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Posted by on May 11, 2011 in Articles | 8 comments

Offended by Opera

(Republished by permission of the author via

by Gail Jarvis

I was recently reminded of the 1949 film, “Everybody Does It,” a comedy about a husband who tries to thwart his not-so-talented wife’s ambition to become an opera singer. In the opening scene, the husband, apparently dragged to the opera by his wife, sleeps through the entire performance. It occurred to me that today this husband would not sleep through a performance of Mozart’s “Idomeneo” but would remain wide-awake from fear that the opera house might be attacked by Islamic terrorists angered by what they consider an affront to Mohammed — one scene depicts the severed heads of Poseidon, Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed.

The director of the Berlin Deutsche Oper recently cancelled a performance of the Mozart opera after someone suggested that followers of Mohammed might be offended although there had been not been any objection to the performance. This over-reaction to a potential insult to the sensitivities of an aggrieved group has become a fairly common occurrence.

But very few people would have a problem with Mozart’s “Idomeneo” because they realize composers should be allowed artistic expression, even if it is controversial. In fact, a Berlin Jew jokingly claimed to be offended that the severed head of Moses was not included along with the other religious leaders. Also, to my knowledge, there have been no complaints made against Richard Strauss’s “Salome” in which the head of John the Baptist is displayed on a platter. Indeed, for centuries, opera composers have utilized sensational, and often tragic, scenarios to enhance their musical dramas.

However, the portrayal of women in opera’s standard repertoire is now under attack by radical feminists. This group’s disapproval of opera was formally expressed in a 1979 book by French feminist, Catherine Clement: “Opera: The Undoing of Women.” She views opera as characterized by female oppression and male domination. Opera’s heroines are victims; usually powerless in the grip of their own emotions; ruining their lives for the love of a man. These women are helplessly tossed about by the vagaries of their circumstances and their lives often end tragically.

It is true that most women in opera do not lead happy lives and often their lives do indeed end tragically. A brief look at some of the most frequently performed works will bear this out: “Tosca” — its heroine, Floria, leaps to her death from the parapet of a castle after her lover has been executed; “Madama Butterfly” — the fragile little geisha, Cio-Cio-San, commits hara-kiri upon learning that Lieutenant Pinkerton has left her for an American bride; “Tristan und Isolde” — Isolde dies of a broken-heart after Tristan’s death; “Lucia di Lammermoor” — Lucia goes mad and dies when she realizes that a forged letter tricked her into losing her true love; “Aida” — when her love, Radames, is sentenced to be buried alive, Aida conceals herself inside the tomb so that she may die with him, and “Carmen” — when this coquettish gypsy falls for a bullfighter she is murdered by her jealous former lover.

What if Mimi was a feminist?

Two of the most famous opera heroines, Violetta and Mimi, (“La Traviata” and “La Boheme”) waste away slowly from tuberculosis. No sooner has the courtesan Violetta reconciled with her lover after a misunderstanding than she collapses and dies in his arms. Similarly, Mimi dies shortly after she and her love reunite after a quarrel.

These are the kinds of scenarios that Clement attacks in her book. She wants to remove opera’s “ideological bias” against women but she is a little vague as to how this should be accomplished. Her book, which has been translated into English, has attracted a feminist following and is now included in syllabi of many Women’s Studies Programs. One such program includes this language in the course description: “This course will examine the issues explored and debated in recent studies of gender, power, identity, and music from diversified cultures, including western art music, popular musics, and world musics.” We will investigate “how gender ideology, contextualized by sociocultural conditions, both constructs and is constructed by musical aesthetics, performance practice, creative processes, as well as the reception of music.”

We can only try to guess the meaning of that pedantic course description but Clement’s attack on opera is a good fit for Women’s Studies Programs. Opera heroines follow traditional female roles in which femininity is cast as the opposite of masculinity. But, to feminists, such an equation gives too much power to men and Women’s Studies are designed to “empower” women. According to feminists, women can only have power by abandoning traditional female roles.

But feminists are missing the essence of opera; the music, which is more important than the story. Although opera heroines go mad, commit suicide, are murdered or die prematurely from disease, they do so accompanied by some of the world’s greatest music. This music helps showcase the vocal talents of opera’s prima donnas, who are often the stars of the performances, upstaging the male singers. So tragic libretti is necessary to provide these divas with the spectacular arias so appreciated by opera lovers.

Unfortunately, it is the portrayal of women in opera, and not the music, that is being scrutinized in Women’s Studies Programs. And I think we can expect that, in the near future, there will be an attempt by feminists to revise the story lines of certain operas or try to have them banned. This will be consistent with campaigns from other disgruntled groups that we have witnessed over the last few decades that resulted in the revision or banning of other works of art, including novels and films.

But how will feminists change opera’s portrayals of women? Will Carmen abandon her lovers and flirtatious ways to pursue a career as Seville’s first female bullfighter? Will Cio-Cio-San tire of her closeted life and leave her comfortable situation with Lieutenant Pinkerton in order to enter the officer candidate school of the Imperial Japanese Navy? Will Violetta flee her dissipated Paris lifestyle for a cure at a mountaintop tuberculosis sanitarium, afterwards becoming an Inspector-General with the French Ministry of Health?

Changes like these might please feminists but a night at the opera will never be the same.


Gail Jarvis is a free-lance writer.

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  1. She seems not to realize that there are also operas in which the man dies while the woman survives (Werther), the woman holds all the power in the relationship (Turandot), the woman saves the man (Fidelio), a friend sacrifices himself so that the hero and heroine can be together (The Pearlfishers), two women work together to prove that a man is a fool (Die fledermaus), and the love a woman and a man have for each other influences the very gods (Idomeneo).

