Opera culprits: the villain who thinks he's doing good

Opera culprits: the villain who thinks he's doing good

Jenna Simeonov

Just like in real life, the most terrifying villains are the ones who firmly believe they’re doing good. Sure, there are sociopathic/sadistic types, villains who just like to hurt people. The more fascinating, and dramatically challenging villains are the ones who have reasons behind their villainry. Sometimes the reasoning is good enough to pursuade, to make audiences understand where they come from; with bad guys like Dexter Morgan, Walter White, and even fun version of the Devil, audiences are arguably rooting for them to succeed.

Perhaps it’s because I like my stories a little twisted, or perhaps it’s because villains are objectively more interesting than The Good Guys (they are, everyone knows this, #catharsis), but my favourite characters in opera are some of the most hateful. Whether he’s singing outside Rosina’s window in Il barbiere, or trying to rape the help in Le nozze, Count Almaviva creates a subtle sneer on my face without fail. Tosca’s Scarpia is a pathetic sort with a frustrating amount of power. He’s manipulative, I suppose, but his would-be rape scene always strikes me as noticeably un-powerful. Tosca manages to fend him off for enough time to sing “Vissi d’arte,” for chrissakes.

So, please indulge me as I go through just three of my favourite, favourite villains in opera, starting with the worst of them all:

1. Reverend Olin Blitch (Susannah)

There are a lot of reasons to love Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah; I know this because simply flipping through the score makes me boil with rage (if it makes you feel, there’s some good in a piece). There are actually a few villains in this opera, including the mob of God-fearing church-goers who decide that Susannah’s beauty is something to distrust. There are also the Elders, the men who stumble across Susannah while she’s bathing; they see her naked, and freak out so much over their own sexual insecurities and frustrations that they go (ironically) to the church to make it right (I can’t help but add that their church was probably a massive contributing factor to said sexual insecurity in the first place; although I wish that were an archaic problem of the past, but it’s really, really not).

Enter Reverend Blitch, who heard second-hand about Susannah’s devilish bathing (can’t she do it with her clothes on, like a good lady?). He calls her out publicly during a service, screaming at her to repent, and she screams back for him to shut his face. So what does he do? Goes to her house, makes her feel horrible, then rapes her.

Samuel Ramey as Reverend Blitch, in the Revival Meeting scene from Carlisle Floyd's *Susannah*.

Now, I know there’s a bit in the score where Blitch feels bad about raping Susannah. Good; he &%@#ing should. But the damage has been done; the man to whom the God-fearing mob looks for guidance took sides with the ridiculous accusers, and he made his side known in a loud, preacher-type way, all Hell-imagery and tie-loosening and “repent!!” Blitch may have felt badly afterward, but the scary weapon here is his conviction that he speaks for good.

So, sort of like in Britten’s Peter Grimes, the gossip wins over the truth. Susannah has this gorgeous line in the libretto:

“I was tired o’ fightin’ and tired o’ livin’ in a world where the truth has to fight so hard to git itself believed.”

Ugh, right in the gut.

2. John Claggart (Billy Budd)

Britten’s Billy Budd falls nicely into the composer’s canon of stories about misunderstood men. Peter Grimes, Albert Herring, perhaps even Peter Quint from The Turn of the Screw, these men are all for one reason or another not quite right (some more culpable than others), and people are repelled by them as a result. In the case of Billy, his only faults are a stammer and what seems to be a short temper. Claggart, the Master-at-Arms on the ship, really doesn’t like Billy the way everyone else does. It’s not difficult to argue that Claggart is repressing some serious homoerotic desires towards Billy; even if you remove that element from the story, Claggart is still one of those inexplicable people who deal with their unhappiness by trying to make others even more unhappy. I’m not sure that Claggart is particularly wise, but he’s smarter than Billy, and has more power at his disposal. A sweet, simple, stuttering newbie is no match for a jealous, insecure, perhaps closeted gay man with a badge.

James Morris as Claggart, 1997, Metropolitan Opera.

There’s something infuriating about people who spread their problems onto others. It’s why I feel the way I do when I read about hate crimes. I think Britten knew that Claggart, bastard as he may be, is a magnetic character who helped to underscore the light versus the dark, the happy versus the miserable.

3. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton (Madama Butterfly)

For some reason, I don’t give Puccini enough credit for writing villains as I do to Britten. I can’t decide if Pinkerton’s music is carefree or thoughtless, beautiful or slimy. I only say this because Puccini seemed enamoured with Americana, the mysteries of the Far East, and having affairs. Though, when it comes to making the case for Pinkerton’s villainry, I can still do it without need for Puccini.

The real tragedy in Madama Butterfly is the utter misunderstanding between Pinkerton and Cio-Cio San. From her point of view, this marriage is a life-saver, a validating act for her and her family. For Pinkerton, he’s a brave spirit with a taste for the exotic, bred out of a culture that values exploration. There’s no doubt that Pinkerton saw Cio-Cio San as a commodity, as a form of entertainment; the catch is that he doesn’t really have a way of seeing it any other way. She pours her heart out to him in Act I, and he simply doesn’t hear her as someone speaking in earnest. It’s similar to Germont in La traviata, yet it seems harsher to prey upon Cio-Cio San’s ignorance over Violetta’s insecurity.

Richard Tucker and Leontyne Price sing the Act I duet from *Madama Butterfly*.

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