reading time

let’s talk about my favorite operas

by | Jul 9, 2022 | Opinion

In 1925, Alban Berg’s first opera Wozzeck was premiered in Berlin. He’d adapted the libretto himself from an unfinished stage play by Georg Büchner, who left the work fragmented and incomplete when he died at the age of 23. Büchner had a death worthy of an operatic heroine – writing and teaching Zürich until he finally was taken out by typhus (signs and symptoms include fever and chills, headache, rapid breathing, body and muscle aches, rash, cough, nausea, vomiting, and confusion).

When I’m asked, I tell people that my favorite operas (in order of importance) are Tosca, Wozzeck, and Così fan tutte. Three operas with librettos written by men, three operas composed by men, and three operas that hold a little microcosm of what it’s like to be a woman working in music in 2022. Tosca, the successful, wealthy diva, who kills herself in grief after trying desperately to save her political martyr artist boyfriend. Marie, a desperately poor single mother who is beset by difficult men on every side is sexually assaulted, eventually murdered by Wozzeck (a poor, angry soldier, traumatized by war), and forgotten by her son. And Fiordiligi, an opera seria woman thrust into a comic opera, an older sister doing her best, a woman searching for love, and the avatar of Adriana Ferrarese del Bene, who is only remembered because of the men who made fun of her.

tosca

Tosca premiered in Rome in 1900, and the action takes place a hundred years earlier than that on the 17th and 18th of June. Obviously, the political drama of the moment was the spectre of a Napoleonic invasion, and tensions in the plot are high. The character of Tosca, originally based on the legendary Sarah Bernhardt, has become a kind of shorthand for the stereotypical passionate and dramatic “diva.” This is helped by the connection of the role to modern “diva assoluta” Maria Callas. Tosca has become Maria and Maria is Tosca.

The first time I saw Tosca, I was drawn to the violent spectacle of the Te Deum, Scarpia’s stalking serenade, where he fantasizes about sexual assault and delights in his undeniable physical power. Something about it felt familiar to me – the organ and choir groaning behind him, the visceral masculinity of the performances, the unabashed ferocity of a man who knows he can’t be stopped. All of Tosca’s faith, personality, nuance and soul are swallowed up in Scarpia’s menace and Cavadarossi’s self-aggrandizing political posturing. Puccini and his librettist paint her as selfish, jealous, simple, and powerless: even as she gives Scarpia the gift of Tosca’s “kiss,” she is already defeated and everyone knows it but her. Even god has abandoned her, because god cares more about murder than rape, and so she chooses her own death, hoping to meet Scarpia in hell.

When Maria Callas was 18 (described by nearly everyone as fat and therefore unattractive) she sang her first Tosca. She was a child, rushing headlong into the arms of an industry that would take everything she had to give and then demand more. Her childhood didn’t exist, she had a wildly dysfunctional family, and she needed to survive. Opera was how she did it.

One of my favorite photos of Maria Callas

 “monstrously fat and awkward.”

Rudolph Bing, General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera from 1950 to 1972

Lately, I’ve been thinking about her last performance of the piece. It was at Covent Garden in London on July 5, 1965. As a nearsighted singer, I love knowing that she was also incapable of seeing clearly two feet in front of her, and as a fat singer, I feel a deep rage at the way she was forced out of her body and into a body that couldn’t support her shocking, hard-won artistry. She had no true support system, her voice was failing her, she had spent the bulk of her life fighting to be heard and respected, and was met with scandal and trauma. Almost no one talks about the effects of the childhood poverty and wartime trauma that she absolutely suffered from, and in spite of it all, she turned herself into one of the most astonishing musicians of all time. She beat bel canto into her bones, hour after tedious hour, she sold her time and energy to men who were so far beneath her in talent and intelligence that they should have not been allowed in the same room with her, and she died alone and sad and well before her time.

così fan tutte

January 1790 “So do they (women) all” or Così fan tutte premiered in Vienna with fair to middling success. When I first learned the role of Fiordiligi, I also learned the famous story of Mozart’s hatred for the primadonna who originated it. William Mann and many others have claimed that the famous leaps in the score were meant to make the soprano look ridiculous, bobbing her head up and down like a chicken. A tenor told me the story with a great deal of relish, implying that the singer (whose name he didn’t know) was clearly a bitch who deserved to be made fun of. This story continues to be repeated everywhere, and the internet has doubled down on the idea with all the enthusiasm of a fourth grade bully.

