High Notes

Editorial: Enough with the Dead White Men in New Opera

Opera Philadelphia’s new commission based on Peter Ackroyd’s “The Trial of Elizabeth Cree” came as a breath of fresh air; when I heard the announcement of its coming, I jumped in excitement at the opportunity for a female title character in a new opera. While the traditional canon of opera has plenty of operas named after their lead female characters, the contemporary repertoire severely lacks female representation. After the premiere of Mason Bates’ “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs,” I began to mentally catalog all the 21st century operas focusing on white, cisgender men.  It quickly became clear that they vastly outnumber the world premieres with lead female characters.

But are sheer numbers where it ends? During my recent interview with Daniela Mack about her role in Opera Philadelphia’s “Elizabeth Cree,” I began to think beyond numbers to the difference between helpful and harmful representation. Opera Philadelphia should be applauded for its decision to commission an opera with a strong female title character, but it is slightly worrisome that the woman the company chose to highlight is a murderer. There are many operas already in the canon featuring morally ambiguous, or downright evil, women. Ortrud. Lulu. Armida. Alcina. Salome. Elektra. The Queen of the Night. Beyond that, a large majority of the most famous female opera characters either murder someone (Tosca), go mad (Lucia di Lammermoor), commit suicide (Cio-Cio San), die of a horrible disease (Violetta, Mimì), or suffer severe abuse (almost every woman in opera). This problem is so prevalent that philosopher Catherine Clément wrote an entire book about it, “Opera; or, The Undoing of Women.”

How can the opera industry hope to change how female characters are treated in the operatic canon if we’re not adding positive female representation to our ever-expanding catalog of works? And, more importantly, how can we hope to change how women are viewed by audience members, and society at large, if we’re not reflecting it in our art? As creators, we’re responsible for opening minds to more possibilities, offering new experiences, and moving society forward. We cannot hope to keep our art form relevant, or powerful, if we’re not outstripping the misogynistic society that pervades not only the United States, but countries all around the world. Sexism and misogyny should be things of the past, not brought to the foreground over and over again in recycled, traditional productions of problematic material. We can no longer excuse a lack of stories centered on undoubtedly heroic women. One only needs to open the right history textbook or novel to find complex and fascinating female characters. Or, even better, we can write completely original characters. Women, just like characters of any demographic, don’t need to be morally ambiguous to be interesting. Let’s give our 21st century audiences positive female representation and consciously leave sexist works in the past where they belong.

As I was writing this article, director Lindy Hume released a fantastic piece about the lack of women in leadership positions in opera. She voices her own concerns over the misogyny not only in the canon, but in the “gender imbalance” prevalent in the industry itself. I agree with her; we need strong female representation across the board, and one huge piece of that puzzle is the repertoire itself.

Of course, we need to have this same conversation of representation in regards to other aspects of diversity such as race, sexuality, social class, gender identity, and neurodiversity, to name a few. But we can’t move forward in that way when even cisgender women, who make up about half the population of the world, aren’t being shown equal and positive representation.

Let’s move the opera industry forward together by illuminating the stories of women. I urge all those with commissioning power to purposefully advance works with positive female characters at their epicenter until they fill at least half the contemporary catalog.

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9 Responses

  1. “There are many operas already in the canon featuring morally ambiguous, or downright evil, women. Ortrud. Lulu. Armida. Alcina. Salome. Elektra. The Queen of the Night.”

    I don’t know that Elektra’s morally ambiguous, certainly not downright evil. Anyway, flawed characters are much more interesting. Virtue, as they say, is it’s own punishment. It’s also a bit boring.

    1. I would only label Elektra morally ambiguous because she seeks out murder and violence as a way of revenge.

      I agree that flawed characters are more interesting. However, there are many ways to write flawed characters and it doesn’t require them to be morally grey. Let’s take Emily Dickinson, for example. She was brilliant, creative, and prolific. Her personality was dense, almost to the point of inscrutable. Her life would make a fantastic and dramatic opera. Yet, she was not without her flaws: she was agoraphobic, stand-offish, and proud, to name a few.

      I completely advocate for complex and realistic characters; in fact, I demand them. However, we don’t need problematic material in order to create them.

  2. Hi Kim.

    As the (mostly) living gay white man who created the two characters you allude to in your editorial, I would pretty assuredly argue that librettists and composers in contemporary American opera are indeed writing stronger and truer female characters. This is due to the growing relevance of the art form and the many measures we have taken in the community to engage more women composers and librettists to write operas. In the past year alone, my new operas have featured eight very strong women. And frankly, a number of pretty weak men.

