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.
As a party to CEDAW, Australia is obliged to promote and protect women’s rights, including equality before the law, freedom from discrimination, political participation, health, education and employment.
The UN CEDAW Committee keeps watch on the implementation of such instruments by conducting periodic reviews of the performance of countries against the standards they prescribe. Countries are obliged to report every four years.
Recently, on the 2nd and 3rd of July 2018, Australia’s record on women’s rights was reviewed by the CEDAW Committee. Domestic and international performances were examined, with the former including action on domestic violence.
The Committee drew attention to the following matters:
– The absence of a bill of rights at the federal level or other mechanism to integrate the protections provided by CEDAW and other instruments.
– The level of resources provided to the Office for Women (which has only 30 staff – fewer than White Ribbon).
– The need for targeted and gendered services to be provided for female victims of domestic violence, much more than they are.
– The need for federal legislation addressing domestic violence. The Committee remarked that this may be the only way to overcome problems with gathering consistent data and implementing policy in the federal context. It was suggested that the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) might address this.
– Serious concern about the influence of false claims by so-called men’s rights activists on government policies and practice.
– The family law regime not presently meeting the contemporary needs of families and effectively addressing family violence and child abuse.
The Committee also raised concerns over women’s health, economic security and homelessness in Australia.
Under health it noted that while abortion is covered under Medicare and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, it is still criminalized in NSW and QLD.
Under homelessness it is well established that domestic and family violence is the principal cause of homelessness for women and children. The Committee questioned the lack of affordable housing in Australia, particularly its access to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, older women, single mothers and women leaving violence. White Ribbon works to reduce violence and thereby address the problem of homelessness.
The CEDAW Committee review provides a timely reminder to Australia that all is not as well as it should be in relation to women’s rights in a country like ours. NGOs, such as White Ribbon, have a role to play in pressing government for improved compliance and in shouldering some of the burden themselves – in White Ribbon’s case, by working to end men’s violence against women. Success in this endeavour reduces the consequences and the harms resulting from the matters particularly noted by the UN Committee.
I’m guessing you don’t need me to tell you what happened to Eurydice Dixon. The whole nation seems to be in a state of shock, and rightfully so.
Everybody has their own way of understanding, coping with, and responding to tragedy, and that’s OK. However, of all the responses we’ve seen in recent days, only one can actually prevent future tragedies like this from occurring. That is, for us – the everyday men of Australia – to stand up, speak out and act to prevent men’s violence against women.
Don’t agree? Well, let me ask you a few questions:
When was the last time you felt afraid, powerless or unsafe?
In the street? At work? At home? Anywhere?
This week? This month? This year? Ever?
Believe me, if it has ever happened to you, you’d know.
Imagine if you were made to feel afraid, powerless or unsafe regularly enough that you planned for it, just in case. For example, by carrying your keys in one hand and phone in the other as you walk home, uncertain of who you might encounter. Sound familiar?
Violence occurs when someone is hurt or made to feel afraid, powerless or unsafe. It can be physical, emotional or psychological. Anyone can experience it and it happens across communities, ages, cultures and sexes.
No one is immune and it’s more likely to happen at home than in public.
While it’s true that most men are not violent, abusive or disrespectful, we have all seen and will know those who are. To stop violence against women, well-meaning men must do more than merely avoid perpetrating violence themselves.
If we do nothing, nothing will change.
We must pursue equitable and respectful relationships. We must challenge the violence of other men. We must demonstrate that being ‘a man’ means being someone who lives by the values of respect, inclusion and equality. Should we fail or refuse to do this, we will not be perpetrators but perpetuators who chose to let violence continue.
Changing attitudes and behaviour will take time but if we succeed it will be time well spent, and lives saved.
So, what small act can you do, starting right now, to make a difference? To begin with, do what most of us have done all our life: love, respect and protect women. If you can do that, then try to do the following:
Of the facts. Know the facts about violence against women.
Of yourself. Have the confidence to explore your own actions, beliefs, and opinions, confront your faults and make a plan to improve.
Of victim-blaming. Learn what it is and how to recognise it. Tell others.
When it matters. Call out bad behaviour and safely challenge others who overstep the line.
Talk with women and girls…
About their experiences. Be willing to listen and learn.
About your own behaviour. You may not see the impact that your words and deeds are having.
Talk with men and boys…
About the problem. Learn how the issue touches their lives.
About how to respond. Empower them to call it out.
Early, and often. Mentor and teach one another about how to be men in ways that don’t involve degrading or abusing girls and women.
If you question what impact any of the above actions can have, give one of them a try today and see for yourself. I did, and the response indicated that I still have work to do. When it comes to tackling such a big problem, we all have work to do.
Everybody has their own way of understanding, coping with, and responding to tragedy. But you have a choice. You can remain in the silent majority of men who disapprove of violence but do little to prevent it. Or, you can stand up, speak out and act to help all Australians live a better life.
White Ribbon Australia acknowledges the traditional owners of country throughout Australia and recognise their continuing connection to land, waters and culture. We acknowledge the traditional custodians of the country on which we work, the Cammeraygal people of the Eora nation. We pay our respects to their Elders past, present and emerging.
White Ribbon Australia recognises that the movement to prevent men’s violence against women is built on the tireless efforts of women and women-led organisations throughout history, internationally and in Australia.