Academic journal article Canadian University Music Review

Opera, or the Undoing of Women

Academic journal article Canadian University Music Review

Opera, or the Undoing of Women

Article excerpt

CATHERINE CLÉMENT. Opera, or the Undoing of Women. Translated by Betsy Wing. Foreword by Susan McClary. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988, 201 pp.

Despite the adoption of feminist criticism as a viable analytical method within literary and film studies, musicology still approaches gender issues with apprehension. Because publications have applied feminist perspectives to the study of "folk" and sociological "popular" musics within the last decade, one might have expected historical musicology to follow the trend. That, however, has not been the case, and there is a surprising paucity of feminist criticism in this discipline.

The few existing musicological-feminist texts are either anthologies or source readings describing the role of female composers and performers. There has been little delving into a feminist critique of the image of women in music. One notable exception, however, is Catherine Clement's recently translated study. In her work, Clément, a French feminist, attempts to expose operatic women's types and plots exclusively through libretti, which she considers to be the "forgotten part of opera." By stripping away the music and exposing the patriarchical social structures of libretti, Clément deconstructs the "transcendental" aspects of opera. Through her survey of operas ranging from Don Giovanni to Madame Butterfly she argues that, time and time again, opera perpetuates women's oppression by demanding either a domestication of the female or her death. For Clément there exists only one storyline for women in which they all "cross over a vigorous, invisible line, the line that makes them unbearable; so they will have to be punished" (p. 59). Stated more simply, "they suffer, they cry, they die" (p. 11). Whether it be their profession, their foreign nationality, their sexuality or other features too numerous to mention, their destruction is essential to maintain society's patriarchal balance.

Worthy of note are Susan McClary's Foreword remarks which successfully prepare the reader for Clement's upcoming psychoanalytical probing. McClary's comments on the youthfulness of feminist musicological research are informative and reinforce the importance of this text as breaking ground for further research. Furthermore, McClary functions as a liaison between Franco-feminist ideas and the North American reader, and prepares us for our exercise in "lire feminine".

In examining text structure, it is apparent that Clément rejects the traditional chapter arrangement by chronology or operatic nationality, choosing instead a division by common operatic plots and types. For example, Chapter Two deals with those "Dead Women" (which includes almost all characters) whom Clément classifies by types of death: "Nine by knife, two of them suicides; three by ike; two who jump; two consumptives; three who drown; three poisoned; two of fright; and a few unclassifiable, thank god for them, dying without anyone knowing why or how" (p. 47). Later chapters address those operas which depict women helplessly caught in the throws of the bourgeois family (including The Magic Flute and La Traviata) and those "Girls who Leap into Space" : women such as Lucia di Lammermoor and Puccini's Mimi who mercifully attain perfection through death. Clément completes her classification by adding a few insightful words about the roles of males who, in comparison to their female counterparts, appear as "Madmen, Negroes and Jesters". They are the men who Clément points out as being "excluded, marked by some initial strangeness" (p. 118). Characters such as Otello, Falstaff and Don José might come to mind. Indeed, what ultimately weakens or estranges these men from their peers is their own femininity: they are vulnerable, and they cry and lament. They are simply too much like women.

Although Clément is grounded in French feminism, Marxism, and structuralism she makes no pretence about her musicological capabilities. …

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