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Does your favourite opera pass the Bechdel test?

I was browsing idly after much Christmas food and found this clever post. So, to remind you, gentle reader, the Bechdel test quantifies the feminism of films. Let’s apply it to dehggi’s favourite opera:

  1. There are two women in it, whose names are known; Vitellia and Servilia, check
  2. they talk to each other; they do, check
  3. they talk about something other than a man: they talk about Tito choosing a wife and about saving Sesto, fail.

Two outta three ain’t bad, eh? Feminism isn’t the first thing I think about when it comes to Tito yet the women in the libretto are not damsels in distress; they are quite able to negotiate getting out of whatever messes they get into.

Now let’s put Alcina to the test:

  1. There are two women in it, whose names are known; more than 2, woohoo! Alcina, Morgana and Bradamante, check
  2. they talk to each other; they do, check
  3. they talk about something other than a man: it turns interesting when Morgana gets sweet on Bradamante, check.

Alcina is a good example of how women in Baroque opera are more interesting than their later sisters. If the Bradamante-Morgana thing is not quite two women having a conversation about astrophysics or practical ways of eradicating famine in poor countries at least it’s not two women fighting over a man. You could say Morgana thinks she’s talking to a (goodlooking) man, does this count? I think it does, because 1) gender ambiguity = yes, 2) Bradamante is still a woman and though her actions are typical woman fighting for her man she is not wringing her hands expecting others (men) to fix everything.

Alcina famously does not need men to save her. It’s when she starts thinking she needs a man that things turn pearshaped. Cautionary tale, eh.

Stepping into the 19th century with I Capuleti e i Montecchi:

  1. There are two women in it, whose names are known; ooops, not enough women in this, fail
  2. they talk to each other; N/A, fail
  3. 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).

How about 17th century’s L’incoronazione di Poppea:

  1. There are two women in it, whose names are known; way more than 2: Poppea, Ottavia, Arnalta (Nutrice is just Nutrice), Drusilla, goddesses, check
  2. they talk to each other; they do, check
  3. they talk about something other than a man: they talk about the weakness of humans, attaining power, losing power, getting old, check.

If a Baroque opera is named after a woman chances are good she’s a strong one. Also in early Baroque you get at least 2-3 goddesses who talk about ethics, so the Prologue already passes the test.

I am afraid to put Die Frau ohne Schatten to this test 😀 But let’s try Der Rosenkavalier:

  1. There are two women in it, whose names are known; Die Marschallin (Marie Therese), Sophie, Annina, Marianne, check
  2. they talk to each other; they do, check
  3. they talk about something other than a man: not really, do they? Maybe Die Marschallin and Mariandel do 😉 fail

Can’t have everything, can we?