Art does not show how to lead a happy life

The German literary scholar Barbara Vinken has studied opera as an art form in depth and, from a feminist perspective, pleads for a differentiated view of the eternal victim role of women on the operatic stage.

Ms. Vinken, the topic of our conversation is the image of women conveyed by the traditional opera repertoire. As a feminist woman who has reflected deeply, do you have a problem with the way female characters appear on the operatic stage?
Honestly, no. Of course, it depends on which opera I'm watching. For example, in The Magic Flute, when the Priests' Chorus comes on, I feel like walking out. So much self-righteous nonsense in a droning bass gets on my nerves. I don't want to hear that.

You mean Sarastro's all-male priestly community, who utter misogynistic phrases like «beware of women’s scheming» or «a woman does little, chatters much.»
Yes, although this kind of misogyny actually exposes itself. The priests are convinced that they know the right way, and that they know everything better. They are power-hungry, demonise the Queen of the Night and plot against her. To further their illegitimate seizure of power, they construct for themselves a completely obsessive system of order. Makes you think: OK, anything else? Misogyny which is on display like this repudiates itself.

«The greatness of opera lies in taking the perspective of the underdog»

But Mozart's Magic Flute is the most frequently-performed opera.
And it has incredibly ironic and funny moments. It's variegated, there is this fascinating character of the Queen of the Night as anti-mother. Clichés are ironically inverted or exposed through over-fulfilment, gender clichés are turned on their heads. That's great.

You say you have no problem with the image of women which opera projects, although female characters are incessantly betrayed, bartered, defeated, killed and presented as failures. How does that fit together?
We live in a culture where, in tragedy, the heroine or hero dies in the end. Art is not about showing how someone leads a particularly successful, happy life. Characters become heroes in the theatre by giving their lives. There are few who live happily ever after - except perhaps in fairy tales, and we hear nothing more of these heroes who live contentedly to the end of their days. No, literature, theatre and opera tell of the losers, while historiography tells of the winners. Let's consider Virgil's Aeneid: it is a story of winners - the Roman Empire gets founded. But the greatness of the Aeneid does not lie in the future triumph of the Roman Empire. It lies in the tragedy of the fall of Troy, in the account of Dido’s downfall, which has made readers weep for over two thousand years. We do not rejoice with the victors. We suffer with the abandoned, tragic, suicidal Dido. The greatness of opera lies in taking the perspective of the underdog. But of course I understand where your question is going. This is, after all, the classic accusation, that opera celebrates a cult of female sacrifice. «Not another dead woman on stage» is the objection, levelled especially at 19th century works. But you have to pay close attention. The 19th century was perhaps the worst of all centuries in terms of gender equality. But it is opera itself that tells of the intolerability of bourgeois ideas of marriage and the patriarchal nuclear family; it does not preach patriarchal values, but denounces them. Patriarchal masculinity suffers a catastrophic shipwreck on the operatic stage.

So the female victim presented here does not confirm male superiority?
The question of the function of the victim is a central one for almost everything in art. What is a victim? We live in a Christian tradition based on a cult of sacrifice: a young man of 33 is executed on the cross and achieves the redemption of humanity through this sacrifice of love. Against this background, sacrifice is - also - a privilege. By the 19th century at the latest, we are in a crisis of sacrifice: you get the feeling that we are not redeemed, that redemption has to happen afresh. In opera, Christ's sacrifice of love is reinterpreted and recast. In the process, the privilege of sacrifice is, in typical Romantic fashion, granted almost exclusively to women. Exceptions prove the rule. So we can say: opera houses are cathedrals of modernity, but their redeemer is female.

«Patriarchal masculinity suffers a catastrophic shipwreck on the operatic stage»

And what does that mean for the male characters in opera?
As I say, patriarchal society is exposed. Let's take Verdi's La traviata: the representative of the patriarchy, Giorgio Germont, the father of Violetta's lover Alfredo, sees at the end that he has committed an offence against love for the sake of the patriarchy. He recognises his guilt, he recognises the greatness of Violetta's sublime renunciation of love. At her deathbed, the son points out the suffering woman to his father: look what you have done. Ecce homo. This is a declaration of bankruptcy by the patriarchy, which is incapable of recognising what love is. Germont is saved only by his conversion: he recognises that Violetta's love is far more important than the family honour. Verdi lets us hear that. With him, indeed, an unbelievable transformative power arises from the ability of women to love at the moment of their death, which is much stronger than the ostensible power of men. We also feel this with Gilda in Rigoletto. At first glance, you might think of her: «She’s just a silly creature who has got involved with the wrong person.» But she has the strength to go to her death for the Duke of Mantua, even though she has recognised his unworthiness. The power of that love is incredible. And what a pathetic figure the Duke cuts by comparison. The immensity of Gilda's love- sacrifice makes him not only ridiculous, but infamous. He has understood nothing. He leaves the stage warbling «La donna è mobile», one of the most famous tenor arias in operatic history. In it he defames women, without an inkling of the devastation he has caused. I think the Duke's character also shows the subtle kind of contempt that many opera composers have for the tenor voice part. It took me a little while to understand this. Of course, we’re all swept away by the beauty of the tenor voice. But we should actually listen more closely before succumbing to its seductive power, because the voice’s promise is often debunked by the character, as with the Duke, or Pinkerton, the tenor in Puccini's Madama Butterfly: he reveals himself from the first note as a pompous type and an imperialist sex profiteer.

