February 26, 2013


 In the real world, the average life expectancy of a woman is significantly greater than that of a man.  In the world of opera, by contrast, the average life expectancy of a lead female character is, to put it mildly, less than modest.  If she does not succumb to a fashionable disease in the prime of her life (La Traviata, La Boheme), she can look forward to being stabbed, strangled, or poisoned by a jealous lover (Carmen, Wozzeck), husband (Otello, Il Tabarro, I Pagliacci, Violanta), brother (La forza del destino), or rival (Rigoletto, Adriana Lecouvreur).  On those rare occasions when the plot does not provide any of the already listed sources of early death, the soprano is expected to do the dark deed herself (La Gioconda, Madama Butterfly) or at least die of a broken heart brought about by sexual exploitation and emotional abuse in the hands of various men in her life (Manon Lescaut, Der Ferne Klang, Die Gezeichneten).  Even in operas with nominally optimistic endings the soprano may still meet with premature (and violent) death, if only as part of some lurid fantasy in the mind of the male protagonist (Die tote Stadt).

Of course, not every opera allows its male protagonist to survive past the final curtain.  Occasionally the tenor also gets his ticket punched.  When this happens, however, some immutable law of the operatic world guarantees that the soprano will either join the tenor in departing the ranks of the living (Norma, Aida, Andrea Chenier) or follow him to the afterlife before the curtain falls (Tosca, Götterdämmerung).[1]
Having once gone for a long swim in the turbulent waters of the standard operatic repertoire, I eventually returned to the dry land of common sense with some nagging questions. Would the end of a romantic relationship in the world of opera be any less worthy of great music if it were due to the premature death of a man? Would there be anything wrong, dramatically or musically, if a healthy Violetta were to lose her Alfredo to, say, testicular cancer?  (I'm sure that Alfredo's final aria - To die so young, with balls the size of melons! - would be hated by janitors in opera theaters all over the world for adding thousands of tear-soaked tissues to their post-performance cleaning chores.)  Or if the always hungry Rodolfo were to choke to death on a piece of stale baguette in his unheated Parisian garret?  (His final words to Mimi - My lungs are empty, but my heart is full of love... - laboriously wheezed in an ascending melodic line, could become one of those "death scenes" which send every man, woman, and child in the audience sobbing into the night.)
      In short, why does the operatic Grim Reaper favor women over men by such a wide margin?

The only plausible answer to emerge before I finished my second bourbon (which is all the time I can invest in questions of this sort) was so cliché that I thought it might as well have come from a stern-looking woman sporting a crew cut, Doc Martens boots, a Ph.D. in Gender Studies, and the perpetual squint of resentment directed at every man in sight.  Here it is:
      Being a creation of the male mind, the operatic world takes it as axiomatic that the premature death of a man, not motivated by evil deeds and not accompanied by the death of his woman, is too tragic, too verismo.  Its cosmic-sized unfairness would collapse the walls of the opera theater and merge the proceedings on the stage with the ugly brutality of the real world, the world in which men often do die young (wars, duels, hunting tigers in Burma) while their women move on with their lives and eventually find happiness with someone else.  No man involved in the creation of an opera in the standard repertoire - from the author of some weepy 19th century novel, to the literary hack who recycled the novel into a libretto, to the composer who set the recycled literary trash to music - could imagine how such unspeakable evil could possibly serve the aims and needs of entertainment, which is what every opera ultimately aspires to be.[2]  Hence the endless procession of consumptive courtesans, unhappy wives, obedient daughters, and idealistic virgins, all sent to their untimely deaths by composers and librettists with the seemingly unshakeable conviction that women, although desirable as amusing social ornaments in men's lives, are at best of marginal importance to the world at large.[3]

If these quasi-feminist musings are close to truth, there seems to be something faintly hypocritical about today's opera audiences which, season after season, enthusiastically applaud what must be the only blatant expressions of male chauvinism remaining in the arts and entertainment.  Outside the walls of the opera theater, these sophisticated, urbane, and well-educated opera lovers would no doubt object to films, television programs, or novels which systematically and gratuitously mistreat characters of specific gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.  Inside the opera theater, however, their yearning for social justice dissipates before the overture is over, and they are ready to cheer the sumptuously scored and vividly staged destruction of yet another female character whose predictably short lifespan would be chalked up, if pressed, to the "historical contingencies of the genre".
Perhaps this is a legitimate excuse.  But then again, maybe not.  At a time when historical photographs are airbrushed to remove undesirable evidence of smoking (1), and classic works of literature are mutilated to remove undesirable words (2, 3), appeals to historical contingencies in defense of opera sound frivolously selective and, therefore, not at all convincing.

I'm sure there is more to be said on this subject, but I'm itching to get back to my music room to finish listening to an old recording of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor with Renata Scotto and Giuseppe di Stefano.  I was told that Scotto's interpretation of the "mad scene" preceding Lucia's death is simply awesome... 
1.  In Der Ring des Nibelungen Wagner showed unusual generosity toward Sieglinde by allowing her to live for about nine months after the death of Siegmund.  

2.  The lone exception, at least among operas performed with any kind of regularity, is Massenet's Werther, in which the only death is that of a young and decent, if clearly unbalanced, man.  Incidentally, when initially submitted to Paris' Opéra-Comique, this opera was rejected on the grounds that it involves "too serious a scenario".  And that's at the time (1887) when opera stages across the world had already been littered with female corpses - one of them supplied by Massenet himself in Manon, which premiered at the very same Opéra-Comique three years earlier.  If ever there was an exception proving the rule, this must be it.