    Elizabeth Cree murders her husband because she will not be forced into sex. Would you prefer that she were compliant to his wishes? If so, you may want to consider working for Betsy DeVos.

    1. My article isn’t meant to disparage your work or to judge your characters. It is not condoning that a woman, or anyone, should ever be forced into sex. This isn’t a question of Elizabeth Cree’s morality, but rather a challenge as to why this particular story was chosen in the first place. And I’m singling out this story only because it spurred this article, not because it’s the only one or the best example. This is a microcosm of a much larger problem, both in this industry and in others.

      Here’s my major issue: when a woman goes to the opera, there’s a greater chance that she’ll see a strong female character die than not. That is, if she sees a strong female character at all. Elizabeth Cree, despite her strength and complexity, is killed for what she’s done. What kind of message are we sending to the strong women of the future through our art?

      At the end of the day, is Elizabeth Cree a story worth telling? Yes. But this is more a problem of numbers than anything else. If there were a larger pool of positive female representation in opera, I would heartily welcome the story of Elizabeth Cree. It’s engaging, intelligent, and unique. My problem is that it is surrounded by a lack of positive stories to balance its darkness.

      Yes, the tide is turning. More female creators are on the opera scene every year and that is fantastic. It’s amazing! I would only hope that my article causes it to happen more and more. I think this imbalance of representation is an issue that not everyone in the opera industry is aware of and I wanted to bring it to light.

      Thank you for being one of the creators at the forefront of changing the tide. I’m only asking that, in the future, we have strong women who don’t have to die, murder, commit suicide, go insane, or be abused for standing up for who they are.

  3. These times seem confluent for opera by women or about a heroic woman as ‘leading lady’!
    With Gerhard Austin supplying a libretto based on Kleist’s “The Marquise of O…”, I ‘self-promote’ our new opera, “I am one and double too ” (English and German versions). The final scene will be staged on April 7, 1918 in Hartford (Wadsworth Atheneum), as part of the Hartford Women Composers Festival, Penny Brandt, Director.
    In this scene of reconciliation between Julietta and Pjotr, the trauma of rape in wartime merges with the plight of an 18th century heroine who has risen above social morays to lay claim to her life and destiny.
    I have a score for opera orchestra and am writing one now for chamber orchestra.
    How I’d love for more of us to know Julietta- AND Pjotr!

  4. Opera has many positive heroines in particular Joan of Arc set by Verdi Tchiakovsky Honneger, Massenet set many strong female characters Including La Vierge Mary Mother of Jesus and Mary of Magdala nMarie Magdaliene All of Puccini’s women are strong characters even Magda in Rondine. So strong positive female figures are not lacking. I see the problem is the message that modernists want a secularist message in the female character represented in compositions. Perhaps an opera based on Dorothy Day would make a satisfactory subject.

    1. I would agree that opera has some positive heroines in the canon. My problem lies with the number of positive heroines versus the number of problematic ones and how often each are performed in the present day. When was the last time you saw a Joan of Arc opera performed in a major opera house? In contrast, standards like Madame Butterfly, La Boheme, and Lucia di Lammermoor (which have these problematic or tortured female leads) are performed constantly. So the probability that someone going to the opera for the first time, or just for one time in the entire year, will see a positive, nonproblematic female lead is slim. I simply want audiences to go to the opera and have a greater probability of seeing positive female representation than negative or problematic representation. We can change this by how often we perform which operas from the canon and we can change this by adding more positive representation into our contemporary catalog. So, yes, positive representation happens. But, for me, it doesn’t happen often enough for our art form to be considered progressive on a large scale.

  5. I have thought about this issue a lot as a producer of opera. My feeling is that most stage characters have some strength to them – or can be played with varying degrees of strength or weakness, but the societal roles that women play within an opera need broadening, and the percentage of roles overall written for women, including supporting and comprimario, needs to increase. We recently ran a competition for arias for women characters in positions of power and prestige and specifically requested that arias not focus primarily on romantic intrigue. We did not get very many submissions that met our criteria! We learned that we could have structured the competition, possibly as a request for proposals, to encourage more entries, but it was telling how few composers had anything already written that met those guidelines.

  6. I’m working on a new opera right now, about a major historical figure up here in Canada, Louis Riel (about whom there has already been an opera written). The project librettist, Dr. Suzanne Steele and I have decided to tell the story from the point of view of the women who were around Riel in the 1880- namely his sister, his wife and his mother. I agree that women are poorly represented in the traditional mainstage repertoire, here’s hoping we can change the tide.

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