Revisiting the Bechdel test for opera
A while ago I put some of my favourite operas to this test, with various results. But on re-reading it today, an idea about how perception complicates matters came to me. Let’s first see what happened when I Capuleti e i Montecchi’s turn came:
- There are two women in it, whose names are known; ooops, not enough women in this, fail
- they talk to each other; N/A, fail
- they talk about something other than a man: ok, given that Giulietta has a long monologue, she ends up talking about how much she hates her life and would rather die than marry the man imposed on her by her father. Not really check but at least something. Still fail.
It’s a 19th century opera, what did you expect? The libretto is textbook woman oppressed by the patriarchy. You do want to cry during her first duet (or first part of the long duet) with Romeo and not just because the music is so damn beautiful (snif, snif).
Right, it fails spectacularly, in grand Victorian tradition, which is unsurprising. But there is one interesting thing about it: namely that Romeo is specifically written for a woman1. So in a sense, there are two women in it and they do talk about quite a few things. They are also trying – with tragic results – to get away from “patriarchy”. It’s almost like a classic lesbian twist, which needs to end badly for all involved. I think nowadays that subtext is there even though it wasn’t always so.
The case of Der Rosenkavalier is somewhat similar, for the same reason. Octavian is supposed to be sung/played by a woman. You know that point where Octavian says “the Field Marshall is hunting in the Croatian forest and I’m here… hunting for… hehe…” – that always makes me imagine the Field Marshall as this big, forged in the heat of battle chap with large, black whiskers; and his wife prefers this giggly kid after all. I know it’s Strauss’s version of Le nozze but still2, the Field Marshall hunts for bears and boars for a reason. And we know they’ve been married since she came out of the convent – which was probably around age 16-18 – and they still don’t have any children. Maybe they couldn’t conceive but maybe she’s just not into black-whiskered boar hunters. Maybe he isn’t into women. Hofmannsthal was gay after all, can’t put this thought beyond him.
How Mozart/Bellini/Strauss intended it is one thing but how we see it today is almost always different.
- I know there are musical reasons why that is so – Bellini wanted the lovers to sound more alike so as to make a strong contrast to those who are opposing them. ↩
- I guess we could discuss Le nozze as well. Beaumarchais himself wanted Cherubino to be played by a girl and he still went on with the third part of the trilogy. You could say the kid had to be very pretty, that’s the point. You could also say, with the third part in place you know he meant for the Countess and Cherubino to really be getting it on, no ifs and buts there. What I’m getting at is you can’t get away from subtext, it’s just not possible, the way we think these days. ↩
Posted on April 21, 2016, in bellini, mozart, random thoughts, richard strauss and tagged der rosenkavalier, i capuleti e i montecchi, le nozze di figaro, lesbian subtext in opera. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.