Racism and sexism in operas
Racism and sexism are huge issues in every sphere of society, and they affect the opera world in many ways. Racial and gender considerations in casting and opera management are both issues worthy of discussion (and they have, in fact, been debated quite a bit recently). However, in this post, I will focus on racism and sexism in the operatic canon.
I’ll start with a controversial statement: I don’t think a plot can be racist or sexist. A composer or librettist can be. A director or singer can be. A character can be (and can be portrayed sympathetically nonetheless). A society in which action takes place can be (and can be portrayed sympathetically or nostalgically nonetheless). But a plot (of a novel, play, opera, film, TV show, etc.) is simply particular people reacting to a particular situation.
A corollary of this is that I don’t think there’s anything wrong per se with the operas that people generally accuse of racism or sexism. Yes, all three men in Così fan tutte are misogynistic jerks who emotionally abuse women and are supposed to be charming anyway. (And don’t get me started on the title–‘all women do it’.) Yes, Turandot’s blood thirst and sudden realization that she does, in fact, need a man are flattering to neither women nor China. Yes, the romanticization of the relationship between a Japanese child bride and a fickle American soldier in Madame Butterfly is hard to watch. But these are all plausible characters and series of events (by operatic standards of plausible). The fact that characters act in ways I disapprove of does not make an opera any less interesting or beautiful. And I don’t think anyone needs to seriously entertain the idea of removing these operas from the repertoire.
That said, there is a racism and sexism issue in opera. However, that issue is not the fault of individual works but of the canon as a whole. The problem is not the presence of operas like Così fan tutte, Turandot, and Madame Butterfly, but the absence of operas to balance these out. Where are the operas set in quasi-mythical foreign lands full of consistently strong (but not bloodthirsty) women? Where are the operas with women testing their partners’ fidelity? Where are the operas that directly confront and challenge emotional abuse of women? (This one seems particularly important, simply because so many romantic leads in operas abuse their female partners.) Where are the operas against the trafficking of children? Thoughtful directors can do a lot with staging, but it would be even easier to address important issues if these potentially problematic operas could be juxtaposed with operas that deal with similar themes from a more egalitarian point of view.
Wishful thinking? Perhaps. It will certainly take a long time to incorporate new (or old but forgotten) works into the repertoire. We’d better start now.
If you know of any modern operas or overlooked old gems that you think would complement the canon in much-needed ways with regards to portrayal of race and gender, please let me know (in the comments below or at @ilana_wb on Twitter). I’d love to have a listen.