Misogyny in opera

Today I experienced Siegfried at the Met. Siegfried is the third opera in Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle. I expected to love it, but there were several things that I really disliked. I will only address two of them here.

First: In Act 3 of the opera, the hero Siegfried climbs a fiery mountain and does battle with Wotan, the chief of the gods, on his way to reach Brünnhilde, a fallen Valkyrie who is destined to be his bride. She lies sleeping on the mountaintop. When he first comes upon her, she is fully armored, and he thinks she is a man. However, once he removes her armor, he is aghast to find out she is not. He exclaims “Not a man!” and leaps back in horror. Does this remind anyone of Andrade?

Brünnhilde and the Valkyries (image from a spectacular performance BTW)

Brünnhilde and the Valkyries (image from a spectacular performance BTW)

Second: Brünnhilde sells out. In Die Walküre, she is a strong, powerful woman who is respected by heroes of men and by gods. She is the most powerful of the nine Valkyries (they’re all lesbians!  😛   ). But because she ‘betrays’ her father Wotan, he puts her to sleep on the mountaintop for the first man who comes along to take as a bride. Okay, I could live with that. But when Siegfried does arrive, she is alternately horrified and rapturous.  She bemoans the loss of her power and chastity and feels utterly shamed because she is now the property of a man whom she somehow loves and apparently has always loved – even before he was born. Siegried is a complete asshole – no one in the audience can deny that – but she glorifies and praises him. She says that she is only wise through him. So here we have this powerful woman figure who does not want to be owned by a man but – you can guess what happens next. She begs Siegfried to leave her forever and not spoil her, but he says that he must “quench my desire” and swaggers towards her across the stage, crotch first. She says that she will be with him forever and that she longs for him. As the curtain falls they too fall to the floor kissing passionately.


In opera, women are either weak and flirty/chaste (Pamina; Violetta) or strong and evil (Der Königen der Nacht). Previously I had been able to ignore the role of women in opera, thinking that A) it’s just that character and/or B) the opera is a product of the times.

But should we really be presenting these operas at face value? People learn by example. Disney romance has taught my generation that true love will happen to everyone if we just wait. Isn’t opera doing the same – with romantic expectations, medical conditions (Violetta and Mimi die of tuberculosis at the top of their lungs; Fafner has a long dialogue with Siegfried while he has a sword stuck in his heart), gender roles (!), and societal expectations?

It should also be noted that opera is very much an upper-crust, old-guard art form. Most patrons at opera houses (at least by my reckoning) are over 50. The morals displayed in opera are a reflection of the patrons. Perhaps I should be pleased that opera is dying out, but I don’t want it to, because I want to do opera!



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