Saturday, March 14, 2009

Otello, Rihanna, and Chris Brown

As some of you know, one of the projects I’ve recently been involved with is a production of Verdi’s Otello with the Harvard Lowell House Opera Company where I am the chorusmaster. I haven’t written much about it, mostly because I’ve been so busy doing it. And it’s been very rewarding in a lot of ways – I love my chorus, and I really appreciate the chance to learn this opera. The music for the chorus is really wonderful and very complex, and a lot of fun to work on and teach.

But now we are finishing the run (tonight is closing night) and I have been watching the opera a lot. A LOT. Chorusmasters don’t perform operas; they watch them and take notes on what to improve with the chorus for next time. And after watching it so much, this opera makes me feel uncomfortable for a number of reasons.

The main one is the way the issue of domestic abuse is handled. I like the way it’s handled in Act III. In Act III, when Otello hits Desdemona in public everyone is horrified, and sings about how awful it is in a completely unqualified manner. But when we get to Act IV, issues arise. Otello kills Desdemona, and then…everyone comes in and explains that he was wrong to kill her because she hadn’t cheated on him like he thought. The reason this is such a tragedy is that Desdemona wasn’t actually unfaithful at all!

I hope you all see the problem with this. If a man kills his partner, whether or not she cheated on him is kind of irrelevant. It doesn’t matter if a woman who is killed is a virgin or a whore. It’s a horrific crime, period. And the repeated cries of “She was innocent!” imply that if she HADN’T been innocent, well, then she would have deserved it. At the very least, she ought to have known what might happen, right? And therefore some of the culpability would have rested with her.

Now, I know a lot of people will say, “Oh, but that was just how women were treated back then. It was awful, of course, but if you are going to perform opera from that time period, you have to accept that bad treatment of women was normal.”

Except that we have the same attitudes today. It has nothing to do with “that time period.” And the current Rihanna/Chris Brown news reports demonstrate this quite well. For those who don’t know, Rihanna is an extremely popular singer (at my elementary school, there is probably no musician more popular, with the possible exception of Hannah Montana.) And Chris Brown is her boyfriend, also a very successful singer. According to news reports, on the way to the Grammys he beat her while he was driving, then pulled over the car and continued to beat her, including choking her nearly into unconsciousness. She landed in the hospital. It’s an extremely high-profile case.

And what does the internets have to say about this? Well, the victim-blaming is nauseating. I don’t want to link to much of it here, but I have found things in my research that made me sick. (For instance, the Boston Globe reports that nearly half of Boston teens surveyed thing that Rihanna was at fault for being attacked.) Lots of discussion is centered around what she did to “make” him beat her. How many times to we have to say that there is nothing that you can do that means you deserve to be beaten? The self-defense argument doesn’t hold water either, because even if she attacked him in some way, the fact that he doesn’t have a scratch on him and she was in the hospital clearly means that his reaction was utterly out of proportion and completely indefensible.

To me, these are two sides of the same coin. The story of Otello says, “This is such a tragedy because she didn’t do anything wrong!” The very real Chris Brown/Rihanna story sparks discussion about “She was beaten! What did she do wrong?”

Now, I really understand the feelings behind victim-blaming. We want to believe that bad things happen for a reason, because that means we can avoid all bad things by just doing everything right. That is a far more comforting thought than to believe that sometimes bad things are unavoidable, they just happen and we have no control over them. Thus, we want to believe that if something bad happens to someone, they must somehow be at fault. It means that it is less likely to happen to us, because we can just avoid whatever mistake they made. And we are just as likely to victim-blame those we love as well as strangers, because if we just explain to our loved ones how to be smart, nothing bad will ever happen to them. “You know, if you hadn’t gone out without a hat, you wouldn’t have gotten the flu.” Now they’ll never go out without a hat again, and then they’ll never get the flu again, and it will be because we saved them!

But we don’t actually have that much control over the bad things that happen to us. It’s important to communicate that sometimes you run into people who do bad things, and it’s just not your fault. And domestic abuse is one of those situations – if your partner hits you, there is no justification for that kind of behavior, ever. But you wouldn’t know that from Otello, or from the current discussions surrounding Chris Brown and Rihanna. (The New York Daily News suggests in a headline that perhaps she could use anger management classes. So that she will stop provoking him by getting angry, I guess.)

Going back to Otello and continuing to look at Act IV, there are more problems. The script and the music redeem Otello. We’re supposed to empathize with him; he feels so bad about the whole thing after he learns she was innocent. The music from their Act I love duet comes back, and he sings some of the same phrases about kissing her – we are meant to understand that this was a truly romantic relationship. Not only is there an implication that if Desdemona had cheated on Otello then he would have been at least somewhat more justified in killing her, the whole mess is made to look romantic. Desdemona is not alive to forgive him, but we are clearly meant to.

