Passionate Geek is a monthly feature of someone exploring and sharing something they are passionate (and geeky!) about!
Welcome to this month’s Passionate Geek, LM! Ze can be found in zir natural habitat on The Lobster Dance, a blog about gender and geekery with a Japan focus, and I’ll Make It Myself!, a blog about the intersection of food and gender. Zir operatic goal in life is to see a real opera written about the life of Julie d’Aubigny and see Tosca performances in which Scarpia actually nails the final line of the end of Act 1.
Content: contains spoilers for Tosca, discussions of misogyny and racism in opera.
Opera seems to operate in US popular culture in three dissimilar but overlapping ways: people know popular tunes from “What’s Opera, Doc?” and other cartoons; opera is played in the background of films like Milk and Quantum of Solace*; but ultimately, it’s treated as fussy, Continental, inaccessible, and, to quote Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, “too many notes.”
If you’ve ever said “I like all music except for opera” sounds familiar, this post is for you.
I used to feel the same way: I grew up on cartoon parodies of operas and didn’t understand the medium or find it accessible. I was very lucky, then, that my high school choir director decided to play “E lucevan e stelle” from Puccini’s Tosca for our class one day as part of an effort to educate us about classical music. We listened to the aria and read the lyrics in translation, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the room at the end. I was hooked.
It was as if a flip had been switched. I couldn’t get enough opera–or, perhaps, more specifically I couldn’t find a opera I loved more than Tosca. I attended my first live opera that summer: The Magic Flute, specifically the production that Maurice Sendak designed. I started saving up my vouchers from Enjoy the Arts, a Cincinnati-based youth arts outreach program, to see as many operas as I could during the summer season at the Cincinnati Opera. Because the vouchers were good for unpurchased or cancelled seats, I had the unparalleled opportunity to see operas in the orchestra section most of the time. I started borrowing operas on CD from the public library–not just shows I wanted to see that summer, but anything I could find.
To return to Tosca: Tosca is the most structurally, musically, and dramatically perfect opera ever written (to my knowledge). The pacing is phenomenal. The content itself is actually fairly feminist. I’ve never found another opera that I’ve enjoyed more than Tosca. Set in 1800, Tosca is the story of Floria Tosca, a devout singer, and her lover Mario Cavaradossi, an artist. Cavaradossi’s attempt to help escaped political prisoner Angelotti sets off a chain of events that leads to Tosca believing that he is cheating on her. Scarpia, the corrupt chief of police, who is searching for Angelotti, capitalizes on Tosca’s fears and she inadvertently blows Angelotti’s and Cavaradossi’s cover. When Scarpia attempts to coerce her into having sex with him in return for Cavaradossi’s freedom, offering to fake her lover’s death by using blanks at the firing squad, Tosca murders Scarpia and attempts to flee with Cavaradossi. When the fake execution turns out not to be fake, Tosca leaps from the parapet rather than face arrest.
Tosca defies operatic gender conventions: she, more than Cavaradossi, is the tragic hero of the piece. She has free will and a complex morality. I should point out that being a fan of opera can be a bit strange from an intersectional feminist perspective. For instance, a lot of opera companies still perform shows that are Orientalist, like Madame Butterfly and Carmen, and/or cast white singers as characters of color instead of diversifying hiring practices. (Because it’s fine to set La Traviata in the 1990s, but apparently hiring singers who aren’t white is taking it too far? /sarcasm.) Many operas are misogynist or perpetuate rape culture, toxic masculinities, and male entitlement. Don Giovanni, to some extent subverts this by the ending; Carmen is really a story about a woman from an oppressed minority group as the victim of domestic violence but the opera isn’t framed that way; Madame Butterfly exoticizes racist misogyny and “condemns” it by fridging yet another woman of color. There never seem to be any queer characters, and cross-dressing (either of the actor, as in a breeches role, or of the character) is often used for for cisheteronormative audiences to laugh at the characters rather than for the queer, trans, and gender-nonconforming members of the audience to identify or laugh with them.** Performing an opera written by a woman is something I’ve never seen in all 15 years of my fandom with opera.
That said, there is room in opera as a medium for change. The Cincinnati Opera is performing Fellow Travelers, which follows the Lavender Scare during McCarthyism and features gay characters as the leads. Seattle Opera performed An American Dream, a new opera about the unlawful imprisonment (“internment”) of people of Japanese descent during WWII. There is the possibility for change, but it seems that we, the fans, have to convince the companies to perform and sponsor more diverse shows, like 27, Fellow Travelers, Sarah and Patience. Perhaps we could see diversity and inclusion do for opera what it is doing for Broadway: shows like Hamilton, Allegiance, Fun Home, and the Deaf West Theatre version of Spring Awakening–shows written by and/or starring people of color, queer and trans people, and people with disabilities–would revolutionize the medium. It wouldn’t just have to be an endless cycle of the racism and sexism of “classics” like Carmen and Madame Butterfly. Change is happening in opera, but we have to help it happen.
As far as accessibility goes in terms of travel and cost, YouTube has many classic full-length operas with subtitles available for free, and public libraries often have videos and CDs. If you get PBS or NPR, you can watch or listen there, too. I’m lucky enough to live in a city with a great opera company; my partner and I became members of BRAVO!, the Seattle Opera’s group for 21-40 year olds, which means we get discounted tickets and subscriptions, invitations to events like touring the costume shop, and a lounge (with free coffee and wine!) to hang out in between acts. A lot of companies have discounts for students, seniors, people between 21-40, and school groups, so it’s worth looking into if you’re curious about live opera but are worried about affordability.
*What is this scene even. I mean, the end of the first act doesn’t end with a firing squad scene, and they they SKIP THE INTERMISSION and head straight into halfway through act two. I think the director might have also mixed up who Scarpia and Cavaradossi are, based on the singer’s clothing. Go home, Bond, you’re drunk.
**A very nice exception is Ariadne auf Naxos, which features an alto in a breeches role playing a stressed-out male composer, and the role can be played relatively gender-neutral.
Want to share what you’re geeky and passionate about? I’d love to have you write a post — just drop me a line and let me know!