Thursday, August 11, 2011


The program could well double as the contents of a popular woman’s magazine. Take a quiz of “What type of woman are you?” or read a self help piece on how to get your man to pay more attention to you.

The answers are here at the Santa Fe Opera this year.

The five operas span over 200 years, in which opera audiences in Europe and America went through all kinds of revolutions (military, industrial, social, technological, etc.), but there’s a lot about each of the leading women that fits modern molds.

Vivaldi’s Griselda

Griselda (the shepherdess who “married up” represents the ultra-traditional woman who will stand by her man, no matter what he does to denounce her. While there is no singing role for the devil in this opera, it is clear that her husband the king is possibly possessed by demons from the list of bizarre actions he has taken in his career by the time the opera starts. Griselda bears with it, even turns in her tiara.

Eventually Griselda meets by coincidences her supposedly long dead daughter (killed by her king husband 15 years ago). Proof of maternal instinct? But then what’s a mother to do when she figures out the plot revolves around her husband the king marrying his own daughter whom he told her he had killed?

It’s folklore made famous by Boccacio's Decamaron, and a story repeated in some form every day in modern abused women’s centers.

Gounod’s Faust (1859)

Marguerite is also a pious woman, and it takes the powers of the devil to help Faust first seduce her and then reduce her to utter ruin. She also will give up the jewels that Faust gave her, and she does not condemn him for her misfortune but instead turns to God for salvation.

Gounod, like Vivaldi, wrote church music as well as opera for commercial opera houses. Faust is based on characters already familiar, in this case to Goethe’s Faust which in turn was based on legends. The religious flavor of entertainment is strong.

With that caveat, is Marguerite still around today?

Maybe she is even reading some advice column right now on what to do when your lover leaves you.

Puccini’s La Boheme (Turin, 1896)

Mimi is the first hint of a modern woman. On one foot she stands in the traditional feminine flirty world of the past, while the other foot supports a woman alone, eking a meager living. She wants to get and to give love, but there is never any hint th

at she wants a married life with kids as a result.

She lives alone and goes to visit four guys upstairs on the pretext of losing her key and her candle going out. (Translate that to modern looking for love advice: “go borrow a can opener from some single guy down the hall”).

While she says she prays to God, she is not saintly like either Grieselda or Marguerite.

Mimi is a seamstress, which might be an update of Marguerite at the spinning wheel, and a traditional “women’s work.” Her lover Rudolpho is a poor poet, and like the philosopher Faust--neither of these guys are working class material. The devil is not there to come up with a cask of jewels so Rudolpho instead buys her a pink bonnet. He however will not do right by her until the very last minute when she is clearly dying and there is an operatic opportunity to sing in desperation.

That said, both Marguerite and Mimi are clearly popular girls, maybe two of the top ten loved opera roles of all time These are definitely romantic types, even if the result of such

soulful matches is well...

But La Boheme presents another possibility for the modern woman: Musetta, who desired by many men, can waltz her way through her love, and is good to her women friends like Mimi. And she lives to see another day.

Alan Berg, Wozzeck (Berlin, 1925)

Marie could never have the hope of marrying up like Grieselda, or even having the beautiful romantic moments, albeit brief ones, that Marguerite and Mimi have with their lovers.. For at least a decade, she has been with Wozzeck, a barber, not a man of letters, definitely lower class.

While Marie is more open about her sexuality (she has had Wozzeck’s child and somehow survived), she is seduced with glittery green earrings to bed another man.

One can not escape noticing that besides being wrongly treated by their men, each of these woman is also abused by the society they live in. Grieselda is a queen and yet she is shamed. Marguerite is an unwed mother who has nothing left but to kill her child and be hanged for it. Mimi’s consumption has no chance of abating in the

unsanitary conditions of the urban poor.

Marie will meet her end because the clearly crazy Wozzeck, alienated and tormented by cruel society, will act out his demented rage by killing her. Sounds like it was ripped from the headlines--well in a way it was. The story of the first murder case to use the insanity plea became a play that a 100 years later Berg wrote his avant garde opera.

Mennoti’s The Last Savage (1963)

Kitty breaks the mold of the other opera heroines in this season’s lineup. She is the one in control. She is looking for her man and since she is the greatest anthropologist, he must be a real savage. She is the one who conducts the seduction during training her savage to be civilized.

One wants to shout, “At Last!” at the glories of comic opera.

She has no need for jewelry because she is one of the richest women in the world. In Act II, the Chicago penthouse party to introduce the Savage to Society, society comes out more obnoxious than at fault for the woes of humanity.

For all of that, when Kitty opens her mouth to sing, it’s far from the blues of modern jazz, and we are treated to the wonderful delights of a coloratura to rival any soprano role. Rossini, Verdi, Puccini still live in the

glories of a fine heroine.

While Grieselda, Marguerite, Mimi, are Marie suffering and dying, Kitty is the All American Girl of the 1960’s, spunky spirited and sparkling.

She of course will never replace Marguerite or Mimi on stage or in our hearts.

No, but she is the wanna be dream that sells these magazines to their real life descendants.