Despina (Mary Bevan) dans une mise en scène de Cosi Fan Tutte par Phelim McDermott au London Coliseum, en 2014.
Despina (Mary Bevan) dans une mise en scène de Cosi Fan Tutte par Phelim McDermott au London Coliseum, en 2014. © Getty

Feminism through six roles at the opera

If the opera is not particularly known for emphasizing feminist ideas, some of its characters, fortunately, make exceptions to the rule!

In 1979, the philosopher Catherine Clément published an essay called L’Opéra ou la défaite des femmes (The Opera or the defeat of women). That publication had the effect of a fuse: opera female singers, orchestra conductors and stage directors opened the debate on the representation of the woman at the opera...

For it is pretty rare that female characters of the lyrical theatre lead a battle for gender equality... If she opposes the masculine authority, the woman of the opera is a traitor. If a woman in love is jealous or left behind does not put an end to her life, it is because she got married.

A mother is not acting soft and kind? It must be because she is an hysteric! 

Lyrical pieces have been written and composed by men, for a huge part. Whereas, as Catherine Clément said, "women, on an opera stage, sing, unchangingly, their eternal defeat". Sad panorama for "the second sex".

Fortunately, some exceptions exist to confirm the rule. And impressive ones! Here are the portraits of six female characters free from caricature, for some arias at least...

The Empress Octavia against the patriarchy

Venice, 1642, it is the start of the great history of opera. The female lyrical characters of Claudio Monteverdi are still far from the stereotypes described in introduction...

His last masterpiece, The Coronation of Poppaea, that he wrote for a wide and popular audience, is a perfect example. He put on stage and on music the triumph of the ambitious Poppea, the courage of the nurse Drusilla and the powerful complaint of the Empress Octavia.

Octavia is a betrayed and repudiated wife. Her song shows no more soumission than defeat. On the contrary, her first aria rings like a warning: 

"O wretched fate of the fair sex! If Nature and heaven create us free, marriage enchains us. If we conceive a male, we shape the limbs of our own wicked tyrant" 

Despina : chin up young women!

In 1790, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed Così fan tutte, that can be translated as Thus Do They All. A title that annunciates a description of the female character quite unflattering...

Yet, a beautiful surprise hides in this opera: Despina, the impish maid, incredulous and openly independent as shows her first aria:

Pourtant il se cache dans cet opéra une belle surprise : Despina, la servante malicieuse, incrédule et franchement indépendante. En atteste ainsi son premier air that she sings to her mistresses. 

"You look for fidelity from men, from soldiers? Do not tell me that, for pity's sake! [...] We women should pay out this hurtful, impudent breed in their own coin! Let's love them to suit our convenience and our vanity!"

Così fan tutte - Thus all women do, really? Why not Così fan tutti - Thus all men do ?

Norina: no need for a knight in shiny armor !

In Don Pasquale, an opera with a joyful tone of Gaetano Donizetti, the character of the young and beautiful Norina enters the stage while reading the story of a prince charming before... she bursts into laughs! Gallantry and epic love? No, thank you very much. 

le personnage de la jeune et belle Norina entre sur scène en lisant la belle histoire d’un chevalier servant, avant de… s’esclaffer ! La galanterie et l’amour épique ? Très peu pour elle.

"I too know the magic vertu of a look offered at the right time"

While her lover Ernesto despairs and keeps the lamentation arias going, Norina acts. When she meets the old Don Pasquale, she takes him for a fool and makes him believe that cleaning and cooking are the only things she enjoys in life!

Micaëla, as strong as the famous Carmen…

When we think of Carmen, that sulfurous Bohemian of the eponymous opera of Georges Bizet, we immediately picture a seducing woman, independent, almost wild... But don't we intend on forgetting to quickly another female part, the one of Micaëla?

For the young peasant is no less brave nor less proud than her dangerous rival. If Don José left her to follow Carmen, Micaëla does not give and goes alone in to mountain to save she one she loves.

"My God, men are so foolish"

Paris, 1923 : elle has two lovers (because it is “so much better”) and lives comfortably (thanks to them). A female character kept for, sure, but muss less naive than the men surrounding her! 

Elle is the main character of L'amour masque, an operetta of André Messager composed on a booklet by Sacha Guitry. We are at the beginning of the Roaring Twenties, women have adopted a tomboy style and a wind of women emancipation blows on French society.

Thérèse, first feminist of the lyrical scene

It is the main reference among the female and feminist arias of the opera... C’est la référence parmi les airs d’opéra féminins et féministes… Les Mamelles de Tirésias is an opéra-bouffe composed by Francis Poulenc in 1947. That's two years after the women obtained the right to vote in France. 

"I bring you a play that tends to reform habits" proclaims the theater director at the opening of the play. In the first scene, the rebellious Thérèse declares to her husband that she is a feminist and that she wants to become a soldier, a lawyer or a minister. 

While her uncouth coarsely answers "give me the bacon", she gradually unclips her corsage and gets rid of those famous "breasts", "birds of her weakness". 

The choice of Emmanuelle Haïm

To complete this list, Emmanuelle Haïm - harpsichordist, orchestra conductor and director of the ensemble Le Concert d'Astrée - chose Cleopatra, the character from the opera Giulio Cesare composed by Georg Friedrich Handel.

"She is a warrior. I don't know who the strongest is, between Cesare and Cleopatra, but she is very cunning and is, in my opinion, a leading woman".