Tagged: Jenufa

Five Operas with a Disturbing Perspective on Love

This post is in honour of the day after Valentine’s day, when discounted heart-boxed candy is snatched up by drugstore vultures and lovers wake up with hangovers from last night’s mediocre champagne and lacklustre sex. Here are five operas with strange, ugly, disturbing warts on the face of their romanticism.

1. Jenufa

Laca loves Jenufa, but she’s in love with the handsomer Steva. Laca solves the issue by slashing Jenufa’s face so Steva won’t want her any more. Sure enough, it works! Steva soon leaves Jenufa despite having knocked her up, and one drowned baby later, Jenufa and Laca are married in an ending meant to be redemptive.

2. Cosi fan Tutte

We’re told right at the beginning that any woman will be unfaithful to her man if given the opportunity and a sufficiently compelling prospect, and the remainder of the opera is spent proving this hypothesis. Why do Guglielmo and Ferrando work so strenuously to inflict cruelty on their loved ones, not to mention lose their own wager? All in service of the pursuit of Truth, dear reader.

3. Turandot

Calaf sees Turandot and immediately is stricken senseless by love, despite the fact that she’s determined not to marry, and in the habit of publicly executing her suitors. He even prefers the bloodthirsty princess to Liu, the representative of Innocent Womanhood whose sole plot function is to martyr herself for a love that isn’t returned and barely noticed (see below).


Calaf and Turandot’s eventual love scene is tinged with rape-like overtones. Turandot’s capitulation comes with these words:

o stranger, when you came,
I felt with anguish
the irresistible thrill
of this greatest of all sicknesses.
How many have I seen die for me!
And I despised them; but I feared you!

4. The Magic Flute

True love can only be fully attained through a series of initiation rites. The first: don’t speak to any woman, even your beloved, even if she threatens to kill herself. The second: play your magic flute while walking through water and fire. It also comes with some helpful life lessons.

Men: women are out to get you. Be afraid.

Women: submit to the judgement of your men.

5. La Gioconda

Consider the decisions made by various characters in the opera:

  • If your heartthrob nobleman-in-disguise loves another woman, consider stabbing her to death. Unless it turns out she saved your mom’s life a while ago; in that case you should actually go to unreasonable lengths to not only save her life but set her up with your man in a gesture of self-sacrifice. Before you kill yourself, of course.
  • If you discover your wife has been cheating on you, insist that she poison herself. Then hand her some poison and leave her alone to drink it. Certainly her suicide will go as planned, right?
  • If you’re discovered conducting a tryst on your boat with another man’s wife, the best thing to do is set your boat on fire.

How I Got Into Opera

If you count Gilbert & Sullivan (and here, I will) the first opera I attended was the Rossland Light Opera’s Pirates of Penzance. I was around seven years old, and a fledgling pianist who greatly enjoyed my Classical Kids tapes. Evidently my mother decided I was capable of sitting quietly for up to an hour, and off we went. She gave me a few pointers on the plot (including explaining the often/orphan joke) and a large bag of candy, and at the end of the evening my initiation as an opera-goer was complete. A few days later we ran into the actor who played Frederic at the post office, and I recognized him and was amazed. My mother told me that if I liked to sing, one day I could join a singing group just like that.

After that comes a large gap. I loved Broadway musicals but wasn’t very interested in opera – the vocal style seemed heavy and strange, and it put me off. I was still playing the piano, and I saw the odd ballet and stage play, but no opera.

Eventually, around the time I got to grade 10 (we had moved to Edmonton by then), I reached the level in my piano playing where the Royal Conservatory of Music required me to study music history. The introductory course covered the Romantic era, and La Traviata, Carmen and Die Walkure were on the syllabus. Something went “click” in my head, and I put away my Broadway CDs. I studied the course material like a maniac and started spending all my money on symphony tickets.

The music course hadn’t told me enough about opera. I convinced my mother to buy me a copy of Opera for Dummies, figuring it would be the quickest way to get up to speed. Though co-written by a computer professional, it contained useful information about the major operas and composers, vocal types, the importance of Maria Callas, and so on. Before long I had the book and accompanying CD committed to memory.

The first “real” opera I saw was Il Barbiere di Siviglia, at Edmonton Opera. By this time I was pretty far gone. I took opera box sets out of the public library three or four at a time and listened with libretto in hand. Opera went round and round in my head all day. I spent a car trip with my parents listening to Act II from Tosca over and over on my discman. After a few underage drinks, I was pretty likely to start singing opera in the middle of my friends’ parties. My favourite singer back then was Ruggero Raimondi. I followed the conversation (but rarely posted) on rec.music.opera, and began to believe my knowledge was hopelessly inadequate, and that because I didn’t live in New York I’d never get caught up.

My obsession continued unabated most of the way through high school and university. Edmonton Opera’s four (then, when the recession hit, three) operas a year I supplemented with video performances from the library. I started taking singing lessons, and spent a good part of the lesson just talking about opera with my teacher.

At some point a few years ago, I ran out of steam. Perhaps that’s how it goes with most teenage obsessions. I moved to Toronto and had the opportunity to go to the opera more frequently, and then I spent a year in NYC and had a chance to see live some of the performers whose recordings I’d been listening to for years. But even though I attend the opera more frequently now than I did as an Edmonton neophyte, much of the fervor has gone. Now, I rarely sing opera in the shower or listening to it while cooking dinner.

I’m not quite sure what happened, and whatever it was, I think it’s a bit of a shame. This blog is, in part, an effort to get some of that excitement back. Because when I see something amazing like the Lapage Bluebeard’s Castle or Karita Matilla’s Jenufa, I’m reminded that it’s all still there.

P.S. In honor of that first night at the “opera”: