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?