SUZANNE G. CUSICK AND MONICA A. HERSHBERGER
This colloquy grew out of an especially lively panel discussion at the 2016 annual meeting of the American Musicological Society, entitled “Sexual Violence on Stage.” Inspired in part by rising public concern over the frequency and institutional mishandling of sexual assaults on college and university campuses and by the reemergence into public awareness of the term “rape culture,” the participants also found themselves responding to well-publicized remarks by political figures that seemed to celebrate acts that met the legal definition of sexual assault; to the controversial proliferation of opera productions that strike some as gratuitously explicit; and to the sparse but powerful critical literature on sexual assault in opera.
In 2015 the American Association of Universities (AAU) released results from a campus climate survey that found that “[o]verall, 11.7 percent of students across 27 universities reported experiencing nonconsensual penetration or sexual touching by force or incapacitation since enrolling at the IHE [Institute of Higher Education].”1 Two controversial documentaries about rape on college campuses, The Hunting Ground and It Happened Here, were released in the same year, as was a list of more than one hundred colleges and universities facing Title IX investigations by the United States Department of Education for mishandling their students’ sexual assault allegations.2 These documents led many to reexamine the way “rape culture” manifests on campus.
A term employed increasingly by feminists since the 1970s, “rape culture” refers to the ways in which our society normalizes sexual violence against women and people whose gender presentation is perceived as non-normative, particularly trans people of color, and to ways in which violence relates to larger systems of control.3 Susan Brownmiller set the tone in her controversial, groundbreaking study Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (1975).4 Her premise—that rape is “a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear”—clearly situated rape within a patriarchal order.5 Drawing on Brownmiller, editors Emilie Buchwald, Pamela R. Fletcher, and Martha Roth defined the term explicitly in their handbook Transforming a Rape Culture (1993):
[Rape culture] is a complex of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent. In a rape culture, women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women and presents it as the norm.6
In 2013 historian Estelle B. Freedman published an exhaustive study of the ways in which American definitions of rape have depended on definitions of citizenship, and thus on the racialized dynamics of political power and social privilege in the United States. Drawing in part on the earlier work of Angela Davis and bell hooks, Freedman interrogated one of the most enduring myths about rape in the United States: rape as a brutal attack on a chaste white woman by a stranger, typically imagined to be an African American man.7 Since the 1970s writers have also confronted the issue of rape on college campuses specifically, highlighting yet again that the current institutional “crisis” is hardly new.8 Engagement with this body of literature, particularly the flurry of activity since the mid-2000s, may prove useful to musicologists, because in an age of violence—as well as heightened sensitivity to that violence—musicologists who encounter violence in the works they teach and study are required to navigate through an increasingly complicated musical and political landscape.
Violence against women in opera has received considerable scholarly attention. In 1979 Catherine Clément asserted that opera features a parade of dying women, arguing that opera's plots inflict violence upon women and that its gorgeous music glosses over that violence.9 She reiterated her claim in 2000, insisting that sopranos are the inevitable victims of opera, particularly nineteenth-century opera: “Humiliated, hunted, driven mad, burnt alive, buried alive, stabbed, committing suicide—Violetta, Sieglinde, Lucia, Brünnhilde, Aida, Norma, Mélisande, Liù, Butterfly, Isolde, Lulu, and so many others … All sopranos, and all victims.”10 Musicologists such as Carolyn Abbate, Joseph Kerman, Susan McClary, and Mary Ann Smart have engaged her assertions, noting that they were most applicable to the nineteenth-century tragic canon, while pointing to the artistic, cultural, and sometimes economic power wielded by the women who performed these roles.11 Relatively few musicologists, however, have focused on opera's sexual violence. Some have done so through critical interpretation, while others have focused specifically on campus and classroom concerns.
Elizabeth Hudson's pioneering interpretative essay “Gilda Seduced” interrogated the curious silences surrounding Gilda's “seduction” by the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto.12 Elizabeth Wells meticulously explored and historicized Shostakovich's choice, in the first version of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, to emphasize themes of sexuality and violence that were only implicit in the novella from which he had taken the libretto.13 J. P. E. Harper-Scott's 2009 response to a Copenhagen production of Britten's The Rape of Lucretia also richly historicized the work's sexual politics.14 And in Verdi, Opera, Women (2013) Susan Rutherford complicated and enriched Hudson's critical reading of Gilda's situation in Rigoletto, historicizing the opera's representations in relation to accounts of its reception, to evidence in Italian legal documents of the time that reveals how women described their experience of coercive heterosexual encounters, and to Italian feminist literature of the nineteenth century.15 All four authors give frank, detailed accounts of the way sexual violence against women was represented musically and scenically, providing useful models for thinking about such representations.
Four musicologists have written prominently about classroom teaching in relation to on-campus sexual violence. In her riposte “What Do Feminists Want? A Reply to Pieter van den Toorn” Ruth Solie observed that the threat of sexual violence was a perennially vital issue for women students working late on campus—and thus a concern for all faculty. Partly in response to disturbing statistics on campus rape culture compiled in the 1980s, Liane Curtis's “The Sexual Politics of Teaching Mozart's Don Giovanni” presented a range of pedagogical strategies for engaging students’ strong reactions to the Don responsively and responsibly.16 Bonnie Gordon has written about using analysis of early modern repertory to help students respond to an especially troubling situation at the University of Virginia.17 Most recently, Kassandra Hartford proposed four strategies for approaching sexual violence in opera in the college classroom: (1) naming it as such; (2) preparing students and allowing classroom time and space for student reactions; (3) considering carefully which staging(s) to show students, and (4) working with campus partners.18 Implicit in the work of all four authors is the expectation that we who teach opera will be sensitive to the often enduring effects experienced by survivors of sexual violence.19
In all of the operas discussed by these pioneers (and by this colloquy's authors), the “traditional” value that leads to a woman's rape is the notion that female human beings are—and should behave as—the physical, moral, or sexual property of male human beings, to be used for their physical, social, or political gratification. As in real life, the rape is a violent performative of systemic, gendered power that enforces such hierarchies as gender, race, ethnicity, and class. It is disturbing to contemplate the possibility that the robust rape culture of our time might partly exist because that notion has remained an unspoken assumption of modernity and postmodernity, sustained by myriad iterations and citations in the representations of both popular and elite culture. The critical and pedagogical work of the abovementioned authors reveals how deeply embedded in the cultural tradition of Western opera this notion really is. It follows from their work that when we stage, perform, or teach that repertory without explicitly engaging its imbrication with sexual and gender violence, we risk unwittingly sustaining a part of its tradition that we now find morally repugnant.
How can we—as scholars, teachers, and artists—resist opera's capacity to sustain rape culture? Hartford's four classroom strategies are a useful start, but how can we wisely choose which works and productions to teach, and formulate useful discussion questions to ask? How do contemporary women directors and composers think about the representation of sexual violence on the opera stage?
The essays in this colloquy engage these questions. Each responds to different aspects of the historical moment that sparked the original panel. Each author's point of address produces a specific tone, approach, and synthesis of critical and pedagogical perspectives, some yielding insights about rape culture's entanglements with race. All build on earlier scholarship to suggest ways in which scholars and opera professionals can begin to resist the tradition of rape culture embedded in Western opera by making ever more deliberate choices about our own performative acts of interpretation—be it as producers, stage directors, performers, composers, or scholar-teachers.