In the last twenty or thirty years, Così has become a popular source of intra-community disagreements, and every few years someone creates a “feminist” retelling or someone else argues that it should never be staged again. Many people think that the title betrays an innate misogyny in the text, and many think that the story is empowering and the music is transcendent. Others (myself included) have used the piece as a way to make a commentary on modern sexist tropes.

These days, I’m less interested in the content of the libretto than I am with our general obsession of vilifying the woman who created the role of Fiordiligi. My very first staged role was singing Fiordiligi at Opera in the Ozarks, where I took my very sheltered, very young self, and learned the piece. I was immediately attracted to the character: she was an older sister, she was violently protective of her home and her dignity, she felt things deeply, she was powerful and tender, and I felt like she learned something about herself during the opera. I loved that she was a serious character in a comedy because it meant that I could be a serious character in a comedy. There was a place for me.

What I didn’t know was that in 1999, Patricia Lewy Gidwitz wrote an article that doubled down on painting “the singer Mozart hated” as stupid, ugly, and possessing a serious lack of talent. She did at least do the soprano the courtesy of using her name, but “Mozart’s Fiordiligi: Adriana Ferrarese del Bene” tries so hard to support the notion that Adriana lacked talent that the piece comes off as wildly confused – on one hand citing sources that praise her, and on the other, arguing that Mozart’s genius was the only thing that saved her from utter disaster in the production. Gidwitz describes Adriana as deficient in ability, and paints her as frivolous and oblivious to her obvious faults. She even goes so far as to quote Adriana’s lover, librettist da Ponte saying that “she had no great pretensions to beauty” even though he fell in love with her.

Adriana Ferrarse da Bene

Adriana Ferrarese del Bene was, unsurprisingly much more nuanced, gifted, and complicated than I had been led to believe. After a marriage scandal worthy of Bridgerton, she was persecuted by her father-in-law, who resented her for trapping his son into a marriage he (the father) did not approve of. He was a powerful figure in religion and politics, and managed to get her banned from performing at key theaters and churches, effectively putting a chokehold on the early development of her career.

May blessings be upon Karl Böhmer for his piece “Mozart’s Pathetic Prima Donna: Adriana Ferrarese del Bene and her Career in Rondòs” which is where I have taken most of my deeply vindicating information.

Adriana was drawn to an opera seria style early on thanks to the influence of an early teacher, and she invested a great deal of time, energy and research into developing herself in that style of singing. She was never interested in a buffa career, from what I can tell, and she was active in making changes to the texts of her arias, and in creating compelling, popular performances. Even though she was generally well received, and began to build quite a successful career in Italy, she was constantly being attacked by male critics who seemed to have it out for her. For example, an English man without a bone of good will or taste in his body took a dislike to her and spent several paragraphs of ink on disparaging her abilities and appearance.

Eventually, she had to leave Italy in order for her career to develop, as her father-in-law never got over his resentment and she wasn’t able to compete with the sopranos who were allowed to perform in theaters and venues where she was banned. Eventually, she was hired in Vienna by Emperor Joseph, because she was less expensive than some of the other singers he had been working with (a tale as old as time, it seems). Joseph, in keeping with the grand tradition of dictatorial old white men with too much money and power referred to her has having a “weak” voice, and never truly seemed to enjoy her singing. Mozart didn’t like her acting, as she wasn’t well suited to light, sweet, ingenuous characters like Susanna, and he had been quite used to working with those types of singers. Later, after the affair between da Ponte and Adriana broke up, he would blame her for the consequences of his own actions and he spent a shocking amount of time spreading rumors about her and calling her unattractive, sad, and lacking talent.

