Opera Heroines in 2014: What if?

Opera Heroines in 2014: What if?

Jenna Simeonov

So, it’s the week of Valentine’s Day, and I was trying to think of an appropriate post. I started thinking of opera couples, and the things they have in common. It turns out that the thing in common is a break-up of some sorts. And the majority of the time it’s because the stories are from long ago, before women could stand up for themselves. So, in a manner far from lovey-dovey, I started thinking about what would have happened to our favourite opera heroines if they had existed today.

*Disclaimer: I’m not entirely sure about the point of this little what-if game, but it’s fun.

Let’s start with my favourite: Violetta. Today, she’d be a sex worker in a classy establishment, with enough status and experience to have a group support system around her for protection against haters and threats. She’d also have a hidden self-esteem issue, and most certainly she’d have (to use a term I hate) trust issues. Given that Violetta has the means to refuse Germont’s ridiculous request, her decision would be swayed simply by her insecurities and self-doubt. This version of the scene would make Violetta’s confrontation with Germont a fascinating point of debate among stage directors. How fun.

And how about Butterfly? If she’d met Pinkerton today, at least technology would be on Butterfly’s side. She’d at least be able to get information about where he was, and get a hold of him to ask for child-support payments. I’m not sure of the Japanese-American diplomatic stuff involving paternity, but at least Butterfly wouldn’t have to just wait.

Same goes for Don José’s childhood sweetheart Michaëla. Today, if she hadn’t heard from DJ in a while, she could give him a call and save a lot of travel. And at least Facebook messages show read receipts.

But what about fiesty little Susanna? Today, she’d have the law on her side. Unless her boss was a criminal and had her cornered if she refused, Susanna (or Figaro, at the very least) could report the Count for being insane. I suppose the details would depend on where Susanna lives, but relative safety against predatory bosses is a fair assumption in the EU. (I’ll politely ignore the potential can of worms I’ve opened, because I hope you see my point.)

That was a fun little game.

To be fair, playing this little game with characters like Pamina, Semele, or even Tosca doesn’t make sense. It’s a moot point; these characters are specific to their environments, and their character traits are built out of their worlds.

And I shouldn’t have been surprised that the heroines from history’s most important operas have traits that are common to any century. Violetta’s insecurities, Susanna’s financial dependence, Michaëla’s hopelessness; we all know people like these women. We even know men like Alfredo and Figaro, stuck between duty in the immediate and in the bigger picture. We know men like Pinkerton, who confuses a person with an experience, or Don José, who handles his demons poorly and disappoints people who care about him.

So in the process of playing a silly game of hypotheticals with my favourite operas, their relevance became blatantly obvious. Now that’s timeless art.

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