If you know me or keep up with this column, you already know that I dedicate my entire existence to opera. I live and breathe the art form so wholeheartedly that I find I cannot go a single day without listening to my favorite composers, like Handel or Verdi. Even when traveling, my sole priority is to check out the different opera houses in each city I visit. Some travel for food, and others to experience alternate cultures. I, however, travel for music.
I’ve been to New York City about eight or nine times in my life, and each time I’ve seen a show at the Metropolitan Opera. My sister Yasmin lives in New York City, providing me with a permanent couch to sleep on so I find that I time my visits based on which shows I want to see (sorry, Yasmin). I was there just last week to see Phelim McDermott’s new production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte by the Met. Having heard about this production through the grapevine for some years now, I bought my tickets well in advance — there was no way I was going to miss this one. The story is updated to Coney Island in the ’50s, complete with contortionists and fire-breathers galore. Having seen Così multiple times in other productions, I was impressed by the aesthetics and still found myself moved by the singing. However, no matter how many times I see it, the plot always has me rolling my eyes.
Così fan tutte has caused controversy in recent years with its problematic portrayal of women, so the fact that McDermott’s production opened during the climax of the #MeToo movement is either perfect or terrible timing. The plot revolves around two young officers, Guglielmo and Ferrando, who are challenged by the old philosopher Don Alfonso’s claims that faithful women do not exist. They are certain that their fiancées, Fiordiligi and Dorabella (respectively), are loyal, so the three men wager a bet to test Alfonso’s theory: Guglielmo and Ferrando will pretend to go off to war, but will return in disguise to try to woo the other’s betrothed. The remainder of the show plays out like a farce, as the fidelity of each woman is tested by her supposed lovers.
The show has me conflicted, because although Così contains some of my favorite music out of the Mozart/Da Ponte trio of opere buffe, the plot is unforgivably troublesome and — for lack of a better word — stupid. Fidelity is a challenge for any couple in a long-distance relationship, but the story paints women as the culprits, rather than the men who intentionally tempt them to cheat. But sadly, Così fan tutte is only one example of sexism in opera. It is unfortunately a theme that seems to circulate widely throughout plotlines of the world’s most famous operas. And it doesn’t stop at sexism — racism, imperialism and more are all too dominant. So, how do we change this seemingly problematic art to make it appropriate for the 21st century?
At risk of playing the devil’s advocate, most of the female characters in Così fan tutte are not meant to be portrayed as victims to Alfonso’s challenge. Fiordiligi is strong-willed and steadfast, and Despina, the chambermaid, exhibits many qualities of third-wave feminism. But that’s not enough, especially in today’s troublesome environment. One or two well-represented women can’t excuse the avalanche of other issues that seems to cause new audiences to stay at arms-length from the art form. The same goes for operas like Madama Butterfly — still extremely popular and widely performed, whose themes revolve around imperialism and pedophelia. As much as I would love for opera to remain solely about the music and how it moves us, it’s just not realistic.
So what does this mean for opera? Unfortunately, there is no overnight solution to this problem. But in the meantime, opera houses must make more of an effort to feature inclusive storylines in their season lineups. As much as I love the smorgasbord of operas written by white men, there are opportunities for female composers and people of color who aren’t being utilized.
There was a small glimmer of hope when the Met announced in its 2016-17 season that it would stage the first opera written by a woman since 1903, but has since regressed to its prototypical lineup that consists entirely of men. So many other houses, albeit much smaller than the Met, are experimenting in their season lineups. Many initiatives have been implemented to help the advancement of these underrepresented communities, but the major opera houses around the world have yet to catch up. It could very well be that these productions are coming in the near future, since houses plan their seasons as many as six years in advance. Or maybe I’m just being optimistic. But until we see the change onstage, opera will continue to sit on the backburner until it is forgotten altogether.
There is a time and place for the operas of Mozart and Puccini. These operas will never not get stage time. But why produce Madama Butterfly for the fifth season in a row when shows by Dame Ethel Smyth or Amy Beach haven’t seen the light of day in years? The change in dialogue is already occurring. It’s time for opera houses to catch up.
Arya Roshanian is a graduate student studying library and information science. His column, “From The Top,” runs Tuesdays.