What She Said: Opera’s Stories About Women Are Stuck in Another Age. But Change Is Underway.
By Jennifer Cresswell and Kathleen Kelly
Opera’s got a woman problem.
Now, we love opera, make no mistake! But as women, particularly women in mid-life, it’s rare to see our lives reflected meaningfully on stage. We’ve concluded that this is largely a repertoire problem.
And in true Middleclass Artist fashion, we’ve got some data to show why.
So, just like our inquisitive sister Turandot, we’re going to start this party off with three questions - but these questions were first posed by a woman named Alison Bechdel.
OPERA AND THE BECHDEL TEST
You probably know Alison Bechdel as the brilliant storyteller behind the Broadway smash Fun Home. Well, back in 1985, she was penning the comic Dykes to Watch Out For. In a strip called “The Rule,” the characters were discussing movies, and posed a “test” of three questions.
Question 1. Are there two women in the movie with actual names?
Question 2. Do they talk to each other?
And question 3. Do they have a conversation about something other than a man?
Think about some of your favorite movies. Do they pass all parts of the test? Any part? How do movies measure up in general? Well, Alison Bechdel fans have been doing their homework because currently there are 8574 movies in the database at http://bechdeltest.com/
11% don’t pass any part of the test - there aren’t two named female characters.
22% pass part one of the test
10% pass parts one and two of the test
57% pass the complete Bechdel test
We got curious about how opera would do. Now, we didn’t research 8574 titles, but we did look at the top 50 most played titles in the United States between 2010 and 2019, according to Operabase. What are they, you ask? Voila:
La boheme, Carmen, La traviata, Madama Butterfly, Tosca, Il barbiere di Siviglia, Die Zauberflöte, Don Giovanni, Le nozze di Figaro, Rigoletto, Cosi fan tutte, Lucia di Lammermoor, Aida, Turandot, Pagliacci, Hansel und Gretel, Die Fledermaus, Romeo et Juliette, Il trovatore, L’elisir d’amore, La Cenerentola, Les Pecheurs de perles, Don Pasquale, Yevgeny Onegin, Faust, Les contes d’Hoffmann, La FIlle du Regiment, Der fliegende Holländer, Falstaff, Porgy and Bess, Candide, The Pirates of Penzance, Ariadne auf Naxos, Macbeth, Norma, Nabucco, Otello, Gianni Schicchi, Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Die lustige Witwe, The Mikado, Fidelio, La fanciulla del West, Salome, Orfeo ed Euridice, Un ballo in maschera, Suor Angelica, L’italiana in Algieri, Don Carlo, and Cavalleria Rusticana.
How did they do with the test? Well, five operas on this list don’t even have two women with their own names. This means 45 do, and so they pass question one. In 38 of those 45, the women with names speak to each other. And in ten of those operas, they speak about something other than a man.
In other words, of these fifty titles, seven operas pass Bechdel part one only, 28 operas make it to part two, and ten operas make it to part three. Talking percentages:
10% of the operas pass no part of the test
14% of the operas pass Bechdel part one
56% of the operas pass Bechdel parts one and two
20% of the operas pass the complete test
You can’t compare those percentages to the Hollywood percentages since the sample size is so different. But it sure looks like opera’s not doing great in having stories involving two women, with their own names, having any conversation that doesn’t center on a man. It’s not a super high bar to clear.
(I mean, we’re women. We talk about...a lot of things.)
But surely this situation in opera is changing, right? There’s an explosion of new composition, significant institutional support for it, and all in the wake of the #Metoo movement?
We decided to see what would happen if we restricted our search to the top fifty most frequently performed operas in the US from 2016-2019.
That search added eight works to our list: Moby Dick, Dead Man Walking, As One, Das Rheingold, Silent Night, Maria de Buenos Aires, Rusalka, and Glory Denied, which displaced Turandot, Don Carlo, L’italiana, Un ballo in maschera, The Mikado, Macbeth, Otello, and Merry Widow. Of those eight new operas on our more recent list, two are still from the 19th century, Rheingold and Rusalka. But how do these eight do with the Bechdel test?
