Last year, in a January 3 review published by the Daily Telegraph, Hannah Furness made some remarkable assertions concerning the presentation of traditional operas on the modern stage. Furness quoted the tenor Michael Fabiano, then playing the Duke in a Royal Opera House production of Rigoletto, to the effect that “the treatment of women in productions should better reflect the modern world.” Fabiano added that “even opera set 500 years ago can be adapted to suit modern society.” His comment was quoted by way of a preface to further remarks by Furness about a 2018 Florentine production of Bizet’s Carmen, which changed its ending to protest violence against women in Italy. In that version, Carmen kills Don José, inverting the usual denouement.
Rigoletto and Carmen have more in common than the abuse of women. As used to be known by informed people who read books, both the Verdi and the Bizet operas were based on narratives crafted by great French writers many years ago. And as was known in the modern world of the 19th century, there was no justification, asserted or implied, of any abuse of women.
We are talking about the play Le roi s’amuse by Victor Hugo, on the one hand, and the novella Carmen by Prosper Mérimée, on the other. Was there abuse of women in the stories themselves? Of course there was. In Hugo’s play, the King irresponsibly takes advantage of his position to exploit women as sexual objects, and there can be no question about that. His hunchback jester, Triboulet (the title character Rigoletto in Verdi’s opera), is the center of the work not because he abuses women, but because he thinks he can be part of a system that abuses them, while shielding his daughter from any such exploitation. Ironically, she gives her life to save her exploitative lover from Triboulet’s revenge. The jester has, in effect, killed his own beloved daughter in his attempt to justify his own hypocrisy.
So, to put the situation in perspective, we can see that two 19th-century visions were transmogrified in the selfsame 19th century and fitted out as operas. The story of Carmen is more complex than that of the hunchback, but the values of these stories were not altered in their transformation into opera, even though Mérimée’s novella was much changed to become Bizet’s libretto. I mean here only that José’s murder of Carmen is in no way justified. The dramas into which the prose narratives were transformed were reinforced by brilliant musical effects. And since the late 19th century, the operatic presentation was a clear one—until recent times.
There has always been a political aspect to opera, in the obvious sense that opera requires subsidy and cannot be presented without nearby casinos or urban priority or even royal support. But as the appeal of opera recedes, it becomes more difficult to organize the necessary support. And there have been other problems as well, such as the allegations that have ended the career of James Levine of the Metropolitan Opera of New York City.
If Michael Fabiano’s comments are part of a strategy to rescue opera, I seriously doubt that it can be effective. For what Fabiano has renounced—sexual exploitation on the operatic stage—is precisely what has been scripted to draw a new audience from what he calls “the modern world.” (More accurately, he should have referred to “the contemporary world.”) In other words, there is a layering of confusion, as Fabiano has denounced “sexual violence against women on stage,” even though such grossness has for decades been part of a strategy to promote opera and to “broaden” its appeal.
What Fabiano calls “the modern world” actually is a source or even the source of the shared imagination that generated Rigoletto and Carmen. That source was coherent and morally clear, and it remained so for well over a century. What changed has been the recent promotion of radical distortions in operatic productions. As I have indicated, last year’s Florentine production of Carmen ended with the provocative woman killing Don José, not the other way around. In this example, we can see that imposed absurdity is actually a come-hither for a reluctant and vanishing audience. And I claim that Michael Fabiano has been outspoken only insofar as he has been dishonest about his own stake in the matter.
The absurdity of his claims as a champion of pseudo-feminist resentment is rather bizarre, and this, mind you, from one of the most successful singers of what he calls the modern world. There is no doubt that Fabiano has been an international star for years, and in all the best opera houses of two continents—he has even been knighted. Then he turns around and says that he doesn’t want to offend women! But if there were offenses, why would he be involved with them at all? He could always have opted for another gig.
The confusion here, if we can look at it for a moment from the point of view of the operatic enthusiast rather than that of the professional performer, is not just about the fun to be had by abusing women both on stage and in the audience, but rather about all the dollars to be extracted from the latest production. For decades there has been a trend toward radical productions of opera—productions that have involved not only the deconstruction of traditional operatic presentations, but also the code of decency that had once been presumed to be standard. Or let me put it another way: A famous book of feminist complaints was and is named The Feminine Mystique, which in few words implies that the dignity of woman is something that needs to be eliminated. In that sense, representing rape and orgies on stage with the nudity that is appropriate to the occasion has been sold as a progressive phenomenon. But we might ask two questions. Has on-stage nudity revived opera’s appeal? Have radical productions shown themselves to be effective in creating a new audience for opera? The jury is still out on these matters, but this takes us back to Fabiano’s remarks. He seems to want to keep women from being abused by radical operatic productions that are the latest thing, even though such trends have been promoted as a means to sell tickets for the tenor’s latest appearance.
My own concern is that the manifest meaning of narrative and plays and operas of the past should not be mistreated or distorted in a destructive manner. And I want to add a further comment about the distinguished French authors previously cited. About Victor Hugo, I have the temerity to announce the obvious. His novel Notre-Dame de Paris (1831) was an act, as well as a provocation, of historical preservation. Even more obviously, Prosper Mérimée was actually and literally an historical preservationist himself, and one of national scale. Though Bizet’s Carmen differed to a great extent from Mérimée’s original, still these works of two preservationists indicate something about the legitimacy of at least respecting the ostensible meaning of these works and others.
I suggest that a good look at Verdi’s La traviata will clarify the situation. There could be no integrity at all in ignoring the discretion, the manners, and the human understanding that surrounds the portrayal of a woman of the demimondaine, a courtesan as derived by the younger Dumas from the times. This opera of what once were contemporary manners and costumes casts a shadow on our own failure to grasp the nuances and sensitivities of times gone by. But if we wrecked those distinctions, we would have lost our contact not only with that work, but with our own grasp of reality, along with the difference between now and then. The soprano understands the baritone’s concerns, and he respects her as he gets to know her. The failure is from the tenor. But he, too, learns by paying attention to the fine points, and the pair recover their love before she leaves the scene.
No display of nudity, no flaunting of sexuality, no celebration of erotic aggression could ever make up for any damage done to the elevated account that is central to this representation of romantic love and its value, which we realize when it is lost. No amount of cheap theatrics would be fitting to bring this opera “up to date.” No mishandling can divert us from perceiving that too often, the ones who are trying to save opera from itself are the ones who are hastening its decline.