Don Giovanni and the Resilience of Rape Culture
Students should know how Don Giovanni is being portrayed on stage. In scholarship, criticism, and some textbooks, tributes to his defiant masculinity have begun losing ground to discussions of the murder, attempted rape, and repeated humiliation he visits on his fellow characters.20 In the theater, depictions of his offenses have become more forthright, but with an emphasis on social and psychological causes that attenuate the responsibility of the perpetrator. Students may observe his changing fortunes, at least in select and mediated form, in the sixty-plus years of accumulated film and video footage of Mozart's opera. The performance record forms an essential complement to whatever historical or critical literature they may study, showing how this perennial favorite of curricula has at once undermined and reinforced modern rape culture.
Opera productions are notoriously complex, and my brief account here marks only a few signal developments that might be further explored in discussions or assignments. The first was registered by David Littlejohn in 1981: “Some of the more celebrated recent versions have made Don Giovanni a total antihero, a creature of the most sinister evil. He becomes a cold, calculating rapist and murderer in a world almost unrelievedly dark—a character infinitely distant from Ezio Pinza's endearing swashbuckler-sensualist.”21 In truth, productions from the late 1970s look pretty tame today, but a glance at still older versions clarifies Littlejohn's reaction. Ezio Pinza had retired before opera filming became commonplace, but his immediate successors, singers such as Cesare Siepi and Mario Petri, exude an elegant verve reminiscent of the legendary film swashbuckler Errol Flynn, who starred in his own Adventures of Don Juan in 1948.22 Flynn's character is more virtuous than his stage counterpart, but in opera videos from the 1950s and 1960s Don Giovanni is far more charming than calculating, and scarcely violent. His duel with the Commendatore is gentlemanly and his struggle with Donna Anna dignified, the characters remaining upright and maintaining good vocal production. He behaves differently in the late 1970s, even though the most widely circulated performances largely abide by the same standards of physical decorum and musical poise. In the feature film by Joseph Losey as well as a Glyndebourne Festival production directed by Peter Hall, the respective Dons, Ruggero Raimondi and Benjamin Luxon, look variously forceful, heartless, or lecherous, subjecting Zerlina in particular to lewd gazes and aggressive fondling.23 Their swashbuckling predecessors never betrayed such coarseness, much less the malevolence that leads Luxon's character to grin during the swordfight and wipe his blade on the dead Commendatore's cloak.
The character grew more wicked in the 1980s and 1990s, abetted by changes in staging practice and musical style. Operatic acting began a long journey toward naturalism, exchanging decorum for the more dynamic gestures of spoken theater or cinema, and in some cases their more graphic treatment of sex and violence. The struggles grow more physical and the consequences more visible: the Commendatore bleeds out from his wounds at the beginning, and Zerlina emerges disheveled or half-clothed after Don Giovanni takes her off stage, “almost by force,” in the act 1 finale.24 Several directors add a different kind of realism by referencing criminal stereotypes. For Lindy Hume the protagonist is a leather-clad aristocrat out of the marquis de Sade who subdues Donna Anna with his sword; for Peter Sellars he is an African American drug dealer who leaves the same character bloody and exhausted after an assault in the inner city. Deborah Warner offers a middle-class degenerate, a scary guy-next-door who crowns an exceptionally vulgar career by abusing a statue of the Virgin Mary.25 The adventurer who pushed social boundaries begins to look like a pariah bent on destroying them altogether.
During the same years Mozart's operas experienced a musical transformation, or what might better be termed a rebalancing. The sonorous, long-lined, expansive performances found in many audio and video recordings of the 1950s–1970s had always been counterpointed by drier, more accentuated, often swifter interpretations. The latter multiplied in the wake of the historical performance movement, not only in period-instrument renderings but in like-minded versions by “modern” orchestras. The effects recall those of naturalistic acting. In scenes such as the introduction, or the epic confrontations in the opera's two finales, a faster, more clipped, more emphatic delivery imbues the action and dialogue with fresh physicality.26 Add in the signature sonorities of historical performance—blaring brass, timpani played with hard sticks, strings and voices with little or no vibrato—and the events sound grittier as well. Music and staging do not always interact as one might expect: Sellars's inner-city drama unfolds to a noticeably slow and lyrical performance, whereas Riccardo Muti's speedy and forceful conducting accompanies relatively genteel action on the stage at La Scala.27 Yet speaking broadly, musical performance in the 1980s and 1990s contributes to an edgier, more active conception of the opera as a whole.
In the last two decades, graphic and gritty have become the new normal for Mozart, and Don Giovanni has continued his moral descent. He has run a gamut of depravity, appearing in such unsavory guises as a drug addict, high-society playboy, free-loving home wrecker, gangster, and fascist military officer. More generally, with rare exceptions he has come to project danger and malice in all kinds of surroundings. When the Metropolitan Opera revived its Franco Zeffirelli production in 2000, retaining the director's richly detailed eighteenth-century designs, it marked a new era by darkening the drama. Ten years earlier Samuel Ramey had played a mostly gallant deceiver in a sonorous performance led by James Levine. In the revival, with new stage direction by Stephen Lawless and a newly emphatic if still deliberate performance by Levine and the cast, Bryn Terfel became a snarling bully who manhandles the women and slaughters the Commendatore with evident satisfaction.28 The terrible confluence of male privilege and sexual aggression is as evident in the ancien régime as in any updated setting. What is more, in some productions Don Giovanni is no longer the only offender: already Sellars had endowed Masetto and Don Ottavio with violent tendencies, and others have followed suit. The protagonist has even begun to suffer more graphic, less heroic forms of punishment than the traditional descent into flames, including murder at the hands of the other characters. Across a range of more and less revisionist productions, Mozart's opera has evolved from a picaresque adventure into a fable of crime and retribution—in Richard Brody's recent description, the “musical realization of a monstrous world and its deliverance.”29
And yet monsters still lurk, in the form of directorial choices that normalize or mitigate the very sexual violence that other choices bring to light. A predatory Don Giovanni is a natural vehicle for social critique, and whatever the setting his power may appear to depend as much on inequalities of gender or class as on personal charm or even force. Paradoxically, the same inequalities may appear to hold power over him, raising questions as to who bears responsibility for his crimes. Sellars's production evokes the rampant injustices of American racism, which trap the entire multiracial cast in a downward spiral of violence and addiction. Viewers may be led to recognize a real-world system of oppression whose beneficiaries include the generally white, affluent institution of opera itself. But they may equally be led to view sexual violence as a symptom, rather than a cause, of a social dysfunction imposed from without. A black, inner-city Don Giovanni does not choose criminality so much as have it thrust upon him. Likewise a fascist or a “one-percenter” Don Giovanni can easily come across as a product of social ills. Both of these latter scenarios lie closer to the modern social reality of opera than does Sellars's inner city, and directors such as Martin Kušej and Sven-Eric Bechtolf clearly mean to hold an unflattering mirror up to their audience.30 Yet the very act of doing so, of exposing the rot that makes a Don Giovanni inevitable, diverts attention from his personal agency as a predator, and the agency he robs from his prey. Society is the problem more than he is, and the ensemble following his death conveys damage and loss rather than deliverance. Something similar happens when he is sick. Beginning with Freud's disciple Otto Rank, a venerable tradition of criticism has the character acting out oedipal compulsions, and productions by Dmitri Tcherniakov and the team of Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito remake the cast as a kind of dysfunctional family plagued by bourgeois sexual repression.31 Responsibility shifts again to a social condition, which causes neurosis and bad behavior in everyone.
