PROJECTS ON GENDER & SEXUAL POLITICS IN OPERA
MUS 134: SONGBIRDS & SIRENS
DR. JESSIE FILLERUP
UNIVERSITY OF RICHMOND
Opera is a genre that both emancipates and constrains its female characters—and, by extension, the singers who portray them. In nineteenth-century dramatic operas, the prima donna usually dies, often in violent fashion. This is true for Carmen (stabbed by Don José), Salome (crushed by soldiers), Butterfly (suicide by knife), Tosca (suicide by leaping from a tower), and countless other characters. Sometimes the cause of death for operatic women is oddly vague or puzzling: Elektra dies from excessive dancing, Lucia succumbs after an episode of mania, and Isolde drapes herself over Tristan’s body, beckoned to death by a vision from beyond. (He is mortally wounded; she is not.) Often, these women have transgressed gendered boundaries of culturally appropriate behavior, or they have committed acts—murder, for example—for which the requisite consequence is death, meted out equally by authorial choice and the conventions of the genre itself.
But these women so ill-served by their stories nevertheless remain a powerful presence. They are the title characters of many dramatic operas, and the ones who best capture our interest and affection. They perform some of the very best songs. And the female singers who give voice to these characters wield a kind of power rarely seen in Western music after 1800, which traditionally grants authority to (mostly male) composers. As music historian Carolyn Abbate observes, opera is one of the only genres which “so displaces the authorial musical voice onto female characters and female singers that it largely reverses a conventional opposition of male (speaking) subject and female (observed) object.”
Sometimes, women in opera get to live beyond the final aria. The heroines of comic operas—like Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro, or Marie in La fille du régiment—have strong wills and purposeful ambitions, and they tend to outsmart everyone in their midst. Of course, these heroines face other constraints typical of the genre: they inherit the conventional image of women as sneaky and conniving, who accomplish their aims largely through deception. But despite this limitation, comic heroines are often an insurgent presence, and their very survival to the opera’s last cadence is itself a kind of accomplishment.
The students in my Fall 2016 “Songbirds and Sirens” course examined representations of women in opera in a particularly challenging environment. In the second week of classes, a former University of Richmond student published an article in The Huffington Post about the university’s mishandling of her rape case. Many students and faculty felt that the administrative response to the article was tone-deaf at best and victim-shaming at worst. In class, students reported feeling shocked and betrayed by the sequence of events; many had just emerged from first-year student orientation, where they heard repeated assurances that the university would not tolerate gender-based violence.
As the campus debate over sexual violence unfolded, the U.S. presidential campaign was also nearing its end. It was marred by implicit and overt expressions of sexism and misogyny, captured by the ugly slogans embraced by Trump supporters (“Trump that bitch” among the milder ones) and the endless critiques of Hillary Clinton’s appearance, physical stamina, and purportedly craven ambition. When students in “Songbirds and Sirens” submitted their final projects, the election had ended only a few weeks prior, with a stunning result—one that suggested tacit endorsement of the misogyny that had plagued the campaign season and that placed the rights and freedoms of women at risk.
Given the current cultural and political climate, both on campus and on the national stage, it is critical for students engaged in gender studies to have their work read and shared. The projects gathered here, from seven students in my “Songbirds and Sirens” class, contribute to a thriving feminist dialogue about representations of women in art and the public sphere. They include two research papers and five opera librettos based on pre-existing material. One of the students, Emily Bradford, is a music major and a junior; the others are first- and second-year students who have varying degrees of musical experience. But all of the projects are creative, insightful, and provocative in their own ways, confronting representations of gender through the dialectical relationship between art and culture. These projects affirm both the historical importance of opera as a genre and its enduring capacity to voice uncomfortable issues that have contemporary resonance.
