From ‘Don Giovanni’ to ‘Carmen,’ Confronting Sexual Violence in Opera

Don Giovanni aggressively grabbing a woman

And yet, the professor seemed to revel in the details of the opera: how smooth the noble Don Giovanni seemed, how foolish the women were for falling prey to his schemes. It was just so funny, the professor explained. But Hershberger left the classroom feeling gross.

Outside, on her college campus, Hershberger had heard that a local fraternity was publishing its own list, tallying the number of women each pledge had slept with. It didn’t sound so different than what she had heard about in Don Giovanni.

Only, this was the present. Don Giovanni was published in 1787.

Opera as an art form has been around for over 400 years. And yet, despite the existence of tens of thousands of operas, many modern-day opera companies rely on a tried-and-true few: the familiar classics that are guaranteed to draw an audience.

And among those tried-and-true operas, a common thread emerges. Many center on acts of gender-based and sexual violence. Hershberger, now a professor of music at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Geneseo, is part of a generation of academics, performers and music-lovers confronting that legacy in the present day, particularly in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

“I wonder if part of the reason that these canonical operas and most performed operas tend to be these works that feature sexual violence is potentially because we're still grappling with it,” Hershberger muses via telephone in a recent interview.

“I wonder if there is just something about these works that really does speak to these issues that we haven’t totally figured out how to deal with.”

According to statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in four women experience sexual violence, physical violence or stalking during their lifetimes. For men, that rate is one in 10.

And in opera, sexual violence crops up almost as frequently. The comedy The Marriage of Figaro hinges on attempts to thwart a count from exercising his droit de seigneur—that is, his so-called right to rape his servant women on their wedding nights. The tragedy Tosca involves an attempted rape by coercion: Rome’s police chief threatens to kill Tosca’s lover unless she submits to have sex with him. And the drama Porgy and Bess depicts an abusive relationship that its heroine struggles to escape. Even as Bess leaves the church picnic, she finds herself cornered by her ex, who rapes her in a nearby palmetto thicket.

And then there are the widespread depictions of femicide. In operas like Carmen, Pagliacci, and Wozzeck, the main male characters would rather see their lovers dead than in the arms of another. Each of those operas culminates with a woman being stabbed to death.

But while those examples may seem to be clear-cut cases of sexual violence, historically audiences were encouraged to empathize with the male leads. Early reactions to the 1875 opera Carmen, for instance, often included apologetic depictions of Carmen’s murder.

The New York Times in 1878 captured the zeitgeist in describing the plot as “the beguiling and the abduction of a hapless subaltern officer of the Spanish dragoons.”

Its critic goes on to characterize Carmen as a “wanton she-bully” lacking in the “sweet reserves and lovely decencies of her sex.” Meanwhile, her murderer—that hapless subaltern officer—is understood as a “good man” brought low by Carmen’s feminine wiles.

That mislaid empathy troubles conductor Michelle Rofrano, founder of the social justice nonprofit PROTESTRA, dedicated to understanding classical music through the lens of advocacy.

“I think a big problem with violence against women in opera is the empathy with the male perpetrators,” she explains.

Rofrano comes from a household steeped in opera. Her maternal grandparents hailed from Sicily, and her grandfather harbored aspirations of being an opera singer before poverty and World War II scuttled his plans.

“Opera was always his lifelong love,” Rofrano recalls. And Rofrano inherited that passion, visiting the home he and his wife moved to in northern New Jersey. “I was the only grandkid that gravitated to him when he was listening to his music records in his living room with his record player. I just really loved it.”

The issue isn’t that there’s violence against women in opera plots, Rofrano says. It’s more about how that violence is portrayed.

“It’s a crime of passion. It’s not murder. It’s not femicide,” she says, relaying how violence is often depicted on stage. “It’s not like, ‘This man wanted to control this woman. And when he couldn’t control her, he’d rather she were dead.’”

By depicting femicide and assault as “crimes of passion,” Rofrano believes the operas have the power to reframe violence as an act of love. And that can have real-world implications, even in courts of law, where biases can affect verdicts.

“It's a thing juries accept. Like, ‘Oh well, he found his wife in bed with someone else. So it's understandable that he killed her,’” Rofrano says. “Your entertainment affects what you think, even subconsciously.”

According to Rofrano, the solution starts, in part, by presenting sexual violence more honestly. “It’s not sexy,” she says. “It’s not. It’s horrific, and the fallout is horrific.”

But finding the right balance can be difficult. Rofrano remembers one moment in a rehearsal space where she witnessed a director coaching performers on how to safely hit the soprano. The scene was not in the opera’s libretto, and the added, unexpected violence left Rofrano shaken.

“I found it very upsetting. I was flinching, you know?” Rofrano recalls. She understood the director’s motivations—to drive home the message that the character was abused—but it felt gratuitous. She wondered to herself, “Who is this for?”