More plainly, Don Giovanni's predations take on new meaning when his victims are made to appear conflicted or complicit. In the libretto both Donna Elvira and Zerlina express mixed feelings, and performances may render them variously resistant or cooperative. When the scales tip toward the latter, as in versions of Zerlina's first encounter with Don Giovanni by Bechtolf, Claus Guth, Kasper Holten and others, what may look elsewhere like a ruthless betrayal of innocence becomes instead a mutual, consensual expression of desire.32 Making Donna Anna appear cooperative goes further, upending the moral compass of the entire story. According to the libretto she fights Don Giovanni off, but in 1813 E. T. A. Hoffmann famously imagined her gripped by a “lusty insanity” (“wollüstigen Wahnsinn”) that turns to hatred only when she realizes she has thrown away her honor.33 His interpretation has experienced a renaissance in modern times, beginning as early as Losey's film, in which the director staged a mute exchange of glances during the overture to signal that Don Giovanni was already her lover and their meeting prearranged.34 More and more directors have taken similar routes, to the point that of the twenty-odd stage versions released on video since 2000 more than half depict Donna Anna as either vacillating about Don Giovanni or conspiring with him outright.35 All the women's conduct may appear defensible, even empowering: in 1984 the director Ruth Berghaus portrayed their affairs as liberating them from bourgeois femininity,36 and in recent years infidelity has itself sometimes looked like resistance to a newly domineering Don Ottavio or Masetto. But if consenting women cleanse the story of rape, they also introduce one of the most familiar and debasing stereotypes of rape culture, lying women. In a pivotal scene late in act 1, Donna Anna narrates her nighttime assault to Don Ottavio. When represented as untruthful, she turns from a victim into a villain, the fallen woman trying to protect her reputation by incriminating an innocent man.
None of this has restored Don Giovanni to swashbuckling charm, and even when placed in mitigating circumstances he may still exhibit generous measures of both physical and psychological brutality. My concern is that students grasp the range of his transformations, and those of the opera as a whole. They should witness at least some of the contradictions adumbrated above, encountering both vicious predators and hapless neurotics, virtuous fiancées and conniving lovers, morality tales and bacchanals. A favorite in theaters as well as textbooks—college theaters included—Don Giovanni has been a prime venue for opera to engage feminist critiques of sexual violence and the objectification of women. The results have been anything but uniform, and students trying to come to terms with such a problematic yet ubiquitous work, to say nothing of attempting to perform it, urgently need perspective on its contemporary meanings. Since rape culture was recognized as such in the 1970s, performances of Don Giovanni have contributed to its critique. At the same time, and sometimes in the same productions, they have demonstrated its stubborn resilience.
Staging Opera Ballet
Theodor Adorno posited that art “embodies something like freedom in the midst of unfreedom. … [T]hrough its very existence it stands outside the evil spell that prevails [allying] it to a promise of happiness, a promise it itself somehow expresses in its expression of despair.”37 Such a frail hope is perhaps a familiar state for feminist opera studies, in which the power of the voice and the power of music are invoked as a kind of rehabilitation for plots that frequently make a spectacle of female pain and death. As most famously represented in work by Susan McClary, operatic women make brief escapes into vocal extravagance and chromaticism only to be inevitably forced back into conventional frames that she takes to be reliably patriarchal.38 Indeed, feminist scholars have rarely granted that music stands outside any evil spell. In their view, it can cast spells of its own. As Catherine Clément argues, “the music makes one forget the plot, but the plot sets traps for the imaginary.”39
As attention in opera studies has turned increasingly toward performance, women's agency has often been located in their liveness.40 But how is that music conveyed to a contemporary audience? In this essay I will discuss the staging of one particularly challenging and salient corner of opera: the nineteenth-century opera ballet, a wobbly part of the already wobbly operatic work-concept. Women's bodies are prominent in such ballets and, generally speaking, their voices are silenced. From a modern perspective, ballets are a contested part of the opera luxury product: lengthy, expensive, incongruent with post-Wagnerian conceptions of drama, and rarely a beloved element of opera texts in the first place. Parisian ballets of the nineteenth century, in particular, are often framed as superfluous interludes that composers included only grudgingly.41 That their music also carries the suspicion of convention and lightness makes them doubly suspect, and doubly dispensable. Yet a ballet's frequently vague integration into the plot and weak canonic status can make it valuable real estate for the modern director, ready to be filled with new action. One classic example of narrative expansion is Peter Konwitschny's production of Don Carlos, in which we see Eboli's fondest wish: to be a 1950s-style housewife.42 While the ballet music remains, ballet choreography has vanished.
Yet the narrative rupture of the ballet—its sudden replacement of vocal utterance with pantomime and its audible shift in musical register—has also enabled its service as a site for self-reflection. Such self-reflexivity is an important element of the staging practices typically identified as Regietheater, a messy term used to identify productions that practice some form of what David Levin has termed the “unsettling” of an operatic text.43 Criticism of these interventions often features gendered language. In her frequently cited polemic against Regietheater, Heather MacDonald writes of Calixto Bieito's Komische Oper Berlin production of Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail that “the orgies and boorish behavior that Bieito demands of his characters do violence to the music above all.”44 Opera is personified and becomes a helpless, beautiful thing—a woman—that must be protected.
But deconstructive staging also offers the possibility of challenging aspects of an operatic text. This is particularly salient in a strain of stagings set in or around the time of the opera's composition, and implies that the opera text exemplifies or explains social and cultural conditions. For the purposes of gender studies this approach is intriguing, practicing a kind of hermeneutics of suspicion on musical expression and suggesting that opera does not stand outside anything at all. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Patrice Chéreau's Bayreuth Ring (1976); other examples include Claus Guth's Wesendonck-themed Tristan und Isolde (Opernhaus Zürich, 2008), Nicholas Hytner's Xerxes (English National Opera, 1988), and Stefan Herheim's Parsifal (Bayreuth Festival, 2008).45 To varying degrees these “new historicist” productions pull back the curtain of the phantasmagoria and reveal the opera as the product of its own contingencies of composition and reception. For the historian this may seem solipsistic, but as a self-conscious confrontation with the stickier parts of operatic verisimilitude it can be exciting, even as it often reveals as much about the present as the past.
Dainty ballerinas or their dainty music are, it seems, an obvious target for such an unmasking. The staging of the violent, often sexually suggestive abuse of women during ballet interludes, usually to jaunty music, has become a virtual obsession of recent productions, including productions of Faust (David McVicar, 2004), Aida (Calixto Bieito, 2010), Manon (Laurent Pelly, 2010), Les vêpres siciliennes (Stefan Herheim, 2013), and Guillaume Tell (Damiano Michieletto, 2015).46 In several of these productions the dancers explicitly play dancer characters, maintaining at least some elements of ballet choreography, and the visual language explicitly references nineteenth-century Paris.
McVicar's staging of Faust is a particularly revealing case. While the libretto describes the act 5 ballet as a timeless spectacle of the greatest courtesans of history, Michael Keegan-Dolan's ballet instead allegorizes the sorry fate of Marguerite—represented by a bedraggled and pregnant dancer struggling through a balletic solo—through specific images of ballet. These include an onstage box of tuxedo-wearing patrons watching the spectacle, and choreographic references to another tale of an abandoned woman, Giselle. At one point the ballet paradoxically marks itself as dance by breaking the greatest taboo in classical ballet—that against speech—when a dancer from the corps points at the prima ballerina and yells, in French, “She's pregnant!” The same tuxedo-wearing patrons, a suggestion of exploitation, appear in Pelly's Manon, an opera in which the attraction of ballet dancers explicitly figures in the plot, no less.
