Women in Opera – misogynism?

A very interesting program caught my attention on BBC 3 today. It asks why opera seems to depend almost entirely on the suffering of dying women.

I was interested because when going to the Traviata earlier this year I was SO irritated by the (in my mind) misogynism (as well as the ridiculous plotline), that it stopped me from just being able to enjoy the music…

For those interested, the program is on again on the 26th of June.

(And I apologise to those outside the UK who can’t access this program!)



10 thoughts on “Women in Opera – misogynism?

  1. Actually, Catherine Clement (also author of Fem theory book, The Weary Sons of Freud) wrote a book on exactly this subject, titled Opera:The Undoing of Women. Carolyn Abbate has an article that sort of refutes Clement, titled Something like “The Envoicing of Women”. The Clement is very accessible to non-musicians. Somewhat more music-theory heavy is Susan McClary’s reading of Western tonal music generally (including opera, specifically Bizet’s Carmen), titled Feminine Endings.

    But yeah, I tend to agree w/ Clement & McClary that operas-and tonal music generally-turns on the courting and then elimination of feminized (and racially exotic) elements (characters, chords, etc.).

    I am SO happy to see feminist phil of music discussed on this blog!


  2. Although it may be worth thinking about the possibility that the punishment of “bad girls” in opera is an historically limited phenomenon, occurring most conspicuously in the 19th century. In Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea, Poppea, a very bad girl indeed, ends up becoming a goddess, and gets to sing a love duet of surpassing loveliness with none other than Nero.

  3. Somebody said that the basic plot of all operas is: “The tenor wants to marry the soprano, but the baritone won’t let them.”

  4. I’m wondering if any of you UK opera buffs have seen the new opera about Anna Nicole Smith. My feminist instincts say “yuck” but I could be wrong. Would enjoy reading commentary, if anyone has any, or could give me a relevant link.

  5. @Margaret: That’s a really interesting observation. I think your observation is likely correct, but it may have more to do with tonality (i.e., the harmonic structure of the opera) and the way certain harmonic devices/musical practices are gendered rather than with the gender of specific characters. (McClary actually also has a book on gender, tonality, and Monteverdi.) So, tonality isn’t codified until the mid 18th c. Monteverdi is one of the composers whose work lays some of the groundwork that will later be taken up in said codification. So, in the time period you’re thinking of, girls both good and bad get a little more leeway b/c there are no real gendered conventions yet, mainly b/c there are few if any conventions of any sort, at least regarding tonality. The 17th c is the wild west of tonality, so to speak.

    That said, the elimination of girls both good and bad is as old as Western art. Adorno & Horkheimer’s analysis of the Odyssey (in Dialectic of Enlightenment) argues that Odysseus has to withstand the threats & enticements posed by foreigners & monsters (who, after all, are for the most part women). In order for the narrative structure of the Odyssey to hold, the feminized/foreign elements must be expunged.

  6. Jean K – I quickly googled “Anna Nicole Smith Opera” and got quite a bit with – judging just by the lines one sees in the first stage of a google search – a mixed message. It seemed a lot of the Brit sites were saying it was a very mixed thing while the US sites were saying it was getting rave reviews in England. That was just the most superficial and perhaps carelessly gotten impression.

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