This morning I’m reading in an all-too-familiar state of horror about the line of massage parlors up and down the east coast, places like the one in which Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft was recently apprehended. I’m reading about the women who were lured into employment there by promises of fast money, and I’m reading about the reasons for their debt, almost always tied to their attempted immigration.
I’m reading about their daily lives.
And it’s awful, but it’s also not new. In just the last few months, I’ve read multiple stories and watched a few documentaries about the forms of sexual slavery that exist and flourish in my own country and around the world. Alongside the great strides that women have fought for and achieved in my lifetime, these old practices continue as if nothing new has happened under the sun.
Last month, I took part in a recital in New York City which ended the first songSLAM festival of Sparks and Wiry Cries (an organization you gotta learn more about – follow that link!). It was a hashtag Me Too concert, exploring lots of themes involved in that movement. I wrote program notes for it; in those, I wondered if classical vocal music’s sumptuous rendering of tough stories might keep our engagement with those stories on a sentimental level, providing a kind of pleasurable but ultimately superficial catharsis that actually lets us off the hook and helps us to ignore the darker aspects of the stories.
Just the other day, in my graduate seminar, we studied Violetta’s great scene at the end of Act 1 of La Traviata. We talked about how the right tempo in the cavatina can make the staccato accompaniment feel like the anticipation of a woman awakening to the idea of love. We talked about how the daring coloratura and Verdi’s occasional misaccenting of the Italian painted a picture of intoxication and bravery. I wish you could have heard the young coach who fearlessly sang the cabaletta in a dead-on rendition, one octave too low in true voce di coach-ay tradition but with every ounce of feeling.
The real Violetta Valery, Alphonsine Plessis, grew up in a household so violent that her mother escaped with her two daughters and went into hiding. The first time Alphonsine’s father tried to sell her to a man, she was eleven. Eventually she was sold to a seventy-year-old, was taken to Paris, and soon found that the work she’d become famous for paid better than any other job a young girl could have. The toast of the demimonde was dead at 23.
I know it’s possible to engage with the empowering aspect of opera’s stories, because I’ve been doing it all my life. If women are onstage telling women’s stories, that in itself is important – a powerful voice, wielded by a queen onstage, speaks for itself, inspires and uplifts. That’s worth a lot. So, so many of opera’s stories hinge on the misuse of women, but that’s a part of human reality. Women have been bought and sold and attacked and murdered, and that’s part of what we should see on stage because it’s part of who we are.
But when we meet Violetta, it’s in the big white ball gown or the famous Willy Decker red dress, at the top of her fame. When we meet Manon, she’s a wide-eyed girl on her way to a convent because she “loves pleasure too much,” and her rapturous love duet with a clueless young tenor was enough, when I was new to opera, to make me ignore the fact that her older relative was busy selling her to a rich man. When Butterfly on stage tells us she is fifteen years old, the joke is to roll your eyes and say, that diva doesn’t look fifteen to me.
I’m so in love with Mozart and Wagner and the way they make me feel that I skipped over their stories of women as war prizes, daughters left abandoned to be found and taken by strangers, attempted rape. I didn’t miss those stories, they were right there to see and read. But the music was there too, elevating everything, bringing stature and delicious sadness. It opened my heart.
But I’m not sure it opened my mind.
In the end, it’s my job to do that, not Mozart’s or Wagner’s or music’s.
For me, these days, that job involves a lot of thinking about what we are saying and why when we present this repertoire from the past in our present. I hope we can continue to do this with a fidelity that rises above nostalgia, and in the middle of a robust conversation about the meanings of these pieces, with ears wide open to hear views new and maybe uncomfortable to our received wisdom.
I experienced joy in my seminar, listening to young musicians discovering Verdi, and it called up my joy at hearing a succession of gifted, skilled, powerful friends letting Verdi’s notes fly from the stages of the world. But when I look at the stories being told today about what happens to women in the places dotting the highway, on college campuses, in boardrooms and tech offices and always, always behind the doors of private homes, I have to ask myself hard questions about the meaning of opera’s beautiful, brave, dead heroines in my own present, my hashtag Me Too present in which we are being made to see the stories that have always been right in front of us.
I have to ask what actions will help to make a world in which “Sempre libera” is a statement with meaning.