Politically correct opera

Last week the West Australian Opera briefly decided to drop a planned performance of Carmen for fear of losing the sponsorship of a state government health promotion agency called Healthway, whose policies prohibit supporting any arts organization that portrays people smoking on stage. Healthway currently subsidizes the opera company to the tune of over $350,000.

Australian politicians have since twisted Healthway’s arm to allow the performance, but it’s not clear whether they’re going to put Carmen back on the schedule.

The episode left me wondering (1) what other operas need to be cleansed of incorrect material, and (2) whether the folks at West Australian Opera have actually listened to the lyrics of any of the operas they perform, and what will be left after they cleanse their repertoire of potentially offensive operas. Given that most opera plots lean heavily on rape, incest, adultery, prostitutes with golden hearts, murder, suicide, and blackmail, the answer would seem to be, “Not much.”

This year’s lineup:

Otello – domestic abuse! Spouse murder! Besides, racism.

The Magic Flute – the child custody case from hell. Besides, anti-feminism.

Il Trovatore – witch hunts, attempted abduction, and throwing the baby into the bonfire… oh well, I suppose that could be written off as post-natal abortion. Pass.

Tosca – torture, blackmail and unassisted suicide. If only Tosca had asked a doctor to throw her off those battlements!

Oh, well. There must be other operas, right? Let’s see:

Don Giovanni – Serial fornication is probably OK, but did the Don obtain affirmative consent every time? Also, the last scene, where he descends into Hell, has to go. That’s forcing religion onto people!

La Fille du Regiment – Bad language alert, illegitimacy; pass.

Madame Butterfly – False marriage, suicide, but the fatal problem is Pinkerton’s failure to pay child support.

The Marriage of Figaro – classic case of workplace sexual harassment.

Pagliacci – The adultery is OK, but, hunchback abuse.

Rosenkavalier – One word: Cougar.

La Traviata – Prostitution is probably OK as long as it’s voluntary, but that song glorifying drinking must be cut.

I’m sure this list is far from complete; feel free to add your own favorites.

15 thoughts on “Politically correct opera”

  1. Cosi fan Tutte. Often was bowdlerized when performed. Later made into an Aurelio Zen mystery by Michael Dibdin. In that novel, Zen is sent to a Naples police station which is running a brothel from the station. Very funny.

  2. I already read a few months ago about an Asian woman saying The Mikado was racist and beyond the pale. In Seattle, I think.

  3. Frau Katze – Here’s the Mikado story.

    (I’m not sure if she is still an editorial writer at the Seattle Times. There have been some changes in their line-up, and I haven’t checked just who is writing editorials for them, recently.)

  4. PC is not just an American phenomenon but mostly I’m just wondering why a government health promotion agency is subsidizing opera?

  5. For ‘The Magic Flute’ you could also include ‘racism’. Sarastro’s servant Monostatos is a Moor, i.e., dark-skinned. He tries to rape the beautiful white-skinned Pamina, but is driven off by Sarastro. Nowadays, of course, he is NEVER played dark-skinned. And Papageno makes a living catching birds, so animal cruelty, too. And as the curtain rises, the hero Tamino has been shooting arrows at a poor innocent dragon. Who is then killed to sate the blood lust of the Three Ladies. And don’t get me started on the mother-in-law bashing.

  6. All societies bowdlerize, er, interpret, past works to flatter themselves. We are in a transition period from the old family structures which promoted freedom, prosperity, and liberty, to a new normal society with homo-, pedo-, poly- serial “marriages” which favor tyranny, poverty, and oppression.

    The vices of corruption, gluttony, avarice are placed by racism, sexism, and -phobias. Justice is no longer seen as an individual quality, but as a Platonic, or social, attribute of a society. The lesser justice that prosecutes criminals is replaced by the greater justice of the hierarchical ordering of factions in government.

    And as such, all past works of art must be re-interpreted.

    This change will be as thorough going and complete as the Christianizing of the Roman Empire.

