On Opera

Missing the point

Why opera needs fictional dead women

Really, you’d think they might have learned the lesson by now, the opera apparat: don’t show off, keep your head down, everything will probably be fine.

Alternatively, make like the late unlamented chief exec of ENO, wave your arms around and shout about how amazing you are, how your audience is entirely composed of black kidz, and disaster will swamp you. People will remember you exist, the papers will dump chortling scorn on you, the Arts Council will come calling, and goodnight Charlie.

Obviously, no good can come from jemmying open the lid and letting light in on opera. But alas, it’s about to happen again: the biggie will be the biopic of Maria Callas (it’s the centenary of her birth) with Angelina Jolie doubtless the eye of a Greekface shitstorm as she putties up her conk to realistic proportions.

But a more clear and present threat looms, so brace for impact. The witterati of lady commentators with whom our media is so richly blessed are about to turn their gaze upon us, and you may be sure the solids will hit the fan when they discover the full horrific extent of opera’s death-to-chicks jihad.

And whose fault is this? Why, who else but old friend Marina Abramović, who you may have noticed is in town. Now usually the arts ignore each other, mind their own beeswax, dish up trinkets and gewgaws for discreet little gangs of weirdos with monomaniacal devotions to contemporary art, mime or whatever.

But normal rules do not apply to ordeal-artist Marina, who — understandably tired at 76 of courting torment in every gallery across the globe, and I suppose finally struck by the ever so slightly limited ambition of making bourgeois nerks feel a bit uncomfortable — has turned her lifelong feelings of sisterhood with Callas into a show (7 Deaths of Maria Callas), opening imminently at ENO.

The problem is, the stuff that day-trippers like Marina think opera is — the vulgarity, camp poshness, algolagniac frenzy, Cage-aux-Folles frocks and wigs, the death fetish, the specialised extremities of warbling — are in reality the merest details, diversionary tactics designed to repulse the Norms of right-thinking society.

Marina’s new quasi-operatic show, having done the rounds of Europe and America, lands at the Coliseum on 3 November and naturally zeroes in on all this, with a slavering devotion to rubbishy grandiosity and, ça va sans dire, a needy determination to reduce the whole shebang to female victimhood.

women snuff it in opera because nobody gives a shit about dead guys

I mean, I do see there’s a decent prima facie case here, and since the non-operatic public is about to witness Marina being entertainingly butchered seven different ways (with a usual-suspect soundtrack of Norma, Traviata, Lucia, etc) by a reptilian Willem Dafoe, standing in for all composers (all men?), you can imagine we might be asked to explain that embarrassing pile of dead girls upstage left. Things like Catherine Clément’s “seminal” 1979 book Opera,or the Undoing of Women, will be adduced, with its gloomy catalogue of females imaginatively silenced by their creators.

We could burble one of our regular defences: that it’s not women’s silence but their eloquence that’s the point, that in opera women speak for all humanity. And come on, how else are you going to end the show? But true as this is, it misses the real point: women snuff it in opera because nobody gives a shit about dead guys.

Partly this is a technical matter: the swansong of a baritone or (worse!) a tenor sounds drearily self-pitying in an art that has always privileged high voices. Mainly, though, men’s deaths are tawdry, everyday, bathetic. It’s why Puccini didn’t call his opera Cavaradossi (stupid name) but Tosca, or let his tenor sing something fine and idealistic before he gets the chop: no, all he can do is go on about Tosca’s tits.

Male mortality is just a pretext for the soprano to come on all tragic and noble, not just in the death-devoted nineteenth century, but right from the start. Who cares about Acis being hit with a rock if Galatea gets a fetching threnody while she builds a nice water feature? And serve that gaslighting bastard Adonis right, he should’ve stayed home with Venus rather than gallivanting off with his hunting pals and getting gored.

Let’s not even start on Werther, Radames and the rest. Nobody cares. And rightly not. Opera describes a world (i.e. “The World”) in which every heroine is implicitly wearing a t-shirt that says: I have the pussy, so I make the rules. And the writers of opera have spent 300 years grappling with this adamantine truth.

Indeed, it would be an amusing experiment to frame all of history as men’s pitiful, doomed attempts to come to terms with it; every lame, fascistic male ghastliness from priesthoods to purdah to the canonisation of spotless womankind a feeble bid to circumvent this obdurate fact (and to improve chances of getting a bit of said feline).

Frankly a few dead fictional women seem a tiny price to pay for these magnificent monuments to eternal female supremacy. Will they never be satisfied?

7 Deaths of Maria Callas: ENO at the London Coliseum, 3-11 November

This article is taken from the November 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

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