This also plays into the insulting and demeaning notion that a man who gets jealous or angry reverts to a crazy person devoid of morality, and should not be held responsible for his actions. Iago is evil. But Otello? Otello’s music tells us we should observe his downward slide with sympathy, not condemnation. The message is that men can’t be held responsible for what they do while they are having emotions.

“But this is all subtext,” I hear some gentle readers saying. “It’s really not that obvious, so it’s not exactly a big problem. Who’s really going to pick up on this?” Let me point you to a study showing that it’s the subtle examples of sexism that have the most damaging effect.

So what to do, then? There are lots of problematic pieces of great musical literature. St. John’s Passion always brings up discussions about Bach's harshly negative portrayal of Jews. There are scores of scores (including Otello) laced with incredible racism, both in portrayals of characters and representations of music. And, of course, lots of sexism problems all over the place. And that’s just scratching the surface. How does a musician deal with these problems?

It would be great to end this blog entry with a good answer to that question, right? Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer. I think one extreme is to say, “They should never be performed!” And I don’t think that’s right. The other extreme is to say, “Oh, let’s just ignore all the problems and perform the music because it’s so beautiful that all other faults should be forgiven.” And I don’t think that’s right either; I’m not capable of ignoring these sorts of problems in musical works. But what is the middle ground? Should one just write really fantastic program notes? That doesn't quite seem like enough.

Different people will have different answers. One friend of mine, when I invited her to Otello, said, “Violence against women is way too real and way too prevalent for me to want to see it in my fantasy and entertainment.” Another person I talked to told me that she never sings oratorios or other works that are anti-Semitic, because it’s too clear in her daily life how much anti-Semitism is still present in the world, and she can’t condone adding to it.

For those of us who are interested in performing problematic art, the Boston-based Actor’s Shakespeare Project provides one way forward. They recently contended with similar problems in The Merchant of Venice, which of course is known for the unsympathetic Jewish character of Shylock, and for the anti-Semitic attitudes of the rest of the characters. They hired a Jewish director, and a Jewish actor for Shylock; everyone in the cast was very aware of the issues running through the play; they had a large number of talk-backs with the actors attached to performances; and I believe, although I can’t find this confirmed online, that they also had outreach to the Jewish community. I couldn’t find a lot of information, since the show is now over, but there is a Boston Globe article here which discusses the ASP’s approach. If I had realized my own thoughts about Otello a little earlier in the production, I might have suggested that Lowell House reach out to both the African and African American Studies department (I didn’t discuss the racist problems in Otello in this entry, but they are just as pernicious) and the Women’s Studies department to do some public discussions together.

What is your answer? It’s always hard for me to get people commenting on this blog, but I encourage you to do it! What piece of music or play or movie do you have really big problems with? Is there anything you would refuse to perform? Are there things you did decide to perform, even though you found them problematic, because you thought the music was worth it? What do you do about it? How do you find your balance?


  1. I think the answer is what you are doing here - open and honest discussion.

    Refusing to perform pieces that are offensive I think is a bad idea. It makes it more likely that when the pieces are performed, it will be by people who don't fully understand what they're singing.

  2. This entry brings up a lot of really thoughtful and well-expressed points, both about domestic violence and about how to handle art with troublesome subtext. But rather than address either of these issues, I’m going to insensitively focus on Otello, because I just can’t agree with your assessment of Act IV’s implications.

    To my mind, nothing in the libretto or the music indicates that Desdemona’s murder would have been justified had she been innocent. The only person for whom Desdemona’s innocence makes a difference is Otello – he, and only he, would otherwise think the murder was justified. And thus, for the tragedy to be complete, it’s important for him to learn at the end that he was mistaken; this way, he gets to feel the despair and remorse that he would have otherwise avoided. As he states in Act I, he’s a law unto himself, so in his mind, the question of Desdemona’s culpability is important. But I don’t think that’s the case for any other character, nor is it intended to be the moral the audience goes home with.

    I think it’s telling that Iago’s Act I aria has the most interesting and complex text in the whole work. His belief in the evilness of humanity is really the lynchpin for the drama, and honestly, Otello seems to justify his belief. It doesn’t take much effort at all for Iago to inflame Otello’s jealousy – and to get Otello to himself admit that his own vengeance is his supreme law. You’ve got to wonder whether, had Iago not come along, Otello still might have found another reason to get mad and kill Desdemona sooner or later. This raises questions about Otello and Desdemona’s relationship, about human nature in general, and yes, about how Shakespeare viewed Otello’s race. (One of the many reasons I think Otello was a poor choice for a company as small as LHO was that it’s one of the few operas where I think race has to be a factor in casting: it was just too misleading to have a Caucasian Otello play opposite an African-American Desdemona.) I think boiling it down to “this opera endorses domestic violence” is too simplistic and doesn’t do justice to Shakespeare’s (or Verdi’s) complex vision.

