Why do women always die at the Opera?
The Sydney Opera House is one of the most iconic buildings in the world: its architectural vision and the methods required to build it were cutting edge; and the sails floating over the harbour inspire wonder whether seen for the first or the thousandth time. But the opera shown there isn’t as progressive as the building. The stories inspire wonder for the wrong reasons.
I moved back to Sydney with my wife in 2015. We were keen to go to the Opera House regularly: initially for plays, contemporary dance and music. Then we decided we’d go to the opera as well. I’d always heard that the opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings, but the truth is different and distressing. Usually, it’s not over until a woman dies.
In 2015 we went to Madama Butterfly. I’d heard the name, but knew nothing more. I became incensed as the plot played out before my eyes. An American man arrives in Japan and decides he wants a ‘wife’, but only for the time he’s there. He chooses a young geisha who throws her all into their relationship and the false promise of a future life in the USA. After getting her pregnant, the man goes back to America, but Butterfly holds onto the hope he’ll return. After three years he does, with a new wife, saying they want to adopt the baby. Butterfly is devastated and commits hara-kiri (suicide). That’s the grand finale, then everyone stands up and yells ‘Bravo!’
When the director, Moffatt Oxenbould, was interviewed about the themes of the production, he focussed on the set and then on the male character’s grief. He excuses the character from treating women and children like possessions and causing others pain.
Perturbed but not defeated, in 2016 we went to Carmen. I’d learnt the music on piano as a boy, but didn’t know the story. At the beginning, it was great to see a vivacious women live her life as and with who she wanted. However, I was horrified at how the story continued. Carmen’s ex-partner stalks and then stabs her to death when she leaves him. Then everyone stands up and yells ‘Bravo!’ I don’t remember any warning that this was about to occur, there definitely weren’t people at the entry and exit talking about men’s violence against women. Yet one in three Australian women have experienced sexual and/or physical violence perpetrated by someone known to them; and one in five women over 18 have been stalked. None of this was mentioned, it was just another night at the opera.
John Bell, who staged the performance, said that his inspiration was “what leads you to love the one person who is going to destroy you?” I have huge respect for John Bell’s career, but found this comment out of line. These words seem to suggest that women in abusive relationships have ‘chosen’ what happens to them. This is victim blaming and removes responsibility from where it lies: with the man who chooses violence when he can’t get what he wants.
We knew people in the 2017 performance of Tosca, so we attended the production with trepidation. As the story goes, Tosca’s lover is captured by a dictator. The dictator tells Tosca that unless she sleeps with him, the dictator will order the death of her lover; she is forced to submit due to the threat of violence. However, when the dictator begins to assault her, she assassinates him. Tosca stands up in defence of freedom and liberty, and against authoritarianism and corruption. In the grand finale, she’s killed with a machine gun. Then everyone stands up and yells ‘Bravo!
Again, John Bell was director. He described the plot as, “a tyrannical regime, resistance fighters hunted down, women forced to give sexual favours in order to protect a loved one — these things are still happening, and always have been, during war”. In fact, men force women to do things against their will through violence and threats every night and day.
Violence at the opera
We were slightly traumatised by this time. Butterfly, Carmen and Tosca all died fighting against the same issues of our society today. Yet in another cruel irony, their struggles were abstracted by the men staging these productions, who portrayed each of them as having fatal flaws, rather than blaming the men who cause their deaths. And the music and voices soar, to make it all seem okay – reviewers seem to say it’s only the music we’re really there for.
I get that these stories happened in a different place at a different time. I definitely get that they were also all written by men. However, the argument is that we study great works of art like Shakespeare because their themes still have relevance today. Yet opera runs away from the most direct connection with today’s world in each: men’s violence against women. Opera doesn’t own up, contextualise or really explore the theme, it celebrates violence. Killing the woman onstage and then the audience gives a standing ovation. I mean honestly… what is going on?
Why can’t opera showcase stories where the women live? If these stories can’t be found, why don’t we write some? Or deconstruct the stories by inverting the gender roles or the endings? Why is it always women that have to die at the opera and how can this be seen as acceptable?
The opera bubble
Opera seems to exist in its own bubble, disconnected from the world around it. Globally, we’ve been having a massive discussion about men’s violence against women and gender equality for decades. Two Australians of the Year in the last five years have campaigned on this issue. Surely influential people within the opera community have heard what’s going on around the country. We don’t need these tragedies played out in seasons onstage. These stories are lived out nightly in homes, on streets and on TV screens during the news. And in real life, there are actually empowered women and survivors.
To be relevant today, opera needs to provide the context of what has happened in the past and how those attitudes are no longer acceptable, or it needs to change the story.
The Opera House has just started seasons of Rigoletto and Aida this week. We’ve learnt our lesson and have read the synopses first. Each time, another woman dies to end the performance. Rigoletto has the most disempowered female role in opera that female opera singers hate to play. More stories telling women that they must suffer in this world based on the power and violence of men. We don’t need to hear the bravos, we’ll stay at home instead.
Author Jeremy Tarbox is a White Ribbon Ambassador.
Views expressed in this article are that of the author and don’t necessarily represent the views of White Ribbon Australia.