There are not two named women in either Moby Dick or Maria de Buenos Aires. Glory Denied and As One are both operas in which two singers play a single woman character. In Silent Night, the two named women characters, the only two women in the opera, do not talk to each other. Only in Dead Man Walking and Rheingold do the named women characters speak of something other than men.
This art form we love still gives the majority of its stage time to stories in which the plots and perspectives, as well as most of women’s words, center on men. This presents some real problems for women entering the field. (See: “A Study of Systemic Discrimination Against Women in Opera” by Zach Finkelstein, Dana Lynne Varga, and Hillary LaBonte. The authors lay out a strong case for how severely disadvantaged women are in the field of opera due to factors including fewer roles, a greater gulf between supporting and leading roles, and many more women than men entering the field.)
Building on that, let’s turn this math in the direction of another important factor.
THE VICTORIAN VOICE
Right now, we’re experiencing a renaissance of opera composition in the US. It’s a thrilling time to be involved with the art form. But when you look again at that list of the USA’s fifty most frequently performed operas of the last ten years, contemporary composition hasn’t made a dent. Exactly one opera on that list, Candide, was composed after 1950. Look at how many operas on the list were composed after 1910 (making them less than a century old relative to our sample list of fifty, beginning in 2010): Turandot, Porgy and Bess, Candide, Ariadne auf Naxos, Gianni Schicchi, Suor Angelica, and Fanciulla. Only seven of the fifty.
(And of those seven, four are by one composer, Puccini. The dude could write, but come on.)
More significant is that forty out of the fifty - eighty percent! - were composed before 1900. And of those, twenty-seven of them (La boheme, Carmen, La traviata, Tosca, Rigoletto, Aida, Pagliacci, Hansel und Gretel, Die Fledermaus, Romeo et Juliette, Il trovatore, Les Pecheurs de perles, Don Pasquale, Yevgeny Onegin, Faust, Les contes d’Hoffmann, La Fille du Regiment, Der fliegende Holländer, Falstaff, The Pirates of Penzance, Nabucco, Cavalleria Rusticana, Otello, Don Carlo, Ballo, The Mikado, and Macbeth) were written between 1837 and 1901, the years of Queen Victoria’s reign.
Read that again: of the fifty most frequently performed operas in the USA in the last decade, more than half (54%) were written during the Victorian Era. Even when we switch to our list from the last four years, twenty-four of the fifty (48%) are Victorian.
What was different on stage back then? Oh, just...everything. We talk a lot about how television and film have impacted opera, but when we say “opera,” we are largely talking about a theatrical aesthetic that hasn’t existed in many years. Acting techniques were different in the nineteenth century. What audiences saw and experienced as expressive was very different from what we see and experience.
No doubt, we can and are still touched and transported by these works as we are by many theatrical works from other centuries. The difference lies in the fact that musical compositions are, well...composed. Singers don’t have the same range of flexibility in their choices as actors do; they can’t freely change up pacing, pitch, and dynamic. Ethan Hawke can deliver Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy in a half-whisper, but a baritone Hamlet doesn’t have similar leeway while singing “O vin, dissipe la tristesse”.
Put that together with the gender specifics of nineteenth-century theater and their modes of expression through the music of that time, and you can start to see how this seriously limits casting possibilities today.
For example, a soprano who wants to play the operatic ingenues on our list of fifty will need to conform to precise, century-old vocal expectations of femininity and innocence. She must have clarity and sweetness of tone, ability to float vulnerable high notes, and easy flexibility. Combine that with our art form’s emphasis on tradition, and you don’t end up with a whole variety of acceptable ways to sing Pamina (beautiful as each rendition may be, the sameness is as remarkable as the variation).
