Feminism (or lack thereof) in Opera
Before I started working for the COC at the beginning of the 07/08 season, I knew next to nothing about opera. The most experience I had with the art was through an opera course I did audio/visual assistance for in 4th year. And despite enjoying a lecture or two, I was mostly paying attention to the tracking on the decades old VHS’s the professor had somehow managed to dig up for that week.
But now that I’ve been working for the company since the beginning of the 07/08 season, I’ve made the most of my employment and seen every performance, my favourite being the first I saw, The Marriage of Figaro and the least being the second one I saw, Don Carlos.
But unfortunately, my impression from the 11 operas I’ve seen so far is that the subject matter of the majority of major works seems to be extremely sexist and anti-feminist. At least, until the day I saw Fidelio.
Fidelio, Beethoven’s first and only opera, has the interesting quirk of having a married female disguised as a male as it’s hero and main character, fighting for the freedom of her wrongly imprisoned husband. The character Leonore (who’s male persona is Fidelio) is an anomaly, she is neither described by anybody during the entire opera by her physique and even during the lovely duet at the end of the opera, she is spoken of with respect and equality as opposed to the usual lamentations of womanly softness and frailty.
As a female lead in opera, she is also strange because she is neither the love-struck, marriage focused girl, nor the bawdy (and usually evil/doomed) sex-pot. She is courageous, loyal, hardworking and brave. By posing as Fidelio, she uses her wits and know-how to impress the prison-keeper Rocco both as a valuable employee and a trusted son-in-law, earning the love and trust of his daughter Marzelline, to get closer to her goal of freeing her husband.
While considering the feminist character that is Leonore/Fidelio, I had a hard time reconciling that with the other female in the opera, Marzelline. While Leonore/Fidelio very much isn’t a stereotype, at first glance Marzelline is very easily the love-struck, marriage focused girl, but when looked into closer, things are not as they first appear. Before Fidelio comes along, Marzelline is in flirtation with Jaquino, another employee of her fathers. But when Fidelio arrives, she changes her tune. It’s very subversive that this young girl should reject a reasonably suitable male suitor to fall in love with another, a woman who is posing as a man. This is because it seems that Leonore as Fidelio, as a male imposter, is more of what a man should be, than even a real man. And the fact that Marzelline falls for Fidelio, the more true, devoted and steadfast character, is telling of her being slightly more than just a love-struck girl.
While there are only two female characters in the opera, they play off each other well, and at the end of the opera, when Leonore is called a hero and rewarded for her bravery, Marzelline is shocked and understandably upset. But the story doesn’t insult her by immediately pairing her off with her former suitor Jaquino, instead the story ends with her still in shock, to at least respect the gravity of what has happened.
The care, sensitivity and depth to which both females are given in this opera struck me as out of place, and it pleased me. Now if only there would be more operas of this kind coming to the COC in the next little while, but this is unlikely.
The other performance this winter, Rusalka, is about a woman who falls for a man purely based on appearance and then LOSES HER VOICE and pretty much all her power and independence at the same time. Upcoming in the spring is La Boheme, which while a romantic classic, is really about a woman punished for her sexuality (by her own partner) who ultimately dies. Then we have A Midsummers Night Dream, one of Shakespeares most humourous plays which unfortunately stereotypes women in quite an offensive fashion. And while next year brings us more romantic and gorgeous classics, Carmen and Madame Butterfly, they are both extremely negative in their image of women, their stories focusing on women losing their power due to their relations with men, and then their lives.
Hopefully I can hold out until Maria Stuarda comes in spring of 2010, because if a power-play between two of the United Kingdom’s most power-playing queens doesn’t highlight strong female roles, I don’t know what will!