3.  In the original version of Verdi's La forza del destino, Alvaro kills himself at the end of the opera, overwhelmed by guilt about having caused the death of his beloved Leonore and her brother Carlo.  A few years after the opera's premiere, however, it seems that Verdi himself began to feel guilty about his unkind treatment of the opera's leading man - so much so that he had revised the opera to make it end with Alvaro praying over the dying Leonore.  Talk about the brotherhood of men...


john schott said...

Even as they are dying, the great soprano role's VOICES are triumphant, and in some sense the raison d'etre for opera. That's what I learned from Carolyn Abbate.

a quick 2 cents!

Anonymous said...

Kaija Saariaho’s *L’Amour de loin*, which has practically entered the standard repertoire now, ends with the death of its male protagonist.

Doesn’t Nekrotzar die at the end of Ligeti’s *The Grand Macabre*?

Ranapipiens said...

Good to see you around; the cobwebs were getting thick.

Your data are slightly skewed though, achieved by cheerfully overlooking a couple hundred years' worth of material before the earliest one on your list (not sure of dates, but I think it would be Lucia).
Back when (as the saying goes) operas were operas and the sopranos were men, morbidity/mortality rates were much lower for the principals, who generally had to survive to fulfill the Lieto Fine Imperative.
It's romanticism and its sequelae that led to the mess.

laybl said...

Virtually every black actor can attest to the actuarial slaughter attached to black men...there is an apocryphal tale of such a would-be victim, presented with a script for his approval, skimming rapidly through the pages, and when asked why the rush, responding, "I just want to see where I die."

Real life female mortality was so commonplace in the nineteenth century, particularly during childbirth, that the ballad, "Listen to the Mockingbird", marked the tragic fate.

I believe that female death in opera(s), reflects the male--and female--perception that no woman's life is complete without a man...bachelors are celebrated, spinsters lamented.

Boom said...

I think it is premature to include Saariaho's opera in the standard repertoire. But if we grant it a place on the fringes of SR, it will join a number of other (older) operas in which only men die:

1. In von Schilling's MONA LISA, Mona's love Guido is murdered. But instead of following him to the afterlife, she kills his murderer (her husband).

2. In Zemlinsky's DER ZWERG only the male principal dies (although, being a deformed dwarf, his is not exactly the kind of man I am expected to identify with.). In FLORENTINE TRAGEDY Zemlinsky kills only the tenor (one of the only three characters). In his DER KOENIG KANDAULES, Zemlinsky kills only the tenor too (but the man is a pervert, and thus runs afoul of "no evil deeds" qualification).

3. Then there is Leukkipos who is murdered in Strauss' DAPHNE (but Daphne undergoes "transformation" into a tree - which is the happy mode of existence she yearned for anyway).

4. Last, but not least, there is Busoni's DOKTOR FAUST, in which the principal drops dead at the end. (But he does not meet my "no evil deeds" qualification.)

And, of course, the very "standard repertoire" Don Giovanni's death was amply motivated by "evil deeds".

Finally, if I remember correctly, Nekrotzar does not strictly speaking dies. He sort of shrinks until he disappears completely. (And, anyway, his is not a "no evil deeds" character.)

Rootie said...

It's so much more fulfilling when everybody dies at the end, whether simultaneously or in sequence, regardless of order (Tosca, Amore di tre Re (you know that once off stage, old man Archibaldo is going to keel over from grief and heart stress from having to carry his daughter-in-laws body around at the end of act 2).

Boom said...


Thank you for the heads-up on "L'amore dei tre re".

Not only have I not heard this opera, I did not even know anything about it. The synopsis promises such a high body count that I simply will have to listen to this piece (assuming it has been recorded).

geofflebowski said...

This is a very interesting article. I've never thought about opera scenarios in this way.You've convinced me. Thanks

David said...

Not that I've spent even as much as one whisky thinking about it, but I'd always assumed composers (at least in the 19th century) had had to get used to the idea that their star tenor was either (i) unable to sing a convincing dath scene or (ii) unwilling to do so - and that he probably carried more weight than the leading lady, if only because he could argue & shout more aggressively while the ladies would have to behave in lady-like fashion (whatever that is)... As evidence for (i) I adduce a perfromance of Don Carlo I saw in madrid, where the rather rotund tenor (though only moaning about dying of love) rolled about very unconvincingly before his lady-love in a moment that ought to have provoked a lot more than the stifled laughter it generated.

I offer for inspection: Monteverdi's Poppaea (the baddies win & only the philosopher dies) - a precedent rarely pursued since; and Eugene Onegin (where the tenor dies halfway through but everyone else survives (generally unhappily of course). I'm not sure they illuminate anything, but ...

Good to have you back!! Thought-provoking as ever!

welker said...

In Benjamin Britten's operas all the victims are men (or a boy) apart from Lucretia - well, he couldn't change history, could he? This seems also to be an exception that proves the rule, as Bengy was not a hetero man, unlike nearly all the other composers mentioned. Ethel Smyth left her pair of traitorous lovers to face the incoming tide in their chains at the end of The Wreckers, a very even-handed approach:"ecstatically the lovers face death in each other's arms." Bravo!

Jim said...

As I read Boom's post I realized the topic is mighty close to one explored several years ago on a web discussion group "Change one letter to create a new opera". That was highly amusing, this one thought provoking but not without its jovial aspects.

RonanM said...

I howled with laughter about operatic death from testicular cancer. Thank you!

And don't forget Prokoffiev's Maddalena, in which the scheming sociopathic heroine gets her lover and her jealous husband to kill each other.