Yet like their predecessors these productions trade on women's bodies for symbolic currency and rarely go so far as to offer a genuinely new insight into or portrayal of the women's subjectivities. (One more productive alternative is Stefan Herheim's staging of Rusalka, which tells much of the story from the perspective of the Water Goblin, showing the plot as explicitly emanating from one male character's viewpoint.)47 Most notoriously, Damiano Michieletto's production of Guillaume Tell in London in 2015 transformed the opera's act 3 ballet, in which a group of subjugated women are forced to dance, into an explicit rape scene. Michieletto argued that such brutality was necessary in order to convey the oppression of the Swiss by the Austrians. His scene makes a rather blunt point about the suffering of civilians during war, but he also perpetuates opera's tendency to put those women's suffering on display for public consumption. In part on account of the practical demands of rehearsal and staging, the interpolated victim is herself a dancer or supernumerary, a mute, nameless, and faceless character—in other words, a woman denied opera's most vital power, a singing voice.
Michieletto's ballet is made particularly potent by its dialectical relationship between music and action: while the music's maniacal and frantic energy could be read, in nineteenth-century terms, as violent, for contemporary audiences its major key, light string melody, and regular pulse render it tidy, refined, and graceful. The score creates a startling dissonance with the rawness of the stage action. This dialectical relationship between musical and visual signification is at the heart of Regietheater, simultaneously one of its most productive and most frequently criticized elements.48 Even as the music promises release, the visual field prevents the audience from simply enjoying its pleasures.
In the furor that greeted Michieletto's ballet two primary reasons for outrage were identified: first, that the scene was, as Rupert Christiansen wrote in the Telegraph, “in blatant contradiction to the spirit of the music,” and second, particularly since the production carried no content warning, that the scene was too personal and too traumatic for some audience members.49 The second point is, I believe, legitimate, but the first depends on a reductive reading of musical expression, one that imposes an overly determined and fixed hierarchy on opera's complex systems of meaning. The line between exploitation and productive meaning is by no means clear, however. (I would argue, for example, that Bieito's Entführung, far more graphic than Michieletto's ballet, is a serious interpretation and, when seen in proper context, not gratuitous.) Violence against women is too central to both opera and contemporary society to be left off stage, but if opera wishes to be more than escapism or exploitation it must listen to the women themselves. Historicization can contextualize, but an essentially male perspective can survive such deconstructions perfectly intact.
Seduction or Rape? The Sexual Politics of Carlisle Floyd's
MONICA A. HERSHBERGER
Currently the third most performed American opera in the United States, Carlisle Floyd's Susannah (1955) is often regarded as a commentary on the McCarthy era, yet the opera also deals with the ubiquitous problems of rape, denial, slut shaming, and victim blaming.50 The issues it brought to the stage more than sixty years ago remain vitally relevant. In what follows, I consider the intertwining sexual and racial politics that have informed its performance and reception since the 1950s. I then suggest a path for renewed and explicitly intersectional engagement, revealing the African American origins of one of Susannah's songs in order to interrogate the potential overlap between sexual violence and racial difference on display in this opera.
Floyd began writing the libretto and music for Susannah in 1953, drawing on the Apocryphal story of Susanna and the Elders from the Book of Daniel.51 He envisioned his protagonist as the unmarried (chaste) Susannah Polk, who lives with her older brother Sam in New Hope Valley, an isolated Tennessee mountain community. Susannah and Sam are something of outsiders: their parents are dead, and Sam is notorious for having an alcohol problem. Susannah's world crumbles completely when the Elders of the community, embarrassed by the lustful feelings they experience after seeing her bathing naked in the creek they plan to use for baptisms, pronounce her wicked and plot to run her out of the valley.
The Reverend Olin Blitch then takes it upon himself to try to save Susannah's soul. He exhorts her to confess her sin publicly. When she refuses he seeks her out in private, visiting her at home while Sam is away. Blitch explains that as an itinerant preacher he is “a lonely man … made out o’ flesh an’ blood an’ bone” who sometimes “need[s] a woman so.” He then forces himself on Susannah. He begs for forgiveness the next morning, as he comes to terms with the fact that he has “defiled” a virgin, and he tries unsuccessfully to clear Susannah's name.52 Importantly, he is not willing to implicate himself or admit that he raped her.
The rape of Susannah in Floyd's adaptation represents a crucial addition to the Apocryphal tale, in which the Elders never physically violate Susanna. By including the rape of a virgin, Floyd perhaps accentuated Susannah's status as a victim.53 Yet music critics and musicologists have routinely obscured the issue, refusing to acknowledge Blitch's crime as rape and referring instead to the crime of seduction. In 1956 New York Times music critic Howard Taubman explained that Blitch “seeks to lead Susannah to salvation” but “ends by seducing her.”54 In 1979 James Chute of the Cincinnati Post wrote that “Blitch follows Susannah home, seduces her, and finally realizes the wrong he and the congregation have committed.”55 As recently as 2001 musicologist Elise K. Kirk summarized how “Blitch first tries to persuade Susannah to repent … and then he seduces her.”56
In the context of United States history, however, “seduction” is a problematic word. As a legal term, “seduction” presumes two things: that the woman had previously been chaste, and that the woman consented. Sociologist Brian Donovan explains that the nation's first antiseduction law emphasized both of these tenets.57 Using the notion of seduction in reference to Susannah thus allows one to shift the blame away from Blitch, to suggest that Susannah actively consented to Blitch's advances even though this means disregarding Floyd's stage directions, which indicate that Susannah “in no way reacts to [Blitch's] closeness.” When Blitch “puts an arm around her,” “Susannah's arms hang slackly at her side” and “there is little sign of life about her.” At the very end of the scene it is Blitch who physically “moves her slowly to the door and into the shadows of the house.”58
The word “seduction” also speaks to a long history of avoiding the word “rape.” As historian Estelle B. Freedman writes, an unfortunate by-product of nineteenth-century reformers’ attempts “to redefine rape beyond forcible assault to include coercive or forcible ‘seduction’” was the conflation of the words “seduction” and “rape.”59 “Seduction” was sometimes code for rape. It could be used as a “legal fiction” to stand in for “the act of forcible sex, with plaintiffs and lawyers agreeing to file a civil seduction suit rather than a criminal rape complaint.”60
Yet there is another, more pernicious problem in the use of the word “seduction”: it is an exclusive word with a racist history. Antiseduction laws were put in place in the nineteenth century largely in order to protect middle-class white women. African American women were never afforded such protection, and in fact, as Freedman argues, “the history of rape consists in large part in tracking the changing narratives that define which women may charge which men with the crime … and whose accounts will be believed.”61 Similarly, Eugene Genovese notes that prior to the American Civil War “rape meant, by definition, rape of white women.”62 After the war, activists worked to establish that black women could also be victims of rape.63 The word “seduction” underwent no similar revision.