In spite of all this horrific treatment, she was quite successful in Vienna, and then again successful after leaving Germany. Of course, in 1792, yet another man decided that she was ugly, and waxed poetic about the unseemly size of her hands and the shovel-like shape of her face. But she persisted, and while her career did not end in glory (she eventually disappeared from the record after a series of cover roles) she was busy, successful, and navigated a series of complex political waters while growing and developing as an artist.

wozzeck

Every singer has a teacher that changed the course of their life – for me, it was Kristine Ciesinski. When I met her, I was wildly Mormon, opposed to anything that smelled like music written after 1870, and was learning Vissi d’Arte at the behest of someone that should never have been teaching to begin with.

Eventually, she took me under her wing, and insisted that I learn to breathe. She swore like a sailor in my lessons, which terrified and thrilled me. She introduced me to Alban Berg, and let me put together the most impractical senior recital of all time. Once, she brought me to her beautiful house up near Jackson Hole, let me play the Bösendorfer in the great room and then made the legendary Norman Bailey teach me how to “properly” load his dishwasher. She also once kicked someone out of my lesson because they tried to get me to donate money to funding the fight for Prop 8, and then very clearly explained to me why the whole situation was “fucked up bullshit.”

One of her signature roles was Marie. In 1996, the same year that Patricia tried to take down Adriana, Kris sang Marie with Oper Frankfurt – you can still find the DVD of that performance. When I first saw the show, it scared me because I couldn’t stop listening and I couldn’t look away, and I didn’t want to believe that the world was that ugly.

Berg started work on Wozzeck in 1914 – enter World War One, which threw a wrench into the timeline – and he didn’t finish completely until 1921. The war, understandably had a major affect on his art, mental health, and general ability to function in the world. And it wasn’t just Berg who had art affected by the war. Poets like Wilfred Owen and Sigfried Sassoon, artists like Käthe Kollwitz, and even the father of J. R. R. Tolkein, Simon. Art got scarier for a lot of people, and the inherent violence of capitalism and patriarch and war the consequences to people who didn’t expect them. For hundreds on hundreds of years, the people who had been making the art we still were either wealthy or insulated under the wing of the wealthy. Now, people like Berg were plunged into the full-scale horror of war, and they weren’t ready for it. (The poor weren’t ready for it either, but we don’t get to see their art, because they were too poor to make it.)

I think that’s why I find an honesty in Wozzeck that gets more appealing as I get older. The violence done to Marie isn’t wrapped up inside of something like Scarpia’s masturbatory religious fantasy, and it’s not the sugared class-fantasy that Mozart put together, it’s the in-your-face poverty and desperate systemic hate that confronts me when I walk to the subway or turn on the news or call my family. The helplessness of Marie crying out for forgiveness to a God who is clearly not hearing her or anyone feels like voting in November and then losing your body in June. And when Wozzeck goes to the doctor, it’s like a comedy – who really goes to the doctor? He must be crazy.

Julia Wolfe, “Protest”

Kris died in a glider crash on June 10, 2018, when she was 65, and to me, the world hasn’t felt right since. But when did the world feel right, if I’m honest? Tosca, Maria, Adriana, Fiordiligi, Kris, Marie, me, all of us running up against men who tell us we’re too ugly or too stupid to be respected. All of us telling our stories through the lens of men who write the words we speak and dictate the melodies we sing, and control the bodies and the rooms and the world we work in. All of us complicit in and victimized by the systems of power, trying to break out of the rigid little bottles we’ve been put in.

A few months ago, I realized that I had been gaslighting myself about my favorite color for years. I looked at my wardrobe, and was so surprised at what I saw that I insisted my wife pause her TV show to guess my favorite color. When she, very correctly, pointed out that it was pink, I was floored. How could I have been insisting for years that it was blue? I don’t even like blue, and I have never liked blue, and it was painfully obvious to everyone but me. So, I think maybe, I can’t always trust my interpretation of the world. Which is why I’ve arrived at the conclusion that hese three operas are more a biography than they are an endorsement of their particular genius. (I will fight to the death about the compositional genius of Wozzeck, the delightfully tight and satisfying plot of Tosca, and the absolute glorious mastery of the Per pietá in Così, however.) Let’s not re-make those operas, I think. We don’t even have to re-program them.

Unless you want to hire me for Tosca. Call me.

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