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Rethinking Opera from a Feminist Perspective - William Osborne

E-Mail by William Osborne, September 27, 2006:

The problems with opera are too numerous to count.  It is, of course, a good idea to try to find lost works of opera by women composers.   At the same time, it is impossible to overlook that oppression kept the vast majority of interested women from writing opera in the first place.  It’s is a little like looking for great novels written by African-American slaves.  It would be an extreme understatement to say that there are conditions of life not conducive to the creation of art.  The evil of human brutality knows almost no end.

The portrayal of women in opera is thus created from an almost exclusively masculinist perspective.  And it is unquestionably a demeaning portrayal.  Women characters in opera tend to be abused and fallen, or simpletons who make their living by embroidering, or heroines sacrificing themselves for the well being of a heroic man.  Their identity is often determined by a degrading relationship to men who are portrayed as superior and in command.

How can we be surprised that a list of the top 100 opera composers might be all male, in a genre so misogynistic that men chopped their nuts off so they could sing the soprano parts?  And as Paul Wehage’s noble efforts on Wiki illustrate, the psychological illnesses that shape hatred for women are alive and well.  The discussion the men are having over there about the list is far more valuable and interesting than the list itself.

It would seem that from any self-respecting woman’s perspective, an entirely new kind of music theater needs to be created.  (For the very few who might be interested, I have written more about this in the program notes for my music theater work “Street Scene for the Last Mad Soprano” at:


The examples of misogyny in opera are so extensive it is impossible to detail all of them, but this summer I saw “Salome” in Santa Fe .  The work is strange, not because of the supposed perversion, which is actually rather staid and Victorian, but because it has so many odd idiosyncrasies.  There is almost no character portrayal at all.  Even by the standards of opera, there are no real humans, just one-dimensional quasi-Biblical figures.  Theatrically speaking, we don’t see too much more than caricatures in Roman costumes chromatically bellowing over the Alpine Symphony. 

Perhaps the lack of theatrical depth evolved because Strauss focused too strongly on a calculated, psuedo-scandalous effect. Oscar Wilde, whose play forms the basis of the libretto, had very good reasons for studying what he referred to as “poison,” his term for unaccepted forms of erotic temptation in Victorian England.  He even went to prison for it.  Strauss simply did not have such sincere motivations.  The Germans, to their credit, have never been particularly puritanical, and even during Strauss’s life, most didn’t really give a damn about what consenting adults did in their own privacy.  Without Wilde’s “poison,” Salome is empty, an operatic gesture in the worst sense of the word.  There is indeed a kind of sado-anal necrophilia in the darker regions of German culture, and it was very much alive in Strauss’s time, but Salome doesn’t capture it.  The work was, and is, a superficially calculated gesture that could only exist in the utterly stodgy world of opera.

I also wonder if it isn’t time we begin to think of at least some classical music as actually a form of ethnic music. Why do we think of the Germanic character of classical music as some sort of neutral norm?  The score for Salome is so utterly Austro-Bavarian that the piece could only be plausible if she were wearing a Dirndl, though I suspect a clever director like Sellers could figure out some nifty way of not having Herod in Lederhosen.  Especially in the climatic (sic) sections, I had no sense of sexuality, but rather programmatic Alpine tableaus: glaciers, raging streams, a stag in a meadow, timber houses with geranium flower boxes, et al.  At one point, even an embarrassed Till seems to stumble onto the wrong set.  Even allowing for theatrical conventions, Strauss’s Salome is far, far too beery for either ancient Israel or conflicts with British Puritanism. 

The poor direction in Santa Fe only served to stress the ridiculousness of Salome and opera in general.  In his review in the San Francisco Chronicle [“Santa Fe Opera loyal to vision that’s lasted 5 decades” (Aug. 7, 2006)], Joshua Kosman described Santa Fe ‘s “Dance of the Seven Veils” as the “dreariest in recent memory.”

I couldn’t agree more.  Forms of transgressive sexuality can be very interesting, and authors such as Artaud gave them a valuable tradition in theater.  But how could Strauss’s ridiculously calculated spectacle be anything but dreary?  And why would any self-respecting woman want to portray such a silly, one-dimensional role?  Opera being opera, Salome is almost bound to sound and look like she is 16 going on 38.  In many productions of Salome, it is difficult to determine which is more matronly, the singer’s voice or her solidly endowed middle-aged body.  And this is by no means a one-sided standard exacted only upon women.  The pudgy, pasty-white Roman soldiers — who looked like they had seen neither exercise nor sunshine for at least fifteen years — seemed like something out of a small church’s Easter Pageant in Amarillo , Texas .  

The saving grace was that the velcro problems in the veils scene were hilarious.  Things just didn’t want to come off.  Herod literally had a small tug-of-war to get one veil off.  When it suddenly popped loose, Salome almost fell over backwards. 

After the last veil we saw a brief flash of a rather broad behind in a body sock.  Poor thing.  I don’t mean to be mean-spirited.  It’s just that sooner or later we might consider music theater that works theatrically.  To belt something out over a hundred piece orchestra you generally need some meat on your bones.  So why don’t we create opera for the beauty, strength, and dignity of those kind of women (and men.)  At least to my eyes, the singer who performed Salome in Santa Fe could be very alluring if she had the right role and direction.  Enough with psuedo-skinny bimbos and seamstresses with tuberculosis.

Anyway, I know these words will infuriate some, but if we are going to create a new kind of music theater that truly portrays the dignity of women, we are going to have to start almost from scratch.

William Osborne