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).
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. 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.
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...