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Opera, Sexual Violence, And The Art Of Telling Terrible Tales

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By Peter Tregear

As an art form routinely accused of contemporary irrelevancy, opera rarely makes headline news. But a new staging in London of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell (1829), a work perhaps best known today for bequeathing the world the theme music of the TV series The Lone Ranger, has garnered international media attention for including a scene of gang-rape and full-frontal nudity.

Verdi’s I due Foscari. Image source: Gian Ehrenzeller

The scene was apparently greeted with sustained booing from the audience at both the dress rehearsal and opening night last week. Catherine Rogers, an opera singer who was in the audience, concluded in a blog post that the scene in question was meant to shock, to be sure, but did so cheaply, “without protecting the very people who’s plight it is designed to highlight“; that is, it was done without any warning.

It would be inappropriate to comment on the finer details, of course, without having seen the production firsthand. But the controversy raises a number of issues with wider ramifications.

To begin with, it points to one of the underlying reasons why opera is prone to accusations of irrelevancy. To put it bluntly, we don’t like to think of opera as realist drama. Its theatrical conventions and clichés tend instead to evoke a kind of mythic realm where humans act, or – should we say – sing, above or outside broader history.

When opera is unmistakably set in a particular time and place, say the Paris of Puccini’s La Bohème (1896) or the Seville of Bizet’s Carmen (1875), such settings provide colourful backdrops. We are not really being asked to consider the desperate plight, say, of the Parisian or Spanish female working poor.

This is why the kind of controversy that has erupted in London is so peculiar to opera. By comparison, when similarly distressing scenes occurs in a film or theatre they generally raise much less critical attention, let alone backlash – although Game of Thrones has been on the receiving end of much criticism for its portrayal of rape, in the show’s most recent season, and in others.

The author of that phenomenally successful fantasy-book-turned-TV-show, George RR Martin, has justified the inclusion of so many such scenes of violence against women in his plots by arguing they reflect the sad reality of war in our own cultures. This is a valid point – but only if the context in which they are placed does not make such scenes seem more gratuitous or pornographic than historically informative (As far as the TV series is concerned, at least, this is a moot point).

The desire to make operatic plots similarly raise our political and moral conscience is perhaps the chief justification for so-called Regietheater, a theatrical conceit that licences an opera director to transform, or simply ignore, the original settings and conventions of an historic operatic work.

The depiction of women in opera presents a particular challenge. In a now-famous study entitled Opera; or The Undoing of Women (1979), the philosopher Catherine Clément examined the way in which traditional operatic plots have more often than not centred around the physical or psychological destruction of a female character. Thus, she argues, 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.”

In opera, Clément says we watch “women die – without anyone thinking, as long as the marvellous voice is singing, to wonder why“.

Guillaume Tell, however, is not Carmen, or La Boheme, or indeed Tosca, or Madame Butterfly. Based on Friedrich Schiller’s play of the same name, it centres on the eponymous legendary Swiss revolutionary hero and his quest for both love and liberty. Sure, violence is in the plot, but was it justified to present it in such a graphic, and gendered, form?

Kaspar Holten, the Artistic Director of the Royal Opera House, concluded that it was, writing last week:

Let me assure you that we wanted to put the spotlight on rape as a horrible and terrifying crime and that our intention in doing this was to remind us all how this weapon is being used in warfare around the world. Whether this is the right way to do it, is a relevant and important discussion, but I want to make sure the intention is understood correctly.

But, as the UK critic Hugo Shirely mused in 2014, grand operas such as William Tell were first and foremost “written to exploit and reflect the power, resources and tastes of mid-19th-century Paris“, and “tended to favour history and its battles for the scenic opportunities they afforded rather than for the lessons they taught.

opera and sexual violence
Rossini’s William Tell is a widely performed and recorded Opera. Image source: Piano!/Flickr

Of course, all such historical stories inevitably unfold, as the German philosopher Walter Benjamin famously noted, against a backdrop of both civilisation and barbarism. But romantic and political heroism is the dramatic focus of Guillaume Tell, not the horrors of war per se.

And lest we think that this was because the original Parisian audience simply wanted to avoid these less comfortable truths, we need only to recall what the lived experience for many of them must have been. The Second White Terror, after all, had occurred only 15 years earlier, and another French revolution was less than a year away.

Political violence was perhaps as stark and as distressingly accessible to that audience as it is today for us in the era of ISIS uploads to YouTube. Maybe it was more pressing, instead, for that audience to remind itself that qualities such as individual heroism, love, nobility of spirit, stoicism, and emotional sincerity, nevertheless still matter in troubled times.

These are, furthermore, qualities that the musical character of 19th-century opera (all too often overlooked in these debates) is especially well suited to convey.

At its best, opera can, indeed, be a powerful form of allegorical theatre. Precisely its unrealistic, “fantastic” character can reveal to us a great deal about ourselves and very contemporary concerns, just as Luke Buckmaster has argued is the case for Game of Thrones.

I wonder then whether, in the rush to present a more overt message, opera directors risk simply miscomprehending the medium?

This article is part of The Conversation’s Arts+Culture series.

Peter Tregear is Professor and Head, School of Music at Australian National University.

This article was originally published here on The Conversation

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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Find out more about the campaign here.

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She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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