The legal history of the words “seduction” and “rape” has important ramifications for Susannah, because in continuing to use the word “seduction” we imply that Susannah is a white woman. Yet there is musical and textual evidence to support a reading of Susannah as an African American woman. At the end of act 1, scene 2, Susannah and her brother sing and dance to a humorous, lighthearted number called the “Jaybird” song, its text taken in part from an African American rhyme with which Floyd was familiar (see Example 1).64 In a recent interview Floyd stated that he knew of the rhyme's African American origins; he had learned “Jaybird” during his own childhood and decided to set it to music as “the theme song of the guileless, youthful Susannah.”65
Despite Floyd's perspective on “Jaybird,” this number might be taken to mark Susannah and Sam as racial outsiders. In the opera, “Jaybird” functions as a family song, something Susannah remembers her father singing to her. No one other than Susannah or Sam ever sings this song, suggesting a tangible reason for Susannah and Sam's outsider status in New Hope Valley. The song's exclusiveness is even more intriguing given that motives from Susannah's two arias recur throughout Floyd's score. “Jaybird” does not. The “Jaybird” melody appears only twice—first, at the end of act 1, scene 2, and second, in the following scene, when Susannah hums the melody as she bathes in the creek. She is humming the song that potentially marks her as “other” at the moment in which she is deemed wicked by the Elders.66
Combing through Floyd's libretto one can find additional racial clues. Near the end of the opening scene, Mrs. McLean, the wife of one of the Valley Elders, asserts that “they's bad blood in [Susannah and Sam's] family.”67 This reference calls to mind the “one-drop rule,” first an informal rule and later a legal principle that solidified “the boundary between Black and White,” according to psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum.68 As the angry mob advances on Susannah at the end of the opera, one of the Elders warns her,
The Elder's words, coupled with Mrs. McLean's comment about “bad blood” and Susannah and Sam's isolated song of African American origin, evoke the history of white mob justice and the practice of lynching black men. Thus although Susannah's (and Sam's) racial identity is not the story in this opera, it weaves like a subtext throughout Floyd's plot and language, demonstrating how any opera can carry meanings beyond those envisioned by its creator.70
This subtext makes Susannah an ideal vehicle for a frank conversation about the history of rape in the United States—including that history's entanglement with American notions of race. Like musicologist Kassandra Hartford, I believe it matters that we name sexual violence in operas that depict it.71 Thus in the case of Susannah it matters that we use the word “rape.” To be sure, it is an ugly word, but to continue to use a racially limited term that shifts blame from perpetrator to victim and emphasizes a victim's prior sexual experience is uglier still.72 When we use the word “seduction” we erase the importance of establishing and listening for consent. We gloss over a history of sexual violence against black women, and ignore the fact that sexual violence has long been used to control and silence the marginalized people in our communities. In September 2017 the advocacy organization End Rape on Campus acknowledged that “black women experience sexual violence at disproportionately high rates, yet are underrepresented in the media conversation.”73 Black women also tend to face more barriers than their white counterparts when it comes to reporting sexual assaults in places such as college campuses.74 A favorite American opera among college and conservatory programs, Susannah is poised to address campus rape culture and histories of erasure—to encourage performers and audiences to contemplate the prevalence of acquaintance rape, the long road to recovery afterward, and our tendency to doubt and blame the victim, particularly when the victim is marked as “other” in some way. The continued college campus presence of Susannah could prove illuminating, and it is to be hoped that future productions will consider intersectional readings that may further clarify Susannah's plight, precisely because it speaks to the history and lived experience of numerous people who have struggled to be heard and believed.
On Teaching Monteverdi's
In the spring of 2015 I asked a group of University of Virginia undergraduate music majors to imagine a staging of Ottavio Rinuccini and Claudio Monteverdi's L'Arianna that would speak to their peers. They set the scene as the culmination of a Take Back the Night vigil in our Greek-style amphitheater. Illuminated by candles, the first-year student Arianna told her story. She had met fourth-year student Theseus, who had used her to escape the Minotaur, promised her an eternal love he never intended, and after a night of passionate sex had left her abandoned on an island. The lecherous professor Bacchus had then found her weeping on a rock and abducted her to the heavens. She finished her story to the accompaniment of an offstage noodling guitar. She would then sing “Lasciatemi morire,” with an electric guitar playing the continuo.
Their compelling idea showed me, in an all too familiar way, that naming the already present but usually unacknowledged violence in musical productions can help to equip students with tools by which to understand the power-based violence that affects campuses today. The tangled web of federal and state legislation, cultural legacies of sexual misconduct, and individual experiences makes it excruciatingly difficult for institutions to handle rape and sexual misconduct well. But a certain kind of teaching can empower students to hear the deliberately obfuscated entanglements of rape culture and patriarchal authority enacted by centuries of musico-theatrical productions, from ancient mythology to contemporary theater. This essay builds on articles by Liane Curtis and Kassandra Hartford, both of whom have thought through some of the implications of and approaches to teaching canonical works in cases where this obfuscation was traditionally a part of textbook presentations.75
As I, and others, have argued, the 1608 Mantuan festivities for the marriage of Francesco Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, to Margherita of Savoy staged a stream of weeping and punished women.76 Rather than rearguing this point, this essay uses these productions to suggest the transformative potential of teaching works of art that normalize rape as a central narrative in civic power. The practice of acknowledging violence matters beyond sexual misconduct. If, for example, students can hear the narratives of rape and misogyny that lie beneath the surface of Don Giovanni, Carmen, and Ovid's many rape stories, then they may also be able to read the antiwoman rhetoric in white nationalist movements that focus on ethnic purity and understand male dominance as an inalienable right. And they may be able to see how in twenty-first-century America such movements use an Internet culture to do some of the work that was done by ritualized court spectacles and opera in early modern Europe. Hearing violence and especially hearing the ways in which the violence has been obscured by centuries of reception can make students more critical receivers of media today.
Using early modern productions based on texts from ancient Greece and Rome presents a particular pedagogical advantage. As much space exists between Rinuccini and Ovid as between Monteverdi and us. This means that it is no more anachronistic to ask twenty-first-century students how they might read Ariadne and her weeping sisters as resonant with their own experiences than it was for Rinuccini and Monteverdi to ask the same thing of their listeners. This makes for a transhistorical discussion that does not assume universal truths but that does establish a long history of gendered power dynamics and sexual violence toward women. At the same time, tying works that may seem archaic to rape may actually help students to connect to the premodern world. The students, like the figure of Ariadne, exist in a complex web of social interactions and university policies.77
Festival of Rape
Monteverdi's famous lament premiered on May 28, 1608, as part of festivities that culminated long diplomatic negotiations and represented through common literary, musical, and visual tropes the symbolic and patriarchal transfer of the bride from her father to her husband.78 On June 2 Giovanni Battista Guarini's L'Idropica hit the stage. The intermedi by the poet Gabriello Chiabrera directly linked violence against women with dynastic power and dramatized the submission of the bride to a new home and domestic order by staging “The Rape of Proserpina” and “The Rape of Europa.” In case guests missed the performed abductions of Proserpina and Europa, they could see visual representations of the scenes in an excursion to the Palazzo del Te, which had frescoes of both. The third intermedio, “The Wedding of Jupiter and Alcmene,” turned on a night in which Jupiter disguised himself as Alcmene's husband in order to rape her. And the fourth, “The Nuptials of Hercules and Hebe,” featured the divine wedding of the child of Jupiter's rape of Alcmene.
The architects of the Mantuan displays drew on Ovid's versions of well-known mythological stories featuring what critics used to call unfortunate nymphs. Amy Richlin wrote in 1992 that Ovid's Metamorphoses depicted over fifty rape scenes.79 These scenes became conventional in artistic productions that were intended to glorify and, indeed, glamorize dynastic marriages. And later they appeared in operas.80 But there is something lost between the explicit depiction of rape scenes and the retelling of them in our textbooks as wedding scenes. To acknowledge the violence inherent in these productions matters because it acknowledges the violence that sounds the ground bass for precious canonic works and the spectacles that often surrounded wedding celebrations. The erasure or lack of acknowledgment obscures the patriarchy behind the institution of marriage, not to mention the possibility of what in modern American parlance we call marital rape. Perhaps this is unsurprising, given that marital exemptions from rape persisted in this country until the 1990s.
Best practices say that the only responsible way to talk about sexual violence is to name it and acknowledge it. That goes for its musical representations as well. As rape on college campuses attains visibility, students become more adept at seeing and hearing it in artistic works. In my experience, students who are well versed in Title IX training find it frustrating when faculty do not acknowledge rape in the works of art they study. Students, in other words, object not to the teaching of works featuring rape but rather to the failure of faculty to acknowledge the violence—a silence that reinforces a lack of responsibility for male sexual assault.