    And then there’s the fact that, for better or worse, opera usually offers an intense – and, at its best, cathartic - insight into the human condition. It’s unquestionably true that there’s no excuse for domestic violence ever – but it’s also true that love and hate are more easily mixed than one might wish. It’s important that some art unflinchingly admit this fact. As wrong and evil and terrible as Otello’s actions were, I don’t think they negate the fact that he still had some sort of perverted love for Desdemona. Again, I think it’s simplistic to think that his final cries of “Ancora un baccio” are supposed to elicit an “Ooh, isn’t that romantic” response. Instead, they resonate with me as painfully and frighteningly realistic.

    Although I know the plot is troubling, I don’t think it’s just an unfortunate side effect to be overlooked; I think it’s what makes the play – and the opera – so important. Great art makes us think about hard questions and ugly truths, and a sanitized version of Otello would lose all its meaning.

  3. @ Abby:

    I just got home from set strike, and it's nearly 4 am, so I will only comment briefly now, and perhaps (hopefully!) further tomorrow.

    I don't think that either Verdi or Boito is endorsing domestic violence. My problem is that there are certain subtexts (not overtly stated) that frame the issue in a problematic way. Everybody is always talking about whether Desdemona is innocent. I understand why they do, it's kind of necessary to the plot, but the plot is therefore problematic. Nobody is saying that it would be great to murder Desdemona in any situation...but the constant harping on her innocence sends a message that her innocence matters. Domestic abuse discussions are frequently centered around whether the victim was innocent, or what she did, when they ought to be centered around what the abuser did.

    And you're right about how Otello needs to come full circle, and how the only way to do that is to prove her innocence, but that just demonstrates how deep the problems run - they are integral to the plot, but that doesn't make them suddenly not problems.

    I like your points about Iago's Act 2 aria, and also about race. The racial issues were muted for me during the performance just because we had such an inter-racial cast, and I think you're right that that may have been a problem. It certainly allowed those of us involved in the production to disengage from the racial issues.

    Finally, I do think the orchestra is on Otello's side in Act IV. We think the echo of Act I is pretty icky now, but I think 100 years ago it would have been seen as very romantic; wasn't death in opera the pinnacle of romance? (This is not rhetorical - I bet you can answer that better than I.)

    Just to re-state, I don't think "this opera endorses domestic violence." I think "this opera reinforces certain mistaken beliefs our culture still holds about how to look at domestic violence." Such as concentrating on the actions of the victim.

  4. P.S. Although the end of Act II...that's pretty icky too. And there's an argument there that the opera IS glorifying domestic violence. Because it's pretty glorious music...and they're singing about swearing vengeance on Desdemona and Cassio. Eh? (I don't actually think the opera wants to glorify domestic violence, but I do find that finale very disturbing, and I can't really figure out what Verdi was thinking in writing that music there.)

  5. Fine post! Harvard should have organized some discussions around the opera. Suggest that to Sarah and Channing for next year. That has been happening in Austin with local productions to great effect.

  6. At first, I was thinking that boycotting such problematic productions should be the answer. Performing works that are offensive in some way could be seen as endorsing them. And arguing that the historic or beautiful elements of the piece trump the racist/sexist/etc. bits seems like exercising the privilege of those who don't have to live with the real effects of those sorts of attitudes. I still think those are extremely valid considerations.

    However, I agree with what Adrian said - that more discussion needs to be done about these issues in art. That way, not only can people learn about the historical context of the issues, but they can be related to modern life. Too often, these days, people think that racism and domestic violence and such either aren't a problem or aren't their problem. So, talk-backs can raise awareness, or productions that tweak the play or composition in a way that shines a light on the problematic attitudes. I also think that producing works that contrast with the problematic attitudes would be a good way to help people think and to increase conversations about these topics.

  7. @ Terry:

    Sarah is moving to Hawaii! So we will have a new general manager next year...but I will certainly suggest it to Channing.

  8. @ Kris:

    It's true that boycotting can seem like a tempting idea, but in addition to all the excellent reasons you mention for not doing it, it just seems impractical to never perform Otello (in any of its versions) again. As Adrian says, if somebody is going to do it, it may as well be us so we can do it right.

  9. @ Manly Man:

    You make some interesting points, but also some unacceptable comments, such as "'it's my fault, I should've left him.'" I will not allow any sort of victim-blaming on this post, so I have deleted your comments. They could be extremely triggering for someone who has experience abuse.