Movies and television now provide a variety of ingenues - varieties of looks, varieties of attitudes - but opera’s most popular ingenues are caught inside their compositions, inside a specific idea of what youth and vulnerability SOUND like.
Aging also has a particular sound on the opera stage. Older women characters in our fifty operas are almost invariably mezzo-sopranos. Looking back at our list, slightly less than half of the operas (48%) contain roles for older women at all. Of those, only four provide opportunities for sopranos to portray the older characters (Hansel and Gretel, Porgy and Bess, Gianni Schicchi, the Merry Widow).
What about secondary roles, where casting is often more flexible? Well, since men have more secondary parts available to them, in which tradition is less of a limiting factor in their casting, it means they have a much better chance to be cast in more parts - a better chance to stay employed, to learn and practice their craft.
Let’s take just the top twenty operas from our list of fifty. A budding Tamino or Alfredo, for example, has a host of potential sidekick tenor parts: Gastone, Borsa, Goro, Basilio, Remendado, Spoletta, Basilio, Curzio, Tybalt, Normanno, the Messenger, Pang or Pong, Beppe, Alfred or Doktor Blind, or Ruiz. But his counterpart, a young Pamina or Violetta, finds secondary parts thin on the ground: Frasquita, First Lady or Papagena, Barbarina, the Priestess, and Gianetta. And of those six parts for soprano, two-thirds of them - Frasquita, First Lady, Papagena, and Barbarina - have precise vocal and age requirements and traditionally expected vocal qualities, while the same can’t be said for most of the listed tenor roles. Even “character tenor” parts are often cast with promising lyric young artists across the US. There are no equivalent “character soprano” parts.
The vocal stereotyping of the pre-nineteenth century operas is caught up with the theatrical conventions of the time, affecting singers of all genders and voice types - the ardent tenor, the angry baritone, the fragile soprano, the heroic soprano, the sexy mezzo, the low-voiced old woman, and the fatherly bass. As much as repertoire from this era might still speak to us, those stereotypes are limiting, especially when we’re working toward greater inclusivity of casting, and toward a broad approach to retelling old stories. If the same heavily gendered vocal stereotypes of past repertoire are always at play, how far can we get with inclusivity of casting?
This is just one part of the wider discussion of equity in the opera industry, and can’t be had in a vacuum apart from other discussions involving, for example, racial biases or issues of gender expression. Our focus in this article on how operatic repertoire and operatic tradition affect women is a narrow one, to discuss how we came to create an opera together, and is by no means meant to be a complete commentary on the DEI problems in the industry.
Our whole community is engaging with issues of equity, inclusion, diversity, and fairness, and this article is a small part of that big mosaic.
Okay, just a little more math. We have, you could say, a story problem.
HOOP SKIRTS AND FREEDOM
Based on numbers of performances in 2019 worldwide, the top ten most frequently performed operas were:
Il barbiere di Siviglia
Le nozze di Figaro
A quick look at the top 10 operas by some key themes:
Seven of the top ten operas depict violence against women, and half depict attempted rape or kidnapping of a woman. Eight of the ten set their stories within a society rigidly divided by class.
It’s an enlightening exercise to compare that list to this year’s sordid headlines. Stories of sexual slavery and gender-based violence are awful, but also not new. Alongside the great strides that women have fought for and achieved in our lifetime, these old practices continue unabated.
Isn’t opera, with its outsized, huge-voiced emotions, a wonderful medium for these enormous, heartbreaking topics? And isn’t the operatic stage a place for women to amass incredible amounts of fame, fortune, and influence through singing these roles?
Absolutely yes. If women are on stage telling women’s stories, that in itself is important – a powerful voice, wielded by a queen onstage, speaks for itself, inspires and uplifts. That’s worth a lot. So many of opera’s stories hinge on the misuse of women, but that’s a part of human reality. Women have been bought and sold and attacked and murdered, and that’s part of what we should see on stage because it’s part of who we are.
