Why I Broke Up with Opera  

Even though I’m the one calling it quits, my heart is broken. I fell in love with opera when first ushered for live opera. I was in my early twenties. Decades later, I fell more deeply in love with the art form when it turned out my grandkids enjoyed going with me. But Trump has ruined everything. Rape culture is much more vivid since he came along, and rampant, and blatant, and I’m angry. I just can’t do it anymore. I can’t sit quietly and enjoy watching an opera in which women are fondled, groped, chased around the furniture.

I hadn’t been to an opera, not even Live in HD from the New York Metropolitan Opera, for about two years. One of my favorite singers, Renée Fleming (I once met her in person and admired both her voice and her dedication to her work) is retiring one of her signature roles, the Marschallin, from Der Rosenkavalier. Reviews called it a “dream cast,” and I’d never seen Der Rosenkavalier. I watched a scene from it on youtube and decided at the last minute to go to the final encore of the Live in HD version at my local movie theater.

A full synopsis of Der Rosenkavalier from the Metropolitan Opera of New York can be found here.

Even though I had to force myself to stay in my seat when the “comic” scene in which drunken men molest the servant girls, there were factors that kept me there for three hours, until intermission. I loved the first scene. Octavian was played by Elina Garanca, who has played the seventeen-year-old man for seventeen years. She is also retiring that role, in order to move on. In the behind-the-scenes interview, she said she had held many women in her arms, and now it was going to be her “time to be chased by men.” She did indeed hold Renée Fleming in her arms, and they kissed long and with passion. Elina ran her hands over Renée’s body, lingering on her breasts more than once. Their voices blended and harmonized as they made love, and I had a close-up, high-definition view. Despite the age difference between these characters, both were consenting adults of their time and culture.

Both women talked backstage about how they each have grown into their roles over the years. Both are “going out on top” as they retire these signature roles.

The opera moved on. After that rapturous first scene, everything but the music repulsed me: the story, the direction, the acting. I didn’t even like the set decoration, which was too much red and green. To my mind, the story is primarily rape culture set to music, and in thinking about it, I believe most of the popular operas are exactly the same: Aida, Tosca, Carmen, Turandot, Madama Butterfly, Don Giovanni, L’Elisir D’Amore, Tell, La Donna del Lago, and on and on. Often, opera directors provide rape scenes in order “to depict the horrors of war.” I call bullshit. If you want to depict the horrors of war, go with blood and gore. Molesting and raping women provides titillation for the men in the audience.

I was first appalled by these depictions in a version of Aida I saw in Portland, Oregon. I was devastated by an entirely too realistic scene in Carmen by the Metropolitan Opera, which I saw Live in HD.

But I put aside my discomfort for years. It took actually being deprived of opera for two years to remove the scales from my eyes. Watching Robert Carson’s Der Rosenkavalier with Baron Ochs looking and acting like Trump when he revealed how he grabbed women by the pussy, showing that when you’re rich you can do whatever you like to women, made the insanity of what is currently happening in the United States too real for me. It was as if I were surrounded by whirling clouds of scenes of men acting out their vilest fantasies against women.

At the end of Act II, when it is clear Octavian in the guise of the servant girl Mariandel would meet Baron Ochs for what Ochs thinks is his sexual gratification, I knew I would not sit through Act III, no matter how much I wanted to see Renée Fleming take her final bow as the Marschallin at the end of the opera.

Instead, I took my own final bow as an opera lover, at least as one who loves opera indiscriminately. Unless the opera is feminist, I won’t be an audience member. Are there feminist operas to be seen? Probably not at the Met. I’ve read that playwright Carolyn Gage has one, entitled Til the Fat Lady Sings, and I saw a studio performance of Theresa Koon’s opera about sculptor Camille Claudel, Promise.

I’m sure there are others to be discovered. After a period of mourning, I will seek operas who love me as much as I love them. I used to believe that because opera combines music, acting, and dance, the blending of beautiful voices with classical music, that it had everything I could ever want. Now I know I want more. I want depiction of a world in which all beings are treated with respect, or at least a story that shows us they should be treated with respect. I want to come away feeling the world is evolving.


Sandra de Helen, author of the lesbian thriller Till Darkness Comes also pens the Shirley Combs/Dr. Mary Watson series. She is a poet, journalist, and a playwright. Her plays have been produced in the Philippines, Ireland and Canada, Chicago, New York City, and in thirteen states. She is a member of Sisters in Crime and the Dramatists Guild. Her books are available online, at Another Read Through Bookstore in Portland, Oregon, and Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore in San Diego. Samples of her work are available on her website.

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