Paper: “Salut à la France, Vive le ‘tomboy’: Gender Diversity in Donizett’s La fille du régiment,” by Emily Bradford (third year, double major in Music and Rhetoric & Communications)
Emily examines the transgressive aspects of gender representation in one of Donizetti’s comic operas by using modern gender theory on the tomboy. She demonstrates that while the central character, Marie, finds a romantic match by the end of the opera, she also embraces qualities of traditional masculinity, inherited from her military “fathers.” Marie’s role as vivandière, while conventionally feminine and domestic, also further “solidifies Marie’s identity as a member” of the regiment. Emily suggests that the opera illuminates how gender functions as performance: Marie did not grow up “surrounded by more codified gender rituals,” thus freeing her to emulate the activities and behaviors that constitute military life (or at least its operatic simulacrum). Examining two of Marie’s arias at different points in the plot reveals the degree to which Marie clings to gender nonconformity in the midst of her identity crisis: a lack of musical development from one aria to the next reflects her unwillingness to adopt more conventionally feminine behavior. In the paper’s conclusion, Emily favorably compares Marie’s story with the “post-feminist” 2001 film, The Princess Diaries, which shares many plot similarities with La fille du régiment. But unlike Donizetti’s opera, which allows Marie to keep her inner tomboy, the film “presents learning to perform femininity as a major catalyst for its heroine’s success.”
Libretto: Sushree Peacock, by Mira Carroll (first year, undeclared)
Mira’s adaptation of the opera Madama Butterfly invests the title character with the sort of narrative agency that Puccini’s Butterfly never had. In Sushree Peacock, Maya falls in love with William Powers, and, as is often the case in opera, her love becomes a kind of obsession, motivating her to convert from Hinduism to Christianity. But Maya lives in a matrilineal society, where her daughter, Priya (the counterpart to Cio-Cio-san’s son) will inherit all she has. And while Maya is the “peacock” of the title—a majestic bird meant to contrast with the butterfly’s delicacy—the only character who attempts to call her that (and thus reduce her to an inhuman creature) is Powers. The relationship between Maya and Sami is modeled on the idealized servant-mistress friendship of Susanna and the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro, which transgresses the social norms that might otherwise prevent women of different classes from sharing an emotional bond. Mira adheres to a number of operatic conventions, including characters of particular “types,” poetic texts with internal repetitions, and clear structural distinctions between plot-moving recitatives and reflective arias. But the final scene is a powerful rebuttal to Butterfly’s shame-driven seppuku, and to dramatic opera’s broader tendency to kill its female leads.
Libretto: The Song of Achilles, by Jada Frazier (first year, undeclared)
Jada meets the challenge of adapting an adaptation: her opera uses characters and texts from Madeline Miller’s lyrical novel, The Song of Achilles, which was itself based on characters from Homer’s Illiad. Jada keeps much of Miller’s beautiful language intact, selecting key scenes from the novel, reducing them, and interpolating her own dialogue when necessary. While the opera focuses on the same-sex romance between Achilles and Patroclus, Jada’s choices in constructing the libretto reflect a desire to focus more attention on female characters and to bring issues of sexual violence and exploitation to the fore. She accomplishes this, in part, by placing Thetis’s account of her rape at the very beginning of the opera—a powerful moment in which a female character names the violence done to her over the protestations of another character (in this case, Achilles himself). Jada’s choice to give a mad scene to Achilles places a male character in an unusual subject position, as he experiences a kind of “hysteria” more typical of female operatic leads. She pays close attention to orchestration in her opera, using instrumental music to help her structure scenes and transitions, and even writing a leitmotif to be played on Achilles’ lyre.
