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.

Madame Butterfly, ossia Buying a Foreign Child Bride is Romantic
Madame Butterfly, ossia Buying a Foreign Child Bride is Romantic

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.

In Così fan tutte, the romantic heroes fake suicides to manipulate they girlfriends into cheating on them. Photo from Sarasota Opera
In Così fan tutte, the romantic heroes fake suicides to manipulate they girlfriends into cheating on them. Photo from Sarasota Opera

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.

2 thoughts on “Racism and sexism in operas”

  1. Ilana, you make a very pertinent point! Since Opera found its roots in the 17th Century and followed the customary principles and moral values accepted then, some operas (which you have mentioned above,) have no bearing or application on how we view the world today. Yet aside from the quasi-mythical setting, improvised drama, tragedies and idolised notions of love, directors and new productions should consider adapting and re-invigorating original librettos not only to keep them up-to-date, but spice up masterpieces which could attract more seats to the opera houses.
    The concern however, is if we try to modernise these period operas, will it anger current operagoers who watch opera for the reason it holds these archaic traditions and contentious views?

  2. Mary, that’s a great question! I think there’s room for several approaches here, which will appeal to different audiences. One is to adapt or stage operas in ways that highlight and/or undermine characters’ or composers’ racist or sexist views. Another is to present more traditional productions of these issue-laden operas alongside new (or retrieved) operas that provide a different take. (A recent example of this might be Lafayette Opera’s pairing of Cosi fan tutte with Philidor’s Les femmes vengees, which, though not entirely free of relics of time-period sexism, turns the tables on the men of Cosi. Obviously, new operas could also be written to address particular issues or to pair with particular operas in the traditional canon.) I certainly think there’s a place for traditional productions of operas, and I don’t want them to stop! However, perhaps I’m being optimistic, but I suspect even the most traditionalist of opera-goers are not there specifically for the racism and sexism and would be glad to have it addressed as long as it doesn’t mean entirely abandoning traditional productions of the classics.

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