The main focus of “Feminist in the Concert Hall,” and in fact our WPA website is to examine and draw attention to music composed by women (especially orchestral music), with the hopes that such works will be performed more often. Thus we seek to expand the canon. In contrast, today’s post instead examines a canonic favorite, and thus reminds us that entrenched and familiar works need questioning and reconsideration. The goal of this interrogation is not to prompt removal of such works from the performance repertoire, but rather to offer fresh insights and a range of perspectives on the cultural work that canonic pieces enact.  Thank you to Timothy Diovanni for another engaging post! 

What does “against the grain” mean, really? Columbia University’s Feminist to the Core provides answers

By Timothy Diovanni

“He said that he liked how I filled out my pants.”   Nicolette Mavroleon, a Juilliard-trained soprano, described receiving an unwanted comment from a stranger while on her way to a panel on Puccini’s La Bohème. The panel, sponsored by Columbia University’s Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality (IRWGS) and Department of Music, and co-organized by Laura Ciolkowski, the associate director of IRWGS, and Ellie Hisama, Professor of Music, Music Theory, and Historical Musicology at Columbia University, on October 5, 2017, sought to present nontraditional takes on Puccini’s well-worn classic.

Sexual harassment has come to the fore in the past months because of repeated celebrity transgressions. The #MeToo movement has shown that these are not isolated cases. Women’s lives in contemporary American society are continually affected by sexist practices. Mavroleon’s unfortunate experience, thus was not remarkable, but rather, all too common, and served as a remainder of the daily relevance of the issues raised by feminist interpretations of an 1896 opera.

At the start, Ciolkowski said that the Feminist to the Core program aims “to engage deeply with all of the texts at the heart of the Columbia core curriculum…through an intersectional gender and sexuality studies lens.” La Bohème was a particularly opportune case study for the Music Humanities students in the audience as they were going to see a performance of it with their classes at the Metropolitan Opera some time during the semester. Students enrolled in a spring semester course will see and respond to a performance of the opera as well.

“Bring these issues and questions from today’s program back to your Music Humanities classrooms. Write about [them], share them, challenge and teach and inspire others around you to do the same,” Ciolkowski urged.

Although I was only able to attend part of the panel in person, a video posted by IRWGS allowed me to watch the rest of the afternoon’s event online. I wanted to see this program to learn how musicians and scholars have grappled with an oft-dusty opera. In what follows, I attempt to discover how the against-the-grain approach can guide analyses of the work, resulting in exciting, diverse, and multifaceted arguments.

“Adapt or Die! La Bohème Responds to its Environment.”

In the spirit of Philip Gossett, whose pre-concert talks introduced operas to countless New York City audiences, Professor Annie Randall of Bucknell University opens her talk with a striking title. As evidence for her title’s claim, Randall positions that operatic culture “hunkered down” at the turn of the 20th century, “resisting changes the environment of later decades seem to demand.”

The current status stands in sharp contrast to Puccini’s time. At the fin de siècle, his operas incorporated ever-bigger orchestras – his stages “every bell and whistle.” Culturally, Puccini was influenced by the commercial appeal of Oriental art, music, and literature, as seen in Madame Butterfly (1904). From America, Puccini’s attraction to David Belasco’s play The Girl of the Golden West led to his eponymous opera La fanciulla del West (1910).

Randall argues that since Puccini’s environment influenced his work, that we should respond to our milieu as well by incorporating aspects of modern life and technology into productions. The claim keeps a type of Puccinian spirit alive and well. As an example, Randall posits that microphone use in productions allows a singer to express the “naturalism” of the voice. With this technology, a performer has an expanded expressive range, able to sing in a whisper heard throughout the entire audience.

The technology requires a different use of the voice, one that a singer must train. Randall cites Renée Fleming as an opera singer who has mastered singing both with and without the microphone – she has become “bilingual…maybe bi-vocal.”

In addressing vocal production, Randall considers how La Bohème could be adapted in modern society. The contemporary lens results in productions like La Femme Bohème from 2014. In this all-female production, audience members could – radically for opera – walk around and drink during the performance. The 2017 revival of the production references the current political moment “with protest signs in street scenes and pussy hats worn by the extras.” Modern transformations of La Bohème thus re-frame the work in our current environment. Considering Randall’s controversial title, there will be tragic consequences for opera if these changes are not made.

Left to right, Mary Birnbaum, Chérie Roe (at the piano),  Nicolette Mavroleon, and Maria Brea

 “As I walk alone through the street, people stop to look and inspect my beauty, examining me from head to toe…And then I savor the subtle longing in their eyes when, from my visible charms, they guess at the beauty concealed. This onrush of desire surrounds me. It delights me, it delights me.” [Adapted from Libretto translation by William Weaver]

In Act II, Musetta enters the Parisian cafe where her former boyfriend, Marcello, is dining with his friends. She is with an older man, Alcindoro, whom she orders around. Ignoring Alcindoro’s objections, Musetta attempts to seduce Marcello with an evocative, sensuous aria.

Musetta presents difficulties for singers.

“We thought about our visible reactions to the idea of peoples’ eyes seeping with desire as you walk past,” Mary Birnbaum, an opera director and acting teacher from The Juilliard School who worked with sopranos Mavroleon and Maria Brea, explains. As is the case for Mavroleon, her experience on the way to the event provides an unfortunately easy example for her to recall.

Singers must determine how their character feels as a result of objectivation and then maintain that emotional state in their performance. The issue is important for female opera singers since it is also experienced by the title characters of Carmen and Lulu as well as Violetta in La Traviata and Gilda in Rigoletto, to name just a few.

