Stabbed. Strangled. Shot. Poisoned. Driven to madness and suicide. Opera is a deadly place for a woman.
Our opera company seasons are dominated by stories in which women are abused, murdered or driven to suicide by men. Audiences across the world rise to their feet to applaud the violent deaths of Carmen, Cio-Cio-San, Isolde, Tosca, Lakme and Desdemona. In the world of 19th-century opera, a woman can consider herself lucky to die of tuberculosis.
“All the women in opera die a death prepared for them by a slow plot, woven by furtive, fleeting heroes, up to their glorious moment: a sung death,” wrote the feminist critic Catherine Clement in her book Opera, or the Undoing of Women. “Opera … is no different from the other artistic products of our culture; it records a tale of male domination and female oppression. Only it does so more blatantly and, alas, more seductively than any other art form” …
The French mezzo-soprano Clementine Margaine has just finished her season as Carmen in John Bell’s new production for Opera Australia. Bell’s staging, she says, demanded she be “constantly on the edge”.
“Carmen and Don Jose [sung by tenor Yonghoon Lee] are part wrestling and part embracing when he pulls the knife out,” Margaine says. “That moment is all the emotions together. It’s really a passion crime. In some productions, Carmen dies in an act of pure domestic violence. In others, she dies almost by accident. I did one production where she runs into the knife – which I’m not a fan of, because I don’t believe Carmen would kill herself. But it’s the choice of the director and you have to respect that choice.”