The Marriage of Figaro, an opera by Mozart, is said to be the most performed and recorded opera ever. It is full of the genius of Mozart, as both a dramatist and a composer. It was based on a notorious swipe at the aristocracy in a play by Beaumarchais. The aristocracy allowed the play to be performed. That was a mistake. They laughed their heads off in the opera, and then lost them on the scaffold. And Mozart was not on their side.
The opera is about the mad comings and goings in one day, when two lower class people deprive the Count of his libidinous wish to enjoy something like a droit de seigneur, a pre-emptive right with the bride. Historians agree that no such right existed, but it is there – and in Don Giovanni – as part of the libretto. (The aristocracy did of course at one time demand worse feudal rights – like killing a peasant so that they could warm their feet in his bowels.)
But this is theatre – not a lecture on feudalism, or humanism, or the enlightenment. People at the theatre are not troubled by the fact that the ‘stone guest’ – the dead Commendatore – in Don Giovanni is impossible, any more than they are troubled by the pedigree of Figaro. The whole day is one of a comedy of madness with at least three moments of searing beauty – two arias where the Countess laments the hole in her life left by the Count, and his forgiveness in the finale – the part that was instrumental in the madness of Salieri in the film Amadeus.
More than thirty years ago, my daughters and I were privileged to see the play being performed on alternate nights with the opera. The girls got to meet Barry Otto on the stage of the play. The opera was then put on next on the same small stage – one of the best opera productions I have seen. As I recall, the Countess sang Porgi amor while reclining on a cupboard. It was all too much for the then opera critic of The Age, who was a crusty guardian of the old ways. It was important for the girls to get a chance to see on the stage two of the touchstones of the development of western civilisation.
Mozart was saluting our humanity in a way only he could. Anyone who thinks that this opera is somehow against humanity or any part of it is very sadly bereft.
An article by Jacqueline Magnay in The Sunday Age today is headed ‘Opera has a women problem even if the music still sings.’ The writer, whose work I have respected, enjoyed Figaro with a mate at the Sydney Opera House. Her friend said at the end ‘That was some lovely music that was built around the story of an impending workplace rape.’ The author concedes that the plot is likely to be farcical and unlikely, but Susanna is trying to ‘escape the egregious sexual harassment/rape attempts of her boss’. The author also concedes that ‘no one wants to be clobbered with ideology when they’re seeking entertainment.’
But she says:
But it has become increasingly difficult to ignore that opera has a relatability problem – modern audiences find it hard to swallow the rampant raping, violence against women, intense misogyny and slut-shaming of the genre.
The problem is that ‘so much art, high and low, is created around the suffering and violent death of women.’ But if you take the libretto out of opera, you will be left with the music – ‘and contemporary and future audiences should not be deprived of that.’ She goes on to say how a director of Carmen believes in ‘repurposing’ operas for ‘new or different stories’.
The towering geniuses who created the masterpieces cannot be consulted about this ‘repurposing’, but at least we are not to be deprived of the music.
As the man said, ‘For this relief much thanks.’
Well, before we look at how this cleansing may work, can I say immediately that any person who wants to rip the arias Porgi amor and Dove sono from the context in which Mozart left them is committing an act of desecration that is not forgivable. Art like this is the climax of western civilisation. If after Auschwitz and Hiroshima, you ask what separates us from the apes, I would go to Mozart and this opera.
Let us, then, apply this new doctrine to the other big shows of Mozart. Don Giovanni begins with the hero murdering the father of a woman he has just raped, and women are the eternal victims throughout the show – and yet the hero goes to blazes unrepentant. The whole point of Cosi fan tutte is to show that women can’t be trusted – the title means ‘They’re all the same.’ The Magic Flute might look like a harmless panto, but the source of evil is the Queen of the Night – why not send her out with white boots and a screen shot of the Bois de Boulogne?
Scratch all three. And just listen to the music. With your eyes firmly shut.
I pass over all Italian opera, and say merely that you would have to scrub the whole Ring Cycle – the hero, Siegfried, is as thick as two planks, and takes far too long to die, and he is the product of a coupling of the product of an incestuous union with the product of the rape of mortal by a god. Hitler thought Siegfried was bonzer and dined out on Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods).
What about those ballets we bring our girls up on? In Swan Lake, Odette is the victim awaiting rescue by a man, and Odile is the dreadful bitch who snaffles the bloke. Giselle goes crazy and dances herself to death when she discovers that the boyfriend has more front than Myers. Cinderella is about the evil sisters – that centuries old blood libel on all women that we come back to in Shakespeare.
And before we look at his big four, let us say good bye to Genesis, for obvious reasons, and Paradise Lost – earth felt the wound when Eve bit the apple, and then seduced our father, and the only question is whether her sin of disobedience to God could possibly be worse than her disobedience to her man.
And the Iliad must go too. The problem starts with a tart, Helen, shooting through; she has to endure slut shaming; then the Greek king snaffles the girl prize of Achilles; who sulks in his tent until the bad guys killed his beloved – a bloke. (And, boy, didn’t Shakespeare do a number on Achilles? And on the slut – a word he liked.)
As for bloody Chaucer, he reeks of filth and insults to women – the Miller’s Tale is pure smut that I refused to read out loud at Cambridge on the grounds of public decency.
Let us then finish with the big four of Shakespeare. In Macbeth, a woman actually renounces her sex – just think of that! – to get her husband to murder their king – and then she goes to water and wimps it. In Othello, a badly spoiled child cheats on her father to have it off with a black man – and then gets throttled for her troubles. In Hamlet, another spoiled child is so cruel to his girlfriend that she goes crackers and then tops herself. Finally, in King Lear, the evil sisters are at it yet again – and boy are they evil! – but the good girl is too silly to play the game required at difficult family gatherings – and the whole world comes to an end.
Dear, dear, me. I thought we were passed all this kind of stuff, years ago. I resigned from a gentlemen’s club because it is predicated on there being a difference between men and women – that I do not think is decent. Others have a different view. That’s fine. But, why do people want to maintain the schism?
This is the kind of petty stuff you get from the other paper – where people bang on about phantoms like ‘cancel culture’ and ‘identity politics’. Are they the bogey men in play here?
Or are our latterday vigilantes intent on modelling themselves on the moral police of the Persians? If so, they might think of drooping a veil over the Mona Lisa, who badly needs a chat with her dietitian and fashion adviser, and throw a great coat over the Adam of Michelangelo, that gleaming fascist whose steely glare defies all mankind to answer back – and whose mum forgot to tell him about jock straps.
The Sunday Age – Jacqueline Magnay – opera – sexism – misogyny – Mozart – Figaro – Shakespeare – sacrilege.