Informed by the text, singers could frame Musetta’s condition as empowerment, degradation, or some unsettling middle ground between the two. To make matters more complicated, yet more interesting, Birnbaum notes that “what female characters are saying is not necessarily what they are thinking.”

In her version, Mavroleon presents Musetta as a figure who wants to be desired. Her pace is slow and swaggering. She teases Marcello by playing with his hand. All the while she maintains a confident and strong demeanor. Musically, Mavroleon’s rendition sounds bright and daring.

Brea, on the other hand, plays a cool Musetta. She looks composed, oozing with self-dignity and possession. She stays far away from Marcello, walking up to him only to stop right in front of his nose. When she moves definitively past him, it feels like a stunning rejection. Brea’s take makes the music cold and distant, yet still pulsating with an underlying, feverous energy.

Through their evaluations of Musetta’s inner state, the sopranos move past the stereotypical, one-dimensional, flat portrayal of their persona. In performance, then, lies the exciting applicability of their re-thinkings, the fruits of against-the-grain approaches.

“A single theory can as little exhaust the meaning of a life as it can a work of art. Critique doesn’t conclude with the end of the opera, but must turn to work out the social implications for life beyond art, or beyond the history of a genre.”  Professor Lydia Goehr of Columbia University, the next panelist, offered this assessment.

In Sally Potter’s 1979 film Thriller, Mimì investigates the reasons for her own death. “Why did I have to die?” she asks. In order to find out, she teams up with her friend Musetta. Their bond, which Goehr terms a “sisterhood,” juxtaposes the artistic “bohemian brotherhood.”  Through this examinational process, Potter seeks to undercut the basic narrative reception of La Bohème.

“Titling her film Thriller, Potter exposes the horror in Puccini’s opera concealed by its overly sentimental reception, by the repressive thrill of its exceptionally beautiful music,” Goehr posits.

At the start of the film, the title appears on screen with a quotation from Bernard Herrmann’s so-called “slasher music” found in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Like the title, the music removes the saccharine covering that shrouds the true horror of the opera. The music also calls to mind the violent murder of Marion Crane in Hitchcock’s film. Although Mimì does not die in the same way, Bohème and Psycho are connected by this similar plot element.

Women dying in opera is a rampant trope, what Goehr rebukes as the “tiresome string of repetitive deaths of women.” Apparently, it is one that Puccini was very attracted to. La Bohème’s predecessor, Manon Lescaut (1893), also ends with the death of the female lead. Riffing on the same theme, Puccini’s next two operas feature dramatic deaths of the female protagonists as well: Tosca (1900) and Madama Butterfly (1904). If worried about her character’s well-being, a Puccinian soprano is safer simply staying at home rather than going to work!

But, there’s more lurking behind this mawkish opera. At the opening of the work, Marcello, one of the four bohemian men, is working on a painting called “The Crossing of the Red Sea.” Frustrated with its cold affect, he slashes at it with his brush. Later, in the Third Act, Marcello’s painting appears in a street sign outside a tavern. The inscription, “At the Port of Marseille,” is written underneath it.

From these clues, Goehr argues for a concealed Exodus narrative behind the opera, which “witnesses a terrible plight of exile and persecution for both the Jews and the Egyptians.” The claim is relevant for the opera since the Egyptians came to be known as gypsies, whom the French called bohemians.

Goehr contends that the placement of the Red Sea image in a commercial sign signifies the consumerism that was blamed on immigrants entering Paris in the 1840s. These newcomers were assembled by the writers of La Vie de Bohème (1849), a source for Puccini’s opera, “under the rubric of another concept of La Bohème, standing for the unwanted dregs of humanity.”

She continues:  “The thesis behind the opera is a pattern of Exodus that says for the artistical, sentimental Bohème to live, another La Bohème must first be drowned: the Jews and the Egyptians. This is a holocaust. Yet the opera shows and as Potter’s film affirms it is a failed pattern of liberation. The artistic Bohème leads not to an emancipated world, but to one where bohemian artists freeze not for the sake of art, but to justify their doing absolutely nothing.”

“I’m nineteen – but I’m old for my age. I’m just born to be bad.”

100 years after La Bohème’s premiere, Rent, a musical by Jonathan Larson, made its Broadway debut. Rent displays many affinities with Puccini’s opera, most noticeably its characters and plot elements, but, as Professor Naomi André of the University of Michigan argues, dramatically differs in its portrayal of women and realism.

To create her case, André compares “Light my Candle” from Rent with its parallel scene in La Bohème. In Rent, Mimì appears forward and flirtatious. Her target, Rodolfo, seems withdrawn and tentative. The anticipated gender roles are reversed, reflecting changing conceptions of womanhood in the late 20th century. Mimì still needs saving, André says, but from a much different emotional and psychological state.

In contrast, the Mimì of La Bohème is timid, sentimental and hesitant – Rodolfo passionate and possessive. These characters conform to their contemporary normative dominant and subordinate realms.

While watching the excerpt, I notice that the performers are using microphones. Whispering moments shared by Mimì and Roger are easily heard because of the device. Tying in Randall’s proposition, the technology allows for an appealing naturalism of the voice.

Rigor. Independence. Self-sufficiency. Daring. The Feminist to the Core La Bohème lectures demonstrate the exciting productive potential of the against-the-grain mindset. This alternative mode of thinking produces diverse analyses ranging from the historical and technological to the performative and comparative, as well as a host of yet to be seen results.

Ciolkowski’s opening exhortation – to bring these issues back into the classroom – accreted its own support as the afternoon progressed. Now, Music Humanities students, as well as the rest of the audience, have the permission and ability to attempt their own mindful analyses, with successful models to guide their work.