So what does this mean for the 1608 festivities? To my mind it means making sure that students hear the violence that lies not far beneath the surface and that the music may seem to mask. I show students Titian's Rape of Europa, painted between 1560 and 1562, and ask them to describe the painting. The painting oozes terror and locates the beginning of civilization in the violent rape of a virgin princess; legs splayed, breast bared, this is not a woman in ecstasy. This provides context for the version of the story presented in Federico Follino's official court chronicles of the festivities, in which Europa sees the bull with a mixture of fear and desire.81 She jumps on his back, and he then charges out to sea as she clutches his horns, lamenting her fate. Her abduction stands in for the taking of the bride from the parental home, while her lament symbolizes the transition from paternal to spousal care. Europa, in the body of “Madama Europa,” a famous singer at the Gonzaga court, mourned her fate in a lament that brought the ladies in the audience to tears, after which she found apparent happiness in marriage to a god.82 Follino's description, Ovid's version of the Metamorphoses, and any number of visual representations of Europa on the bull all constitute ideal bases for asking students a series of questions about consent and rape. If this story can be read as an early modern rape script, how does it relate to rape scripts on individual campuses? What would consent look like for Europa?
Ariadne and Title IX
In 2014 the US Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights released a list of US colleges and universities that were under investigation for violating national regulations governing sexual violence cases. Campuses were compelled to confront both their paper policies and the realities of their students’ lives. As I sat on committees formed to address new policies, I wondered what would happen if I tried to use the classroom to address policies and judicial processes. I pushed the students who wanted to stage Ariadne's lament as a Take Back the Night survivor story to imagine what Ariadne's Title IX hearing might look like. What kinds of questions would a Title IX investigation ask? Did Ariadne consent to Theseus or Bacchus? Students wondered what Theseus or Bacchus would say. They considered whether it was possible for a mortal to consent to a god. They determined that if Ariadne's lament were to serve as a statement in a Title IX hearing there would be no easy verdict. If Ariadne were a college student, she might rightly say that Theseus had used her to escape the Minotaur. And she might find herself trying to decide whether he had crossed the line between bad behavior and Title IX violation. They wondered if Theseus was guilty of rape, fraud, or misogynist male privilege. (The latter is not against the law.)
I gave them Ovid's other stories as part of the evidence file. As Ovid tells it in The Art of Love,
Ariadne was wandering distraught along the lonely wave-beaten shores of Naxos. Scarce had sleep departed from her eyes, and she wore but an airy shift; her feet were bare and her fair tresses were blowing about her shoulders. To the heedless billows she was crying wildly for her Theseus, and tears flowed in torrents down her cheeks. She cried aloud and wept at the same time. But both enhanced her beauty. … Clasping to his breast the swooning, unresisting girl, [Bacchus] bore her away. For a god may do as he wills, and who shall say him nay.83
Even the most basic sexual misconduct online training module says that a powerful man should not grab and run off with a weeping, scantily clad young woman. And yet so much of Ovid's description sounds like victim blaming or slut shaming. Why were her feet bare and her tresses blowing? How do her tears undermine her case against Theseus (even as they may strengthen her case against Bacchus)? Is Ovid suggesting that she was asking for it? And by telling the story of opera the way we do, do we tacitly agree that she was?
I submitted a first draft of this essay just four days before white nationalists staged a Unite the Right rally at the University of Virginia and in Charlottesville—an ugly overture to events that would play out like a conventional opera. Police and media helicopters buzzed through town as I was writing that teaching students to hear rape in Renaissance productions mattered, in part because it allowed them to read the hidden and not so hidden violence in their own lives. At that moment the University of Virginia and the City of Charlottesville were radically failing to recognize the cultural symbols that would soon transform creatures from the underworld of the Internet into real people marching with tiki torches and chanting. I am now more convinced than ever that if we can teach students to read symbols in the operas they study, then perhaps we can give them a weapon in the cultural war currently swirling around college campuses. The misogyny and rape culture that reverberate through the operatic tradition also serve as gateway drugs to the white nationalist movements that are jumping out of their Internet caves into the real world. Consider, for example, the term “cuck.” It is derived from “cuckold” and is now used by hate groups as an epithet for establishment conservatives who allow themselves to be emasculated by social justice warriors and political correctness. In the United States this view of the cuckold aligns with racism and xenophobia. After the Civil War, white supremacists used the image of black men raping white women to mobilize a movement. This notion of protecting Southern white women is as misogynist as it is racist, valuing women largely for their chastity, which is read, as in the 1608 festivities, as a symbol of their ownership by their fathers or husbands. It also suggests that black women cannot be raped, that they are chattel. When white nationalists claim to reassert the country's European and Christian heritage, they imply intent to reassert and reinscribe patriarchal authority. If institutional leaders at the University of Virginia and in Charlottesville claimed to be surprised by the virulent violence and hatred of Jews, Blacks, immigrants, and women that stormed through our streets, it was in part because they failed to hear the signs, name them, and understand them for what they were. If we cannot even acknowledge rape in opera in our classrooms, how can we expect our students and colleagues to acknowledge the hatred that emboldens the display of Confederate flags, Nazi symbols, and the loud cries of white nationalism outside the classroom? But if we can use opera as a means of having these difficult conversations, we might give students a way of understanding the symbolic links between misogyny and white supremacy.
A Feminist Staging of Britten's
The Rape of Lucretia
ELLIE M. HISAMA
Since 2011, when the US Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights informed schools that it is their “responsibility to take immediate and effective steps to end sexual harassment and sexual violence,” students at US colleges, conservatories, and universities have engaged in vigorous discussions about depictions of rape.84 For example, a lecture on Rubens's The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus by art historian Margaret Carroll and a production of Handel's La Lucrezia by Barnard College and Columbia University student musicians have sparked new conversations about violence against women, issues of intimacy, veracity, and culpability, and the relationship between art and social justice.85
In rehearsals for the Juilliard Opera's 2015 production of Britten's chamber opera The Rape of Lucretia (1946, libretto by Ronald Duncan after André Obey's play Le viol de Lucrèce), stage director Mary Birnbaum asked the student performers to reflect on twenty-first-century campus rape culture in relation to the work.86 In her program note Birnbaum remarks, “In the 509 B.C. plot, rape emerges out of the culture of tyranny and violence. … [In rehearsing the opera], [w]e drew a clear parallel to college ‘rape culture’ and spent time reading and hearing first-hand accounts of such stories. We chose to place the Chorus squarely in 2015 and gave them a very personal reason for telling the story, for needing to bear witness to the rape.”87 Birnbaum's direction deftly drew out the opera's feminist threads, providing a space for the performers to connect directly to the story and to grapple with the women's suffering. Avery Amereau, who sang the role of Lucretia, commented on the experience of working with Birnbaum: “Mary is the director who aspires for the real—not to impose her ideas into you, but to draw out your truth. … That allowed my pondering of the injustices suffered by women … to surface and evolve in a way that I not only understood it, but was comfortable accessing it and sharing it with an audience.”88
In contrast to Birnbaum and Amereau's portrayal of Lucretia, some Britten scholars and performers have interpreted Lucretia as desiring Tarquinius. In 1979 Peter Evans read Lucretia as “at once revolted by Tarquinius’ assault and horrifyingly attracted towards the realization of a nightmare. … Her mental torture after the event suggests a recognition that revulsion and attraction can coexist, that some part of her has shared the guilt.”89 More recently, in 2013, Paul Kildea referred to Lucretia's “complicity” and questioned her decision to commit suicide “if she is the innocent victim of a crime.”90 Fiona Shaw, director of the 2013 Glyndebourne production, remarked that “this latent desire [of Lucretia for Tarquinius] … is part of the human condition, a dark part of the mind.”91
In an interview I conducted with Birnbaum, she observed that she wanted to make the rape scene “as gross and violent as possible,” a decision evident in the viciousness with which Tarquinius treats Lucretia: he seizes her by the legs and throws her to the ground.92 Birnbaum's directorial decision to emphasize Tarquinius's violence toward Lucretia makes it clear that the rape scene is not to be viewed as a seduction in which the woman secretly desires the rapist, one that viewers can enjoy because “after all, she wanted it.” In Juilliard's production, Lucretia clearly does not “want it,” fiercely resisting Tarquinius's encroachment into her bedroom while Tarquinius tries to portray her as desiring him (see Figure 1):
In preparing the production Birnbaum consulted with a grief counselor, and on the first day of rehearsal she asked the students, “When was a time you felt stripped of your humanity?”94 This question laid the ground for the performers to connect the story to their own experiences rather than viewing it as distant from their everyday lives. Amereau observes that “most of the women I know have dealt with sexual assault or unwanted advances … or pressures to attain and maintain some form of chastity, whether in the number of lovers, how to dress, or acting demure … so the process of slipping into these characters, who are destroyed by their stereotypes, was in ways therapeutic.”95
That the opening scene of act 2 presents a rape and not a seduction is unmistakable in Birnbaum's staging. In contrast to productions in which Lucretia is portrayed as secretly desiring Tarquinius,96 Juilliard's production leaves no doubt as to the sincerity of Lucretia's vigorous resistance. There is no hint of her attraction to him during the scene, through gesture, vocal inflection, or action.97 Although I found it very difficult to view the opera even as I was enveloped in Britten's beautiful and powerful writing, experiencing a production that was finely attuned to Lucretia's subjectivity and sympathetic to her suffering made it possible to do so.