  2. A book written in the 1970′s — the era of second-wave feminism which is very different from the third-wave feminist movement of today — is hardly the best way to say that “feminists” as a large, scary, looming entity are going to bring opera down. I know several singers, myself included, who both consider themselves to be feminist and who are passionate about the art form — and don’t want to destroy its plots and message. It’s reductionist to say that ALL feminists fit into this one standard, and it does a disservice to the movement as well as women as a whole.

    I think that the point needs to be made more clearly that the reason that opera is effective is NOT just that the sopranos are given the best music, thereby getting to be divas over the men — this is not a gender competition. The point is that the music is written to be transcendent; the soprano gets to be the diva BECAUSE she is a tragic character, because her situation is so thoroughly awful that the music brings us to the conclusion that her situation is not to be longed after, not to be admired but to be completely rejected as a situation we never wish to have happen in society again. Casting the woman as the true tragedy of a story through music IS a form of feminism; it says that no, it is not okay to have someone suffer this way at the hands of anyone. When the man is secondary and guilty it has a feminist purpose, saying that the men who cause the suffering are lesser people for their lack of humanity. To imply that ANYTHING about opera has to do with “well women get all the good arias” is ignorant and completely misses the point.

  3. I’m sorry, Operagasm, this article is full of logical fallacies and I am disappointed in its appearance on your website.

    Leaping to a causal conclusion is always easier and faster than actually investigating the phenomenon and this article does just that. There are both good and bad reasons why opera plots lean towards the patriarchy. I sincerely doubt that feminists are going to change the portrayals of women in operas that have been performed the world over for many years.

    The author asks, “How will feminists change opera’s portrayals of women?”

    Hmmm… maybe they will support women composers – because that would certainly be a feminist thing to do.
    Perhaps they will pick plots that depict women surviving and thriving through life’s darkest moments.
    They might even debate the gender identity in Women’s Studies classes.
    The possibilities are endless.

    Feminists are not missing the “essence of opera” anymore than the author of this article is missing the “essence of patronizing rhetoric.”


  4. Thanks for your comments! Keep in mind that just because we post an article on Operagasm doesn’t mean it represents our opinion! This is meant to spark a conversation, show you what’s out there, help us discover more about our audience…even if it isn’t necessarily something we WANT to see in our audience.

    Thanks for the comments, they’re always welcome…especially from such well-versed readers!


  5. Obviously nothing artistic should be studied without including consideration for the era and socio-political climate in which that art was created. Otherwise it doesn’t make sense. Feminists should have issues with art that tells the stories of the operas you mentioned if they were being created nowadays. The fact that most of these librettos were written outside of this century though, makes the content of them a virtual non-issue to be considered able to be banned nowadays. So, again, it is critical to understand that the content and purpose of the libretto was to be understood in the time of its creation- not nowadays. Today, like you point out, we should be appreciating these works as pieces of other eras which just happen to be entertaining both musically and dramatically.

  6. As with the above commenters, I find it exceptionally frustrating when someone who obviously has close to no understanding about feminism draws wild conclusions about how feminism will be the downfall of XYZ because one person who identified as feminist wrote something about XYZ and how it’s anti-feminist. There’s a LOT of debate in the feminist community about a range of issues affecting women including high-heels, pornography, rape prevention, domestic violence programs etc. Opera plots are really, really low down on that list, and it’s definitely not one of the core focusses of the movement. To claim that feminists would protest and seek to ban opera (now randomly 40 years after the book was publishes when the book hasn’t prompted them to do so once in those 40 years) is not only ignorant of feminism but also severely overestimates the importance of opera. I love opera, I work in opera, it’s my life. But honestly, it’s really nowhere near high enough on the agenda to draw our attention.

    Even though I think those opera plots actually sound alright, I’d prefer to see them as modern works. Classics give us an insight into how women were treated and considered at the time they were written… For example Susanna as the count’s property, La Donna E Mobile (sp?), Carmen being murdered, these things allow us to experience some of the truly awful things women have been put through. Their stories are compelling because they’re tragic. If a new work displayed the same paradigms and was set in contemporary society then I would likely feel more uneasy, but to protest art? Wow, way to misunderstand what feminism stands for, particularly third wave.

  7. It seems a wild leap to go from “studying the construction of gender ideology through musical aesthetics” to “ZOMG feminists are stealing my opera!” Perhaps if Mr. Jarvis listened more to actual feminists than the ones in his head he might reach a more moderate conclusion.

  8. Opera has been under much attack since all the great singers left. Lately there is an attempt to tie everything in with sex and vulgar humor, in order to appear to the common folk. Why? This is not what opera was written for. Opera was written for the cultured, educated, person – not the bar crowd. We need to stop trying to cheapen everything. The bar crowd will never appreciate opera anyway. If they wish to, they’ll go to the opera.You know, I”m a professional opera singer, and a progressive woman, but this garbage about women being the victims is beyond lame. Opera is about the heroine, not the hero; and for a woman to sacrifice herself for love and redemption, is not being a victim at all. Now Pamina is a wimp, but Violetta and Mimi? Get a grip! You wish you were so awesome. And Carmen got murdered because she’s a hoe. She used and disposed men for her pleasure. That was just skanky behavior catching up with her. Give me a break. Does anyone read the text? Opera is the place where women rule the world, so what in the heavens are they talking about?


  1. It’s Not Over Until the Soprano Dies | Operagasm - [...] and intense conversation. Here is a brief summary of the book that inspired the article, “Offended by Opera” by …

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