How can I love an artform that is so consistently, insistently cruel to its female characters? asks Charlotte Higgins in a Guardian article. In preparation for attending the Met’s 2017 HD showing of Bellini’s opera Norma in Guadalajara next weekend, I recently watched on youtube a Norma production starring Joan Sutherland. The glorious music and harrowing narrative set me aflame in passionately clashing directions.
Norma is a powerful Druidic priestess in Gaul who compromises her ideals for love. When her Roman lover, who is hated by her people, betrays her, Norma relates to the other woman in an utterly contradictory complex of emotion that could only be ‘credible’ in the overarching lack of realism that is opera. Then she offers herself, instead of her accused lover, as the sacrifice on the ceremonial pyre, and we are expected to swallow the outcome as natural, instead of inside out. Misogyny is the conventional operatic trope. Even while the music thrills me, I rage.
The opera Norma does not pass American cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s famous feminist test for a work of fiction: it must contain two women, who have/sing a conversation, not about men. Opera’s pass rate so far on the Bechel moment is practically nonexistent. Though it is an expensive artform whose repertoire is not easily broadened, I have hopes that as humanity evolves, women’s roles in contemporary opera may change.
Here is Charlotte Higgins again on the traditional genre as is:
It is as if the genre itself seems to devour women. It is partly because opera is the form par excellence, not of argument like theatre, not of story like film, not of character like TV, but of emotion. Deep, unspeakable, ravenous emotion: the kind of emotion that can carry a character’s breaking out into song. Opera is not vanilla, opera is not beige, it is blood red and boiling. Opera is the artform of human catastrophe, the inheritor of the mantle of the darkest aspects of Greek tragedy. The tragedy is of course not just female tragedy (plenty of dead men, too). But the patriarchy makes sure that the women are marked out for special cruelty. Opera, and especially 19th century opera, allows dangerous women to coruscate thrillingly on the stage for a few short hours – then murders them.
In Norma, it is the theme of forgiveness that both forgives the misogyny, and, underlines it. Norma forgives the other woman, Adalgisa, realizing that she is the innocent victim of the lover’s deceit. She also forgives the despicable man who betrayed her. This forgiveness makes for brilliant musical heights, but guess who cannot forgive her own self? When Norma names herself sacrificial victim, the music crazily makes the listener feel as if victimhood is a glorious thing.
Some have called it a feminist opera because Adalgisa turns her back on the Roman and makes an attempt to bring the lover back to Norma, whose children he has fathered. But when Adalgisa’s attempt fails, Norma rages, not at the Roman lover, but at Adalgisa. Say what?
Perhaps my own raging emotions will settle before I attend the HD showing of Norma in a few days. But now I remember why I stopped loving opera in the 1970’s, after attending a few times with my then spouse. I was a new feminist who could not unquestion the masterpieces whose aesthetic worth was supposed to pardon their barbarism. It seems I continue to question. I hope that while I enjoy the astonishing power of the full-voiced divas expressing in song the most sublime of emotions, I can ignore the subtitled storyline and create my own.