Birnbaum told me that she conceived of the Male Chorus and Female Chorus as Lucretia's parents, who sit at a table in modern dress looking through a box of photos and who are visibly distressed by the events they witness but can do nothing about.98 During the rape they watch, agitated, as Lucretia tries to reach the door, and they sing, “Go, Tarquinius.” He is undeterred, and after grabbing Lucretia by the hair, puts her in a harness and ties her up. The lights go down, and it is a relief to be spared the scene by the cloak of darkness, but then the lights come back up again to full brightness. We are not to be spared after all, but, like the Choruses, must witness this man's brutal, unrelenting treatment of a woman.
As J. P. E. Harper-Scott observes, Lucretia is not complicit in the rape: she cries, “No!,” “Never!,” “I deny!,” “You lie!,” “I refuse!,” and “Please go!” twenty-two times in the first minute after being awakened by Tarquinius and a total of twenty-six times before the rape.99 Yet Harper-Scott also reads the opera as a case of the “Patriarchy Strikes Back,”100 writing, “Britten has been celebrated as a composer uniquely in touch, because of his half-open homosexual self-identification, with the suffering of the oppressed. But on the evidence of his 1940s operas, it seems that Britten had already disqualified half of the human population from that sympathetic consideration.”101 Focusing on Peter Grimes in addition to The Rape of Lucretia, Harper-Scott asserts that “in Britten's operas of the 1940s the main female characters appear to be treated in the old style: as objects.”102
Lucretia's story reads differently to me. Although Tarquinius and Junius both place the blame for the rape squarely on Lucretia (at the close of the opera Junius calls, “Here lies the chaste Lucretia, dead, / And by Tarquinius ravished. / Now let her body be / Borne through our city. / Destroyed by beauty”),103 one can reject the descriptions of her as an “object” and a “sinner.” She is neither in the Juilliard production. Philip Brett suggests that Britten, as someone whose attitudes lay outside the “male heterosexual orthodoxy,” may have been especially sensitive to Lucretia's dramatization of “the shame and guilt involuntarily experienced by rape victims even though they are totally innocent and have been wronged in a particularly horrible manner.”104 This production draws out Lucretia's humanity, her vulnerability as a woman, and her lack of agency, tightly bound as she is by the world in which she must live. Birnbaum's sharply defined portrayal of her as a woman who resists the rape, rather than as an object disqualified from sympathetic consideration on account of her simmering sexual attraction to Tarquinius, is compelling, giving twenty-first-century performers and audiences the opportunity to understand contemporary rape culture through what might seem to be a distant historical example.
In teaching Britten's The Rape of Lucretia we can apply the four strategies offered by Kassandra Hartford in her groundbreaking article “Beyond the Trigger Warning”: 1) naming the sexual violence as rape rather than seduction; 2) allowing students to consider fully the opera's sexual violence, and devoting substantial discussion time both to the representation of Lucretia in Livy's account (from which some have concluded that her rape was necessary, leading to the establishment of the Roman Republic) and to feminist readings of that account; 3) highlighting the palpable differences between a feminist production of the opera (such as Juilliard's) and a nonfeminist production; and 4) connecting students to resources on campus that are actively engaged in efforts to combat campus rape culture.105
An intersectional reading of The Rape of Lucretia—one that considers race and class as intertwined with gender and sexuality in the opera—augments students’ explorations of the first and second strategies. In act 1, scene 1, for example, Tarquinius taunts Junius that his wife, Patricia, “lay naked with a negro. / She told Junius she'd been having massage!,” while to Junius's declaration “But I at least am a Roman” Tarquinius retorts, “With a negro deputy in bed, / It's better to be Etruscan!”106 An intersectional reading could also examine the disturbing assumptions behind the Male Chorus's suggestion that Tarquinius should “quench his lust with Lucia / And anticipate her assured consent”—that is to say, that the rape of Lucretia's maid Lucia, who is required to serve Lucretia faithfully, is acceptable and that she would not protest.107 The layer of race added to the insult in the opening scene—that Patricia not only cuckolded Junius but did so with a black man—is brilliantly illuminated by Birnbaum's casting of the Male and Female Choruses as a mixed-race couple whom she interprets to be Lucretia's parents.108 Thus in raping Lucretia Tarquinius attacks a woman whose mixed-race identity disrupts the emphasis on her whiteness that is evident in the following lines sung by her nurse, Bianca:
White womanhood is further dislocated in the character of Bianca, whose whiteness is established both by her name and by her close association with Lucretia: Birnbaum casts Amanda Lynn Bottoms, a Greek African American mezzo-soprano, in the part. Melanie L. Marshall's exploration of whiteness in relation to conceptions of vocal purity and innocence can usefully inform discussions of the way Lucretia's whiteness is traditionally represented through sonic purity—for example, in the music of the Female Chorus in act 2, scene 1 (“She sleeps as a rose upon the night / And light as a lily that floats on a lake”).110 Here the pure, diatonic world of C major gently established by flute, clarinet, and harp playing dolcissimo is occasionally punctuated by C♯, B♭, F♯, and E♭, suggesting the later shifts out of the white-note world of Lucretia's slumber. Having been introduced to such intersectional approaches to the opera, students can be encouraged to reconsider scholarship penned before the current attention to rape culture—for example, by Harper-Scott, who reads B as a “staining note”; by Brett, who underscores the contrast between Tarquinius's E major and C major's “untroubled innocent beauty”; and by Evans, who asserts that C-sharp minor is a symbol of sin and shame.111
Examining such possible music-text correspondences will deepen students’ interpretations of Lucretia's circumstances and the opera's narrative arc. By choosing to address musical representations of rape in The Rape of Lucretia and other works in the classroom, rather than avoiding discussion of sexual violence altogether, musicologists and music theorists can assist student musicians and listeners in understanding more fully the relevance of such representations to twenty-first-century cultures of sexual violence and to their own lives.
