As a father, how would you answer your child’s question? He knows that in the US daddies have one wife. Would you explain that Japanese wives were treated differently at the time, and why? Has this treatment changed? Are women in operas treated differently from those in real life?
The opera, Madame Butterfly, is set by Puccini in Japan at the beginning of the 20th century. It begins with the meeting of an American Navy Lieutenant, Pinkerton, and a young Japanese woman, Cio-Cio-San. They fall in love and marry, with her family in attendance at a ceremonious wedding with luscious music. Pinkerton then leaves for the US, and Cio-Cio-San, who stays in Japan, gives birth to their child. Three years later, Pinkerton, who has not been in contact with Cio-Cio-San and does not know his child, returns with an American wife.
How would you explain to your 12-year-old daughter the cruel expulsion from France of the young woman, Manon Lescaut? What affect might such a gender biased story have, even after 150 years, on the self-esteem of a girl sitting in the audience — when no action is taken against the sexist male authority? Would you explain that the disparity in laws and police actions are outdated, or are they?
Awareness is needed. A demeaning and discriminatory environment in the opera house is created toward women and girls when this and similar operas are presented as though they reflect acceptable values for today. Particularly for young audiences, female and male, explanation in the program notes and in visual introductory statements preceding the surtitles, can clarify early operas’ dated, gender biased content. Authority figures and management can be instrumental in improving the negative environment for children (and women attendees) by addressing this issue in current productions worldwide.
Massenet composed this opera from a 1731 novel by Abbe Prevost. In Act I, Manon Lescaut is a naive 17-year-old girl who has just left the convent. En route to Paris with her brother, her protector, they meet a man in their hotel. The brother makes a shady deal with the man that alters Manon’s life and well-being. To avoid poverty, Manon resorts to one of the few options open to unmarried women then, and becomes the mistress of Geronte, a rich, elderly man.
Discovering Manon in a secret relationship with a young man, Geronte calls the police and has her thrown into prison for prostitution, despite his equally unmarried state. Due to the legal double-standard, only she is jailed for illegal acts and shipped as a criminal emigrant to America, while Geronte lives on freely.
Over a pizza after the opera, what might two friends say to each other about attitudes toward women in general and the extreme action displayed here in this art form? What about 19th versus 21st century societal mores regarding men and women? Are there any similarities in treatment of the sexes in 1731 and today?
Massenet drew his story from a 160-year-old novel by Abbe Prevost at the time he was composing, making the content even more outdated than our present society. Manon Lescaut is a naive 17-year-old who has just left the convent for Paris under her brother’s protection. The brother makes a financial deal with a rich old man, Geronte, for favors from his sister. Manon, compromised, has little other option to avoid living in poverty, so becomes the mistress of Geronte. Manon and a young man of modest means, Des Grieux, fall in love, but Geronte discovers them in their relationship. He accuses her of prostitution and, under the double standards of society, she is thrown into prison. She is shipped as a criminal emigrant to America, while Geronte remains respectable by French society’s morals.
In Act IV, Manon becomes ill and dies in the desolate wastes of America, despite the presence of Des Grieux, who lovingly accompanied her on her ship voyage.
Adult operagoers are familiar with the “droit du seigneur” (the right of the lord), which gave men of the privileged class the right to go to bed with their women servants on their wedding night. But how could this be explained to your child or grandchild if either were accompanying you to Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro? Would you hope that the scene was so subtly staged that it would elude a young audience? What about other plot lines and arias that are degrading to women? Would you ignore the goings-on and simply focus on the humor of the opera and the beauty and originality of the music?
The opera is a farce that takes place in 18th century Europe in a class-based society. Act I shows the wedding of Susanna and Figaro, servants to Count Almaviva. Charmed by Susanna, the Count tries to exercise his “droit du seigneur” despite, ironically, his own marriage to the Countess. Susanna tries to escape the clutches of the Count without offending him.
Although Mozart’s librettist (the writer), Da Ponte, retained from the original play demeaning references to women and added an angry aria against unfaithful wives, the opera was a huge success when it opened in 1786 and remains among the top 10 operas performed worldwide.
Awareness of destructive gender bias can lay the groundwork for changes in societal attitudes toward women worldwide. Instructive discussion in opera program notes, and inclusion of introductory surtitles providing reminder of the opera’s dated context and societal values, can facilitate awareness of unintentional, intentional, and ignored gender bias.
If you were taking your adolescent daughter to the see Tosca, how would you explain why Tosca is on her knees, groveling? What is going on? Why do operas depict women in such demeaning portrayals? The daughter’s question even suggests that the woman is at fault, a common interpretation of male-female interaction. Could the director have staged the scene differently to make Tosca look less like a victim yet convey the treacherousness of Scarpia?
The opera is a drama involving Tosca, a religious, romantic diva; Scarpia, a sex-crazed police chief; and Cavaradossi, a politically active artist and Tosca’s sweetheart. While it tells a tawdry story, Tosca is a very popular opera in standard repertory.
By Act II, Scarpia has gained control over both Tosca and Cavaradossi. The police chief sends Cavaradossi to a room to be tortured for withholding political information, while violently abusing Tosca. Tosca fights off Scarpia’s advances while praying to God in a heart-rending aria about her life dedicated to art and love, “Visse d’arte.” As Scarpa becomes more insistent, Tosca attempts to save Cavaradossi and herself, grabbing a knife from Scarpia’s dinner tray and stabbing her sexual predator.
The audience in the Sydney Opera House, including foreign visitors, is likely to be familiar with the story of Puccini’s Tosca. Traditionally, the opera ends with Tosca taking her own life by throwing herself from a battlement. But in 2015, the director of the opera in Sydney, Australia, opted to rob Tosca of her act of self-determination, directing that she be shot by a firing squad instead of leaping from a parapet. Do you agree with the foreign visitors to Australia that the manner in which Tosca dies matters? Is it significant that Tosca’s life is being taken from her versus her taking her own life? May there be gender bias in the director’s decision, i.e., a woman in an opera determining her own end?
The opera is a highly-charged drama involving a love triangle, politics, and three main characters: Tosca, a religious and romantic diva; Scarpia, a sex-crazed police chief; and Cavaradossi, a politically committed artist who is Tosca’s lover. Despite a tawdry story, the opera epitomizes opera in the public imagination, and is part of the standard operatic repertoire.
In the final act, Scarpia sends Cavaradossi to be tortured and killed. He then tries to rape Tosca. Attempting to save both herself and her lover, Tosca grabs a knife and kills Scarpia. When Tosca finds that Cavaradossi has been executed and that she must face the authorities once Scarpia’s stabbing is discovered, she leaps from a battlement and kills herself before she can be apprehended.