It is not always the case that women become heroic, exaggerated victim figures. One female stereotype in opera, for example, is that the woman is capricious and «flighty», as it is so beautifully called in Italian libretti. She cannot be faithful, is easily seduced, is constantly torn back and forth by her emotions. In the end, she is denied the ability to love seriously. What is to be said about this from a feminist perspective?
This is exactly what the Duke sings in Rigoletto: «La donna è mobile», a woman is capricious, like a feather in the wind, she loves first one man, then another. This is male self-legitimisation in the sense of: don't set your heart on one; just do what you please. This motif comes from Virgil's Aeneid. Mercury descends from heaven and says: Aeneas, you idiot, how can you sacrifice your kingdom for a woman. You can never build on the heart of a woman. In this case, it's the very worst kind of slander, because the woman - Dido, that is - is faithful to the very end. And that's exactly how it is in Rigoletto: what the Duke sings is the vilest slander, which the audience can hear as just that: this supposedly flighty woman has just gone to her death without batting an eyelid for the Duke, who is himself the epitome of flightiness. For me, by far the most interesting opera in this context is Così fan tutte by Mozart, because in it the theme of female flightiness is rigorously developed and brought to the crux of the matter. It is clear from the outset that men are incapable of serious love anyway, in other words, flighty - così fan tutti. Nobody ever supposes otherwise. The men bet on the fidelity of their brides and prove each other wrong, disguised in cross-couple combinations. The men bet on their uniqueness and irreplaceability. By triumphantly claiming: my bride will never cheat on me, it becomes clear that for the men love is nothing but a narcissistic reflection. If my bride is faithful to me, I am the greatest. That's hysterically funny. Mozart mercilessly exposes male narcissism and drives the idealistic belief in the uniqueness of the individual and love up against the wall. Of course, this is also shocking.

Fiordiligi after all, steadfast as she is, really loves the «wrong» man when she admits her feelings in the second act.
Exactly. She succumbs to the illusion of authentic love in all its beauty, which is what makes this character great. That's what's so ingenious about this opera, that it's totally disillusioning, but allows the illusion to blossom once again in all its glory. In the end, however, there is the insight: human passions are not unique and indivisible, the individual is interchangeable. And this is to be borne with cheerfulness and without bitterness, please.

«People ask critically: is opera still relevant today? I have to say, I find it incredibly relevant»

I would like to discuss another role that is readily assigned to women in operas. They are the trophy that men must win through being tested, like Max in Freischütz, or they are offered as the prize in competitions, as in Wagner's Meistersinger. Viewed from a polemical perspective, this is an understanding of women that should no longer have any place in the 21st century.
I have to go back to the bottom line: it is not art's job to provide role models for fair treatment and a successful life. Opera doesn't function according to the principle of «how to marry the right guy», «how to be successful», etc. Aesthetic themes move beyond exemplars and direct applicability to real life. They open up possibilities for insight, and these insights show us reality in a new light. Self-knowledge, knowledge of reality, even if it hurts: therein lies the function of art.

The activist approach in the current cancel culture debates, however, operates along the lines of: prevailing art forms repeat stereotypes, thereby confirming them, and therefore have to go.
And I find: the stereotypes are displayed - that is, we can recognise them as stereotypes in the first place - and unmasked. For example, does Gustave Flaubert's novel Madame Bovary endorse the patriarchal marriage it deals with? Does he condemn the adulteress who poisons herself in the end? Anyone who reads the novel in this way has not understood it at all. Instead of cancelling operas or texts, we should have the courage to expose ourselves to their dangerous forces, their affronts, their corrupting energy, the unfashionableness inherent in them, but also, of course, their beauty - and then perceive what they have to say to us. As long as we have an experience, through reading or a visit to the opera, that we would not have had without a work of art, that work is alive. When that no longer happens, it is dead. Of course, that can happen too. The canon of relevant works must be continually recreated. People in every society have to reinterpret it for themselves and their time. The canon is what we make of it, here and now.

Our conversation has taken a surprising turn. You, a critical feminist observer of opera, are making a passionate defence of the art form, while I, a representative of the business, feel compelled to bring the problematic aspects to the fore.
I certainly see why you ask this. Opera is under pressure to justify itself. It preserves a traditional repertoire that is accused of being misogynistic, racist, imperialist-colonial and elitist. I do not share this judgement. The operas do not promote this behaviour; they hold up a mirror for us. People ask critically: is opera still relevant today? And I have to say, I find it incredibly relevant. It bursts the corsets of gender apart like no other genre. Like no other art form - apart from fashion - it presents gender roles not as an expression of nature, but as something to be played with and treated ironically. This is fantastic. You only have to hear and see Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro and cross-dressing Cherubino to understand what I mean. As far as voices are concerned, opera also makes it impossible to naturalise the sexes: in Baroque opera, men sing soprano and alto. In this respect - and this is just one example - opera is a very contemporary art form for me. You should also consider: what would be the «contemporary» alternative to opera? As an art form, it is of a complexity and richness that is hard to surpass. Fantastic voices, divas, orchestras, choruses, fascinating themes, all going against the grain - who could possibly boast such riches? This is something that should also be seen, or rather heard, in the current debates. You don't just find such artistic power lying around on the street.

The interview was conducted by Claus Spahn.

Barbara Vinken is Professor of General Literature and Romance Philology at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. Her book «Diva: Eine etwas andere Opernverführerin» will be published by Klett-Cotta-Verlag in March.

This article was published in MAG 97, November 2022. You can subscribe to MAG here.