“Women in Impossible Situations”: Missy Mazzoli and Kamala Sankaram on Sexual Violence in Opera
SUZANNE G. CUSICK
One perspective missing from the panel that generated this colloquy was that of composers who had collaborated in the staging of operas thematizing sexual violence. In order to fill that gap I interviewed composers Kamala Sankaram and Missy Mazzoli, whose respective, recently premiered operas Thumbprint (2014) and Breaking the Waves (2016) depict sexual violence against women in the context of larger systems of gendered oppression.112 How, I asked, had they thought about the representation of sexual violence in their works? How had they worked with their collaborators to produce those representations in the premiere productions? How would they approach teaching their own operas in relation to rape culture?
Sankaram's Thumbprint uses a musical language that combines Hindustani raga, Bollywood Bhangra, and a style reminiscent of that of Meredith Monk to narrate the rape of Pakistani Mukhtar Mai by four men of her community who claimed to have been dishonored by her brother; Mai's subsequent choice to prosecute her attackers rather than commit the traditional suicide of shame; and her decision to use her court settlement to open a school for girls.113
Mazzoli's Breaking the Waves uses a musical language reminiscent of Britten, Janáček, and minimalism to adapt the eponymous film of 1996 by Lars von Trier. It tells the story of Bess, a naive young woman in an isolated town on the Isle of Skye, whose bold, sexually ecstatic choice to marry an outsider turns tragic when he is paralyzed in an accident. Against the collective will of her town, her church, and her family, Bess accedes to her husband's urging that she pursue a sexually active life. Eventually she is raped and killed by two sailors.114
Early in each interview I asked the composer what drew her to her subject:
SC (TO MM): You said once that you were “drawn to women in impossible situations” because “all women are in impossible situations.”
MM: I think it's true, and it's been my major preoccupation in my work. … I see Bess's story as an extreme, heightened dramatization of something that women go through every day. … The central theme of the work is not the physical violence against her, it's that she's in a situation of no power, and everyone around her is telling her what to do. … Every time Bess is on stage, everyone is directing their lines at her … directing all their energy at her and telling her what to do. …
I find myself drawn to darker aspects of human nature. And I think people are surprised to hear women talk like that, because there's still this fallacy that we're supposed to make everyone feel comfortable, and I'm actually interested in making people feel uncomfortable in a way that is interesting and that brings up interesting questions they've never asked themselves before.
KS: What drew me to [Thumbprint's] story [was] this idea that someone that comes from a culture where you're supposed to be silent to the point of death, that you would kill yourself rather than speak out, decided to defy that. … I've noticed about rape in opera, but also as depicted in film … that it's often the culminating point of the story, rather than the impetus for the rest of the story. And that's what I felt like [it was] for her. The rape is not the defining thing … she goes on after.
I asked each whether she thought of her opera as responding to Clément's Opera, or The Undoing of Women:115
KS: I haven't [read it], but I have read Abbate.116 … The trajectory of the piece is that Mukhtar at the beginning is very contained, in the middle voice, and it's as she decides not to kill herself and take her attackers to court that … the coloratura appears. … I was trying to think of it as a metaphor for finding one's voice. …
[And] I was thinking about how it would be great to have an opera with a powerful woman who doesn't die at the end.
MM: I definitely thought about [Clément], and … about how my opera played out in relation to that claim. … Yes, a lot of opera portrays staged violence against women, but … I don't believe that showing violence against women automatically means that you are condoning it, and I don't feel that it … is automatically glamorizing it.
Asked to comment on the way she had conceived her heroine's voice, Mazzoli noted that the part had been written for lyric soprano Keira Duffy, and then elaborated a quality of the part that she meant to be troubling:
MM: There are all these scenes where [Bess] has a conversation with God, speaks in God's voice. When she speaks as God it's in Sprechstimme, set very low. … It's supposed to sound like a man, an old man, but even more than that it's supposed to be something sort of creepy. … So these are really uncomfortable moments, which I really love.
Both women had thought carefully about how the rape in question would be staged. Each sought to represent it as experienced in the raped woman's consciousness, rather than as it might have looked to someone outside her subjectivity:
KS: We did not want it to be titillating in any way. … So we set the experience as one of being out of body. … The violence is represented without music, it's a chorus of breaths. It's Mukhtar's first, a sharp intake of breath, then the breath is echoed by all the singers in the space. And then in [director Rachel Dickstein's] staging the men slice open a bag of rice. … Then following that violence, the continued act of the rape is this out-of-body scene, the text taken from Mukhtar's autobiography. … “They take me from darkness into darkness, from night into another night. Is this me? This is not me.” It's a raga that's used at funerals, and it begins with Mukhtar alone but then the other women in the cast join in, singing.117 [Audio Example 1.]
[Later], the raga that she ends in, that propels her decision to start a school, is the raga from Sarasvati, who is the goddess of wisdom.
MM: I made the decision that the violence should happen off stage. … I thought that having it happen off stage and then letting the audience move into the world of Bess's mind was a better way to stage [it]. … We don't see it, but see all the characters from the opera … populate the stage and start singing together for the first time. At the moment of this violence … she's hearing everyone from her life … suddenly appearing before her in this moment of great intensity.118
At [Bess's] funeral her sister-in-law says, “Not one of you has the right to condemn Bess.” [Later], three characters looking off into the distance have been inspired [by] recognizing Bess's journey for what it is. … She's the only one in the opera who really sticks to her own controversial, convoluted idea of what is good, sticks to it to the very end. I find great hope in those moments.
Different as these scenes are, there is no slut shaming here, no blaming or objectifying of the woman raped, no denial of the damage done to her by sexual violence. There is, in short, no representation consonant with the norms of rape culture.
Sankaram and Mazzoli also had different approaches to the way their operas could be taught so as to address rape culture:
MM: There are more important themes in the work than sex and violence. (Moreover, I don't believe sex and violence alone can actually be the theme of a work, unless it's pornographic or something like a snuff film.) … What is the true nature of goodness? Of loyalty? What does it feel like to be a woman in an impossible situation where everyone's telling you what to do? What does it feel like to be twenty-two years old in a very closed, religious community and then to fall in love with an outsider? Why do people do the things they do, how do they find power and agency? I think that there's a lot to say about this piece that is maybe less triggering, and ultimately more interesting, than the sex and violence. I feel that these larger themes are brought to light and made vivid by the troubling scenes in the film and opera, and in certain ways inextricable from the sex and violence, but to have a discussion about the disturbing scenes in Breaking the Waves without touching upon these larger questions is to miss the point of the work.
KS: If I were to talk about this piece in relation to other contemporary operas, it exemplifies two things you don't often see. One is that it's a South Asian story made by a South Asian composer, about someone who is real. But it's also telling the story of this rape to say that the rape is not the defining thing.
I guess I would [also] look at the question of voice. What does it mean to have a piece about [political] voice performed by opera singers? [And] why is this an opera? I know the typical answer would be this is a larger-than-life story, grand emotions, or whatever. But I'm not satisfied with that answer. In this case … you literally hear the transformation of this person's voice over the course of the piece.
I think that opera should engage with contemporary issues, and that music can bring people into an emotional situation that is unfamiliar. So through music you can be put into the emotional state of someone who has experienced rape. … I think there's something about opera that has the potential to open up perspective, empathy.
SC: [So] you think opera can help resist rape culture?