Good Italian operas have been putting passion, love, drama, betrayals, revenge and mystery on stage for 400 years. Often called the ultimate form of art, Italian opera has it all: a blend of music, singing, literature, acting, dance, costumes and much more. ALL filled with DRAMA. From mythological tales to Egyptian history and Parisian bohemians to 19th century Sicily, telling stories of political turmoils and wonderful passions (with shocking plot twists and last-minute cliffhangers), opera has spanned centuries worth of stories with one constant: amazing female characters. Seriously, don’t think Netflix has invented anything new: opera did it before and with way more passione!
Historically, opera was a men’s form of art: written by men for men and at the very beginning, sung by men (though one of the very first operas, Liberazione di Ruggiero dall’Isola di Alcina, was written by Francesca Caccini in Florence in 1625). However, opera is, in all reality, a women’s business. Heroines and anti-heroines are the real protagonists of these dramas, starring in these tales with their complex yet unforgettable personalities. These memorable ladies–sometimes victims, sometimes executioners–with larger than life duties are moved by endless loves and inner conflicts. They are, unsurprisingly, extremely contemporary in the way they act, think and behave. Judging art in relation to the time in which it was produced is always a respectful form of criticism, but having said this, I’m going to take you on a mini-tour of badass women of the Italian opera and the modern traits in their complex personalities.
Giuseppe Verdi’s (1813-1901) heroines are some of the most famous operatic women. His female characters are not idealised damsels in distress, but real women who live on the stage and in 19th century Italy, metaphorically mirroring the societies of their time. There is Aida, an Ethiopian princess enslaved by the Egyptians, who is in love with the enemy’s general Radames and who is ready to die for her love even if it means betraying her own people. I’m not joking when I say it’s a story to cry over: Saturday-night-ice-cream-on-the-sofa kind of crying material. Then there is Lady Macbeth, who takes ruthlessness to another level. She wants power and social standing, and she does everything she can to achieve her dream status. She kills, lies and manipulates to become the most powerful woman in her society. Do not mess with her! Joan of Arc is a hero who’s tormented and divided between love and duty; she struggles in her relationship with her father, questions herself and ponders her own future. In Attila, a particularly psychoanalytic opera, there is Odabella, a woman who’s determined to avenge her father and is strong, resilient and stubborn. Rigoletto’s Gilda is in love with the Duke of Mantua and represents the conditions of women in Italy in the 19th century.
Another important portrayer of women was Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), whose women are active agents, ready to commit murders and fight for what they believe is best for them. There’s Tosca, singer and lover of the painter Mario Cavaradossi, who’s so jealous that she does not want him to paint other women and who’s ready to commit a murder for love. Mimì in La Bohème is instinctive but complex, a woman fighting for her independence in 19th century Paris. La Fanciulla del West is Minnie, who holds on to real nerves, owning and running her salon as an independent woman who always takes charge of her fate. She plays poker, owns a gun and saves her boyfriend: what a funky heroine in 1850! Only submissive on the surface, Cio-Cio San’s tragic and heartbreaking story from Madama Butterfly is a metaphor for the collision between western and eastern culture, as well as an investigation into fetishism and the idealisation of love and passion.
Perhaps the quintessential opera of female empowerment is Norma by Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835). Norma, who happens to be the virgin Druid’s priestess, finds out that her lover has cheated on her with Adalgisa, her disciple. Instead of fighting with each other, the two women team up. I won’t spoil the dark ending of this play, whose aria Casta Diva is still one of the most famous ever written. (You may have heard of Norma from the Sicilian dish pasta alla Norma. Some believe the name comes from Catanian playwright Nino Martoglio, who exclaimed “it’s as good as Norma” the first time he tried the pasta. Others believe a Sicilian chef created the famous recipe for Bellini himself.)
Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868) wrote beautiful operas, some of which, like Il Barbiere di Siviglia and La Donna del Lago, are considered classics. Thanks to Rossini, we have another roster of fierce women, including Lisinga and her fight for love in Demetrio e Polibio. Or Mathilde, who becomes a revolutionary in Guglielmo Tell; in Matilde di Shabran, she is determined to seduce a misogynistic castellan in order to restore justice. Gaetano Donizetti’s (1797–1848) character of Lucia di Lammermoor murders her husband on their wedding night and then loses her mind.
Some believe that the way opera portrays women is misogynistic as the leading heroines, in most stories, die, are betrayed or commit suicide. However, what I find to be absolutely modern in the representations of these characters is that the women themselves are allegories of great, human ideals. Aida is not just an Ethiopian princess: she embodies and represents the choice to prefer freedom to anything else. Tosca holds a mirror in front of the all-encompassing power of love, but also the danger of deceits. Norma is an inquiry into jealousy, matricide and maternal love. Women in Italian opera are ideas, behaviours and human feelings who stand for universal concepts. Far from being passive agents, these women actively act, embodying concepts and human mannerisms. What opera did with women is something classics have been doing since the beginning of the time: characterisation of concept. This is the reason why men in operas are often (always?) villains–evil, unscrupulous, almost deranged. They mirror and embody unpleasant human feelings and behaviours and are often ridiculed by the opera writers who want to display our darkest secrets.
The composers and the writers of these operas were ahead of their times because they portrayed female characters layered with psychological depth. And although the female voices may be silenced at the end, their sopranos and contraltos are heard loud and clear throughout the preceding acts. These women struggle and suffer, but they ultimately live their lives their way.