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  • Blake Hill-Saya

Lords, Librettos and Liberation: Opera as a Catalyst for Social Change

So, when you think opera, do you think scandal, iconoclasts, sexual revolution and rebellion?

Didn’t think so.

While opera certainly has complicated roots in european aristocratic patronage and the social elite, opera was also a pretty sneaky medium through which to create buzz, drive trends and introduce social change. Remember, opera was predominantly written and performed by non-aristocrats or the aristocratic adjacent, many of whom tasted desperate poverty at least once or twice in their lives, and all of whom knew that their place as artists in society was considered socially unsavory no matter how admired they were by their audiences and patrons. Poets, philosophers, writers, composers, painters, musicians, dancers and performing artists, who eventually became known as the “Bohemian” class, did a lot of thinking about a better life. They wrestled with the problems of hunger, living with illness, being socially disadvantaged, marrying for love instead of status, being able to own land or their own bodies for that matter, and how to cope with the emotions of living hard while hoping those who lived soft might notice them and elevate their work. Opera, in fact, became quite the barometer of the broader social zeitgeist. Don’t believe me? Walk this way…

Ever heard of the “Droit du seigneur” also known as “primae noctis”? Ok, imagine this: Your boss at work is powerful and unpredictable. Your life depends on keeping your job. He owns your house and you are heavily in debt to him for all the basics that you buy at the store …that he also owns. You have a beautiful daughter who you love very much, who is about to get married. YAY! Guess what would be super stressful? What if you had to worry that your boss, who has already declared that your daughter is super-hot, is going to decide to sleep with (rape) her… on her wedding night… instead of her husband. Why? Because, by tradition/law, HE CAN.

The “Lord’s right” or “the right of first night” has fairly murky, possibly Medieval origins. Voltaire is the person credited with calling it “droit du seigneur” in 1762. Many scholars insist that it never really existed as written law, however it seems to have been a trend in nearly every culture from France to Spain to the Middle East, to Africa to Asian cultures, and is definitely reflected in centuries of slavery era practices in U. S. History. Males in seats of power helping themselves to the bodies of virgins (and less powerful persons in general) as a perk of puissance …is kind of a thing (paging Harvey Weinstein et al). Let’s just say it was “an open secret”.

When W. A. Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte chose a 1778 play by Beaumarchais as the basis for The Marriage of Figaro, they knew that it would not only cause a stir because of the elevation of the servant class to protagonists but also because The Count Almaviva threatens to reinstate “primae noctis” in order to satiate his desire for his wife’s chamber maid on her wedding night. This issue was a societal hot button, and heightened the social stakes of the play’s subject matter arguably just as much. Pierre Beaumarchais’s play had already caused such a stir in the previous two years that people were actually crushed to death at its premiere. Da Ponte had to remove most of the play’s overtly political bite in his libretto in order to get it past the sensors, but the play was already so popular that the revolutionary nature of it was heavily implied. All it needed was a dazzling score and it was a hit in the making. Mozart delivered just that, transforming this story into a masterpiece for the ages.

In the Marriage of Figaro, The Count Almaviva is outsmarted and socially outmaneuvered into public defeat by the alliance of the traditionally unempowered characters of his new wife Countess Rosina Almaviva, and her maid Susanna (yep, WOMEN). They switch clothing in order to run a “sting operation” in the garden after Susannah and Figaro’s wedding. The Count ends up trying to have his way with his own wife, and his infidelity is revealed in a public shaming event in front of his entire household. Many other subplots surround this central one, all having to do with class, money and the threat of scandal, but the butt of all jokes is The Count, and, frankly, toxic masculinity in general. Many take issue in the present day with the believability of The Count not recognizing The Countess, his own wife, in Susanna’s clothing. However, when you think about the fact that she is essentially “role playing” a power dynamic that seems to be the actual turn-on for The Count, it isn’t surprising at all that he isn’t focused on the real woman in the clothes, but the fact that her uniform signals that her body is his perk of power. It is also important to remember that women were barely recognizable at all to men in this era as individuals separate from their status and associations, which is why the hierarchies of fashion were designed to be a social short hand. The Countess in turn uses the only weapon available to her as a married woman in aristocratic society (wit and subterfuge) to signal to the Count that she not only loves him but is the only one who can redeem him with her public image of virtue. She also is signaling her more successful alliance with his staff, and that she won’t be an adultery doormat going forward. In other words, for just a moment, their power roles are reversed, and she decides to publicly model compassion instead of retribution. Experimenting with the politics of power equality within a marriage, in my opinion, was just as explosively subversive as the servants outsmarting the master. Furthermore, when high status women find common ground around their disempowerment with the plight of lower status classes, it is a historic recipe for male ruling class disaster. We can see echoes, for example, of this kind of explosive alliance in U.S. History when Northern white educated women of means and social standing threw their support behind the pre-Civil War Abolitionist movement. Unfortunately, that alliance was short lived when the question of suffrage post-emancipation placed Black male suffrage before white female suffrage on the social agenda. But that, my friends, is another blog unto itself.

One can only imagine what these characters and their messages felt like in the psyche of the original audiences who received them. I imagine that these two embattled yet resourceful women banding together to secure their safety and status might have been pretty well received by wives and women of any class when this work premiered. One might also imagine the reactions of the men who may have felt implicated but also reflected in the character struggles around what defines power and manhood in the character of The Count, or the helplessness Figaro feels in being unable to protect his bride due to his social status. All of these characters are tightly interwoven into a sparkling parlor drama with a morality play twist that is aimed directly at the ills of inequality in society. When you make being a person who uses power to inflict suffering and sexual battery on the underprivileged laughably uncool yet redeemable through the power of love, you have a potentially powerful tool for change.

Did it work? Well, one could argue that these works helped make “droit de seigneur” unsavory enough for historians to argue that it is a myth. It did not work well enough, however, to relieve us from the long line of women who have stood next to their disgraced husbands in Countess Almaviva/ “Good Wife” moments in order to socially redeem their power. The necessity of the #metoo movement also proves that we are still combatting the same patterns of power abuse for sexual gain. Operas like The Marriage of Figaro exist as a kind of artistic precedent for the historic prevalence of these dynamics.

The Beaumarchais plays have also been credited with being a social catalyst for the French Revolution-spurred on by the success of the American Revolution. Beaumarchais himself ran guns and cash to American Rebel forces from France and Spain less than five years before writing these plays, which makes him a bit of a Jedi for social change. So, I would say some of that servant-is-the-equal-of-the-aristocrat stuff stuck, and in fact did change the balance of power in the world. Yes, opera was part of doing that.

That sounds pretty scandalous, iconoclastic, sexually revolutionary and rebellious to me!

Photo: Metropolitan Opera - Bo Skovhus as Count Almaviva with Danielle de Niese as Susanna.

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