But these particular stories come to us from another era. It’s possible that classical vocal music’s sumptuous rendering of brutal stories might keep our engagement on a sentimental level, providing a pleasurable but superficial catharsis that lets us off the hook, avoiding the darker aspects of the stories, and of our own reality.
The real Violetta Valery of La Traviata, Alphonsine Plessis, grew up in a household so violent that her mother escaped with her two daughters and went into hiding. The first time Alphonsine’s father tried to sell her to a man, she was eleven. Eventually, she was sold to a seventy-year-old, taken to Paris, and soon found that the work she’d become famous for paid better than any other job a young girl could have. The toast of the demimonde was dead at 23.
But when we meet Violetta, it’s in the big white ball gown or the famous Willy Decker red dress, at the top of her fame, singing about freedom. When Butterfly on stage tells us she is fifteen years old, the old industry joke is to roll your eyes and say, that diva doesn’t look fifteen to me.
And these are both operas that PASS the Bechdel test. They’re beautiful, and heartbreaking, and provide an amazing opportunity for the women that sing them, but they also leave out enormous parts of a real story, human trafficking, that impacts women worldwide.
That’s part of opera’s woman problem as well.
From our vantage point today, we see clearly that all women singers need more roles, roles of a greater vocal variety, and roles that encompass a wider variety of women’s stories. In this question, as in all others, representation matters. Diversity on stage starts with diverse creators. Even in our 2016-2019 list of fifty operas, only two involved women as part of the creative team - Candide and As One. If women are at the center of storytelling, from our perspectives, diversity of expression will increase.
It’s so good to finally see widespread support for women’s voices truly taking hold. And as that happens, women with different dimensions are beginning to appear on our stages. Sex and size and power are beginning to sound and look different than in those Victorian tales. For example, this spring we'll be premiering a new chamber opera created by a team of three women; INTERSTATE. After performing a recital together in 2019, we decided that we wanted to take more ownership of the women's stories told on stage. We co-wrote a libretto and reached out to Kamala Sankaram, and a plan was made.
INTERSTATE is inspired by the real-life friendship between serial killer Aileen Wuornos and her childhood friend. After being sentenced to death row for murdering seven men, the two women rekindled their friendship and exchanged letters for over a decade until Aileen's execution. Neither woman is young or glamorous; there is no thinly veiled romance to gloss over the reality of the situation. This piece also breaks many traditional boundaries of the singer and pianist relationship. In the spirit of true collaboration, the pianist is given equal dramatic weight and engages in spoken dialogue throughout the piece.
INTERSTATE is just one example of work that gives voice to women characters and performers who exist outside the boundaries of Victorian operatic archetypes. As we prepare for its workshop premiere in March, and as we notice the growing institutional support for new work and new stories, we’re encouraged.
Opera has focused so much energy on preserving past glories, and we hope that these glories continue. We want to hear our sister Turandot ask her three questions, we want the Valkyries to keep riding, and we want Susanna to once again outwit the whole Almaviva estate. But we also want to hear the words and see the stories of our own time, colored by the emotions and voices and sensibilities of our own world. If opera is truly aimed toward that future, we have reason to take heart.
Jennifer Cresswell is a singer, writer, and teacher who is passionate about equal access in the arts and rethinking women’s performance traditions in classical vocal music. She has enjoyed experimenting with at-home recording technology this last year and is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan.
Kathleen Kelly is a pianist, conductor, educator, and writer - and like many classical
musicians, a recent experimenter with digital content. She has appeared internationally as a recital pianist, including appearances at Wigmore Hall, Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, and Vienna’s Musikverein. She is a published poet and essayist, and has written several English adaptations of operas as well as several librettos. She was most closely associated with the San Francisco, Metropolitan, Houston Grand, and Vienna State Operas before joining the faculty of the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music in 2018.
This piece is based on a joint talk at the National Opera Association 2021 Virtual Conference on January 3rd, 2021.