The Opera Evangelist had the privilege of hearing yesterday evening Nicholas Stevens deliver a nuanced and though-provoking lecture on the troubling re-emergence in contemporary opera of the age-old trope of the femme fatale. One might imagine that 21st Century artists would be inclined to offer more empowered female leads than the tradition has bequeathed us, but according to Mr. Stevens, a PhD student at CWRU whose forthcoming dissertation examines the roots and contemporary iterations of the trope, recent offerings tend to traffic in the old, exploitative stereotypes.
Mr. Stevens notes that after a 60-year hiatus (1935-1995), the work of contemporary composers tends “to restore and reinvigorate the femme fatale narrative, and the trend isn’t showing any signs of going away.” The lecture focused on two contemporary operas: Anna Nicole (comp. Mark-Anthony Turnage, libr. Richard Thomas), based on the life and death by overdose of model and TV personality Anna Nicole Smith, and American Lulu, a Civil Rights era re-imagining of Berg’s opera by Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth.
In a wonderful Q&A session after his lecture, Mr. Stevens noted that “It is possible to stage American Lulu in a way that flips the misogynist paradigm on its head,” but at least from the advertising trailer showed during the lecture, early productions have not taken that approach.
So, there’s work to be done, friends.
Homework. Mr. Stevens mentioned two relevant books which sound like must-reads:
- L’Opera ou la défaite des femmes, or “Opera and the Defeat of Women,” by French philosopher, feminist and critic Catherine Clément.
- Reconfiguring Mth and Narrative in Contemporary Opera, by Yayoi Uno Everett.