  7. Yikes. I go to bed thinking there was nothing left but Gilbert & Sullivan and Franz Lehar. Now I must apologize for failing to notice the gross racism of The Mikado. Because, you know, it’s totally about Japan.

    And HMS Pinafore glorifies chauvinism (“For He Is an Englishman”), the apprenticeship in Pirates of Penzance is child abuse… By-bye, Gilbert and Sullivan.

    Franz Lehar it is. Can anybody find anything to condemn in The Merry Widow?

  8. Merry Widow? Sexism because … shouldn’t she remain independent and single, rather than endure the horrors of marriage and PIV sex? (Yeah, you likely don’t care to know what the definition of that is, according to the rampaging feminist social justice warriors.)

  9. Here’s something I posted almost 12 years ago (November 24, 2002) on my (now-moribund) website:

    Guns And Opera

    I wouldn’t have thought opera would have much to do with the Second Amendment, but yesterday’s shows at the Met proved me wrong:

    1. In the crisis of Fidelio, the evil prison governor Don Pizarro is about to murder his prisoner Florestan with a knife, when Florestan’s wife Leonore saves him by pulling a gun. Apparently Don Pizarro had never heard that he shouldn’t bring a knife to a gunfight.

    Leonore had infiltrated the prison by disguising herself as a young man, calling herself Fidelio, and taking a job as aide to the jailer Rocco. Rocco’s daughter Marzelline falls in love with ‘Fidelio’, leading to much amusement and confusion in Act I. I suppose having a gun in her pocket helps Leonore convince Marzelline that she is a man, and glad to see her, neither of which is true.

    2. I forgot to mention this at the time, but when I saw Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades at the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto last month, there was a warning notice on the front door of the theater that struck me as odd. I don’t recall the exact text, but it advised the audience that there would be gunshots in the opera, and they should not be startled or offended when they heard them. Apparently New Yorkers are made of sterner stuff, and need no such warning. The shot that kills Manrico in Il Trovatore did rather startle me — I already knew he was doomed, but it came sooner than I expected. I still didn’t think I needed a written warning.

    As I’ve noted elsewhere (Volokh comments, I think), if Fidelio is the 2nd Amendment opera, The Barber of Seville is the 3rd Amendment opera: Count Almaviva gets access to his beloved by impersonating an officer and moving right into her house.

    I wrote a bit more on Guns and Opera (also race and opera) here.

  10. As for Léhar being the author of the only semi-PC operas anyone can think of, wasn’t he Hitler’s favorite? I’ve certainly read that while Hitler admired Wagner, not least for his views on the Jews, he loved Léhar.

  11. Crawdad: Why is a government agency subsidizing opera? So they can control it, of course, as in this very case. You’d think opera was an art-form hardly worth controlling, but don’t underestimate the totalizing tendencies of modern bureaucracy and PC. (Any implication of ‘totalitarian’ you may wish to see in ‘totalizing’ is very much intended: there are softer and harder totalitarianisms.)

  12. There was film years ago called The Producers. It’s premise was they were going to make the most politically incorrect Broadway Musical they could concoct. It would close in two weeks, and they’d make off with the investment money. Mel Brooks, Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder.

    From Wiki:
    After reading many bad plays, the partners find the obvious choice for their scheme: Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden. It is “a love letter to Hitler” written in total sincerity by deranged ex-Nazi Franz Liebkind (Kenneth Mars). They persuade him to sign over the stage rights, telling him they want to show the world “the Hitler you loved, the Hitler you knew, the Hitler with a song in his heart.” To guarantee that the show is a flop, they hire Roger De Bris (Christopher Hewett), a director whose plays “close on the first day of rehearsal”. The part of Hitler goes to a charismatic but only semi-coherent, flower power hippie named Lorenzo St. DuBois, a.k.a. L.S.D. (Dick Shawn), who can barely remember his own name and had mistakenly wandered into their theater during the casting call. After Max sells 25,000% of the play to his regular investors (dozens of lustful little old ladies), they are sure to be on their way to Rio.

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