Libretto: Leda and the Swan, by Sariah Gonzalez (first-year, undeclared)
Sariah confronts issues of sexual violence and exploitation in an opera libretto based on the Greek myth of Leda, who was raped by Zeus as he took the form of a swan. In the opening scene, Leda sings a heartbreaking aria, revealing her sense of fear, shame, and vulnerability. Though she was attacked, she feels a sense of blame. Her trauma reverberates through generations: she feels it again as she contemplates her daughter Helen’s impending marriage. Just as Leda was reduced to a sexual object to satisfy Zeus’s lust, so too is Helen treated like a commodity, traded by Aphrodite in order to sway the judge, Paris, in a contest of beauty. Sariah’s libretto reveals bold parallels between the sexual exploitation of women in Greek myth and the culture of entitlement, objectification, and misogyny that prevails on many college campuses. She notes that her opera would be performed by an all-female cast, “denouncing the social construct of gender.” Further, she wishes to cast the character of Helen as a “siren” without juxtaposing her to a “songbird,” since she “did not want Helen’s actions, behaviors, and music to be compared to the behaviors of the patriarchy’s ideal woman.”
Hannah Van Huss
Paper: “Butterfly’s Suicide: The Gender and Power Dynamics Behind It,” by Hannah Van Huss (second year, major in Biology)
Hannah explores the intersectional dynamics of gender and exoticism in one of Puccini’s best-known operas, Madama Butterfly. She shows that despite Puccini’s good intentions, the composer projected Western cultural values onto the character of Butterfly. Each of his three revisions of the opera increasingly turns her into a “stereotypical Causcasion male vision of a Japanese woman: submissive, delicate, a sexual object.” These revisions, likely made with an eye toward pleasing Western audiences, project a sense of shame onto women who train as geishas or take part in temporary marriages. Hannah points out that Puccini’s misperception of geishas led to the opera’s culturally implausible ending, in which Butterfly, feeling ashamed at the prospect of becoming a geisha again, commits seppuku—itself an extremely rare act for Japanese women. She further describes how the opera uses exotic signifiers to establish hierarchies of power and assimilation among the characters. In the conclusion, Hannah reveals how Japanese productions of Madama Butterfly seek to redress its misrepresentations of Japanese culture by substituting or removing parts of the text and incorporating more culturally appropriate music.
Libretto: The Beggar’s Opera, by Ariel Vogel (second year, major in English)
Ariel takes on female stereotypes in her 1920s adaptation of Pepusch and Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, first performed in 1728. In the original operatic satire, all of the characters are subject to mockery of one sort of another, but as Ariel notes, the female characters are “simplified to the point of dehumanization.” She confronts the challenge of maintaining certain conventions of the genre—broad comedy, often achieved through character “types”—while also creating more opportunities for female characters to assert their agency and to escape the male gaze. As with many operatic comedies, the women in Ariel’s libretto may be seen as conniving and manipulative in one light. But they are also the driving force behind the plot; they express their desires and pursue them, often as their male counterparts struggle to keep up. Ariel pays close attention to musical characterization, using it to constitute a form of gendered performance: Mrs. Peachum, for example, sings sweet, consonant melodies when she plays her role as Mr. Peachum’s wife, but when she schemes behind his back, her music adopts a jazz-tinged dissonance.
Libretto: The Princess and the Frog, by Marina Winkler (Major in biochemistry, minor in environmental science)
Marina undertakes a striking, novel adaptation of a classic fairy tale, exploring gender fluidity in the natural world. In the frog kingdom of Anura, male and female frogs inhabit separate courts in a “bi-providencial” system of governance. Peace and prosperity reign, until one day, there is a radical shortage of males during mating season. When the princess’s Maid hears about the crisis, she uses an ancient potion to transform herself into a male—a move that infuriates the princess, who discovers her love for the Maid at the same time she realizes the two of them can no longer live in the same court. But in a dramatic moment of magical transformation (with a sound scientific basis), the Maid regains her former sex, allowing the her and the Princess to rule together as Anura’s queens. Marina describes her libretto as an attempt to “normalize same-sex and gender-fluid characters” and to show how physical anatomy is just one part of gender and sexual identity. She would want her opera to be performed by singers who identify as female, including trans women, from a variety of ethnicities and nationalities, both to create performing opportunities for marginalized people and to “represent the genetic diversity that is required in a population of any species.”