can hardly find 2 female characters who would talk – correction, sing – about something else other than men or their feelings for the men. In Madama Butterfly there is almost a Bechdel moment when Chio-Chio-San asks Suzuki to decorate the room… to prepare for her husband’s arrival. Il Trovatore’s Leonora and Ines discuss Manrico, Aida’s Amneris and Aida talk about Radames, Turandot’s Liu only tells the princess how love to Calaf will transform her. Even in Evgeny Onegin the famous duet/quartet at the beginning hardly lasts 2 minutes before Tatyana’s mother and nanny reminisce about the former one’s love interests and how the habit of being with someone replaces love. A strong female character, a chief priestess no less, Norma, who encourages druids to take revenge on the conquerors from Rome, only discusses her unfaithful lover with a female co-worker (i.e., a fellow druid priestess, job options for women were rather limited back in the day).

In many European operas a woman’s value seems to be only in her (virgin) body and even the agency of often titled female characters is questionable. The above mentioned Norma has to immolate herself because she broke her vow of chastity. Il Barbiere di Sivilla Rosina literally waits for Count Almaviva to rescue her from her uncle not doing anything by herself. It’s the clever barber who shows signs of mental activity. I won’t even mention some of Wagner’s operas, where women sleep and wait to be awoken by “true heroes”. Manon Lescaut, the only female role in Puccini’s beautiful opera shows that women have no self-sufficiency at all. She is first accompanied by her brother who is supposed to put her in a monastery, then taken by Des Grieux (albeit voluntarily), then she becomes a mistress of an old man and revels in the jewels and gifts showered by her benefactor.  Afterwards she is arrested and can only be rescued by her lover. Most of them time if women can actually accomplish something, they either kill or offer their body. Tosca, a brave singer who tries to save her lover Cavaradossi kills Scarpia (but only after he sings a stunning aria professing his passion to her). Leonora in Trovatore offers her body to the villain and is instantly rebuked by the man she sacrificed herself for, as though it’s fun for women to be molested by a man they don’t love.

Moreover, women are usually linked with the male protagonists’ tribulations. It’s Rigoletto’s anguish at the death of his daughter Gilda that takes center stage and not Gilda’s sacrifice or her despair after the Duke leaves her for another woman. Orpheus is miserable when Eurydice dies and has to battle his way to the underworld, where Eurydice ruins his attempt to rescue her. Jealous Marfa (who is also a witch) persuades Prince Andrey to burn on a pyre in Khovanschina, although his misfortunes were caused by the political turmoil in 17th century Russia. Manrico has to save Leonora from a man she doesn’t love; in Arena di Verona version Manrico literally rides in on a white horse. He then is captured and beheaded because his mother was clumsy enough to get caught by Manrico’s nemesis. Onegin is depressed because Tatyana (spoiler alert) refused to be unfaithful to her husband, an act that is a subject of an opera in itself that portrays female treachery.

Admittedly, I cherry-picked several popular operas and used them to illustrate my point about representation of female characters in popular culture. Feminist frequency blog takes the issue of female representation seriously and makes a compelling case for combatting misogyny in video games, where women are portrayed by means of distinctive tropes such as ‘damsel in distress’ or ‘women as reward’. In the meantime, however, Kobbe’s Opera Book could really use some disclaimers.


Elizaveta Gaufman received her PhD in Political Science from the University of Tübingen. Her research focuses on the exploration of verbal and visual enemy images through big data analysis, combining international relations theory with media and cultural studies.

Twitter: @lisas_research

Categories: Rethinking The World, Reviews, Visual Sociology

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