In the final act of Breaking the Waves, an opera by composer Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek, a chorus of cloaked clergy sings to an emotionally disheveled and scantily clad woman, Bess McNeill: “Those who know you shall not know you.” It was one offense among a stream of damning indictments leveled at the young wife before she was excommunicated not only from a church in which she pledged her faith, but also from society and those she trusts.
During this year’s Prototype festival, an exotic dancer was executed by a firing squad, a faithful wife was raped and murdered, and a convicted murderess, battered and raped as a child and as a child/wife, was hanged and dissected in public. This is opera. Or, as the French philosopher Catherine Clément describes in Opera or the Undoing of Women, the “infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies, murdered.”
This is opera? It is not a trick question, nor a loaded one.
Having completed its fifth year, the Prototype festival is a success. The three artistic directors, Beth Morrison, Kristin Marting, and Kim Whitener, are uncompromisingly dedicated to presenting new works from contemporary music-theater and opera creators. Their heroism deserves an ovation. A festival that focuses on the notion of a prototype – as its dictionary meaning has it, “an original model on which something is patterned” – offers an opportunity to calibrate and review the path being taken.
But in applauding a festival for its vision, we can also ponder uncomfortable questions, some of which might be unanswerable. What do we expect from a 21st-century opera? Does it have a cultural obligation to the representation of gender? What is its role in advocacy? Is it possible to be progressive and retrospective at the same time?
I shall address two answerable and unanswerable questions that crossed my radar during my viewings.
Thematically, this year’s festival cemented opera’s lifelong obsession with death. By the time Prototype reached its final production, the darker undertones of life had progressed from a dark grey in the diaphanous waltz-time rendering of death in Mata Hari, by Matt Marks and Paul Peers, to a filthy black, tremulous “republic of loathing,” care of M. Lamar and Hunter Hunt-Hendrix in Funeral Doom Spiritual. It is not surprising that contemporary makers are undeterred by the call of death: Opera, like film, is a natural artistic home for the grisly event.
An opera’s score overcomes the realistic and verbatim, allowing the form to speak more gently to our collective fear of mortality and fundamental anxiety. With its multi-layered combination of visual, acoustic, narrative, and sensorial elements, opera has an ability to associate with our emotions and distract our imagination that offers death a safe harbor and a dramatic acuity.
An autopsy of Prototype confirms opera’s characteristic attachment to violence-related death – most always in the honor of love, and more often as it applies to women. For precedents we only have to consider the murders in Rigoletto, Wozzeck, Tosca and Lucia di Lammermoor, the shootings in Un ballo in maschera, the dramatic drowning of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, or the suicide of Cio-Cio San in Madama Butterfly.
In anatomy theater, by David Lang and Mark Dion, the gruesome and bloody public dissection of a stripped-bare 18th-century murderess, in the cause of finding evil, stretched for most of the work’s 75 minutes. In Breaking the Waves, a three-act opera based on the Lars von Trier film of the same title, a young woman’s misguided pledge to obey her paralyzed husband’s wishes unravels as a procession of climaxing, demeaning rapes and unyielding brutality. The preponderance of violence in these libretto choices and unequivocal stagings may be explained by the need to satisfy box office. But are we that ghoulish?
More generously, these catalogs of death, with their accompanying extremes of emotions, leverage (we hope) perspectives of love, faith, truth, and justice. Opera does not have to be politically engaged, yet its history has maintained a status quo as an arbitrator of contemporary issues. At a point when issues of equality occupy prime time across the screens of our lines, the arts during our free-falling period have been called to activate a parachute to ensure that the creed of justice is observed. Discussions on the cultural representation of women and men, the constructions of their sexuality, and the rise of feminist issues have been late starters in opera.
In musicological circles, gender issues, and in particular the discussion of feminist concerns, was belated; it was not until the late 1980s and early ’90s when musicologists such as Susan McClary amped the conversation. The more recent talk of the town owes much to the recent 113-year mind-the-female-gap at the Metropolitan Opera with the staging of Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin and Opera America’s address of gender parity through scholarships and performance opportunities.
I call to Nina Simone: “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times… We will shape and mold this country, or it will not be molded and shaped at all anymore.” What is opera’s responsibility, and how was it reflected in Prototype programming? Given that a single festival and a handful of operas cannot speak on behalf of an art form, and given that three of the operas were narrations of archived stories of women, my unanswerable questions lie in the binary representations of men and women on the stage, and the opportunity that the contemporary artist’s eye can offer.
This was a festival of operas and musical theater pieces that spent most of its energy on reconstructing and reprising narrative rather than bringing political or social commentary. The narrative arch in Mata Hari and anatomy theater rested on catalog approach, a series of tableaus. Much of the messaging was indebted to the confronting dramatization of violence, rape, and death, all perpetrated by the hands of men.
I not so quietly mourned for the valiant female opera singers who shed their clothes in more onstage time, while most of the men remained fully clothed – even during the sexual act. I acknowledge in Breaking the Waves the message of hypocrisy among men of cloth; anatomy theater offered the battered woman’s perspective through the murderess Sarah Osborne’s opening recitative-aria, and her essential goodness was vindicated in the null-and-void findings of those seeking her diseased and therefore evil organs.
Yet the dramatic framing of Osborne, Bess McNeill, and Mata Hari resulted in the eventuality that the three central women in these operas failed to rise as heroines to be admired for the courage, goodness, or bravery that we associate with characters such as Cio-Cio San or Mimì. In my viewings I felt sympathy and anguish, perhaps partly because the choice of full nudity presented these women at their most vulnerable rather than at their most glorious sense of self. This was a festival that seemed to shy away from presenting a female perspective, emphasizing instead society’s judgment — leaving we the audience as judge and jury
And so, dear opera I am pondering how you are evolving. I am not asking you to dispossess all that has been done before you. You are clearly not in danger of dying: Your thrilling voices will always take us to blood and passion, and your music will take us to limitless meaning. Your template is full of heroines and victims, politics and persuasions, fairytales and laughter. Let us continue to consider the unanswerable questions of a prototype.
As an opera singer, writer, cultural commentator and curator Xenia Hanusiak contributes to the stage, the page, and the intervals in between. She holds a PhD in Literature and several degrees in classical music. Her works for the stage include the play Ward B, Un_labelled (Boosey & Hawkes/Young Peoples’ Chorus of New York City); the libretto A thousand doors, a thousand windows (Melbourne International Arts Festival, Singapore Arts Festival, Venice Biennale); Earth Songs (Homart Korean Theatre); and the dramatic monologue The MsTaken Identity (Adelaide Festival of Arts/Australian String Quartet). www.xeniahanusiak.com