That was the question likewise raised in the aftermath of a controversial production of William Tell (Guillaume Tell), Gioachino Rossini’s final opera, in 2015 at London’s Royal Opera. It too introduced sexual violence into a scene where there otherwise was none.

The divisive moment came in the third act, during a stretch of ballet music. William Tell recounts the story of a Swiss freedom fighter who rebelled against Austrian rule, and director Damiano Michieletto used the ballet as an opportunity to visualize one of the harrowing consequences of war: sexual violence.

He staged a gang rape. Soldiers mimed the assault of a young woman, stripping her naked and forcing her onto a banquet table. The audience reaction was swift. The scene had not ended before booing broke out in the theater. Some viewers left.

It’s not that rape isn’t alluded to in the script. And it’s not that sexual violence isn’t a part of war, says Imani Mosley, a musicologist and cultural historian at the University of Florida.

“That's absolutely correct. But I think the thing that people didn't address is that it was still set within the sound world of Rossini—that that was never going to be violent enough to represent the act that was being portrayed on stage.”

There’s a disconnect, Mosley believes, between the action unfolding on stage and the sounds that accompany those moments. But in many of the most popular operas, that disconnect has been normalized. Audiences expect to hear beautiful, melodic music—even as unimaginable violence plays out.

“The death of Carmen is an ecstatic moment. It's a musically and dramatically and sonically ecstatic moment. And it's same with the death of Tosca and others. The framing of that makes it very hard to pull people away because they are enraptured by this musical moment, even though it’s about the horrible death or violation of a woman,” Mosley says.

“And that’s a real problem. It’s a special problem that opera has.”

When audiences think of sexual violence, Mosley explains, they don’t typically think of the clean, classical sounds of Mozart or the soaring melodies of Puccini. And yet, many canonical operas pair scintillating music with unspeakable actions.

“In these moments of violence—especially gender-based sexual violence, whether it's rape or murder or mutilation or violation some other way—the music that accompanies it does not represent the inherent violence of those acts,” she says.

It leaves opera audiences to grapple with the conundrum of how to enjoy these musical moments in spite of the horror they accompany.

Mosley has observed that the reaction is sometimes to “reframe” narratives of rape into something less repugnant, “because we have an idea in our mind of what rape is—or at least we think we do—and it shouldn’t be accompanied by a beautiful soundtrack.”

As a college student, Mosley was initially drawn to opera through the works of composer Alban Berg—and specifically Wozzeck. That opera tells the story of an impoverished soldier, abused by his superiors and traumatized by war, who murders the mother of his child for fear that she’s cheating on him.

It was intense, bloody, and confusing. And the music was unsettling. Mosley liked it. Though she was a trained bassoon player, she had never realized that opera could tell that kind of narrative with that kind of complexity.

It opened the door for Mosley to study opera professionally. And even today, she finds herself drawn to 20th-century works like Wozzeck, where the music can be as brutal as the action it depicts.

“The music is violent, and it has to be violent because it’s talking about a very specific kind of real-world violence,” Mosley says. She sees the roots of that 20th-century sound in name-brand composers like Richard Wagner—who preached cohesiveness in theater arts—and Giacomo Puccini, who helped popularize realism in Italian opera.

But Mosley points to the 20th century as a turning point. “There’s this long-standing philosophical discussion about calling Lulu the end of opera,” she explains, referring to another Berg opera.

“Lulu’s death is hyper-real. There’s a scream off stage. And musically there isn’t anything to support it—to make you feel like this is a musical, dramatic moment. It feels like a real death.”

But to show sexual violence in all its horror would mean having difficult conversations—and expanding the repertory beyond the classic warhorses. By repeatedly staging the same few crowd-pleasers, Mosley warns that companies risk reinforcing the idea that opera is a narrow art form that can only tell certain stories.

“I don’t think that opera has to be limiting in that way. But I think it will be as long as we continue to focus on the same handful of repertory works,” Mosley says.

Back at SUNY Geneseo, professor Monica Hershberger has yet to see a sea change in how the opera industry approaches sexual violence—but she’s hopeful.

“I feel like more and more people are getting frustrated with this trope of using the term seduction when we actually mean rape or just not really talking about what is happening in an opera. There's a little less patience for that,” she says.

But it’s been a long time coming. Hershberger is currently writing a book about American women in opera in the 1950s. And she sees those performers confronting issues that remain relevant today.

Audiences continue to debate whether certain pivotal scenes constitute sexual violence. In Don Giovanni, the curtain rises on a distressed Donna Anna chasing down a shadowy figure who infiltrated her bedroom disguised by a cloak.

She later explains that—when she realized the intruder was not her fiancé—she tried to scream. But the masked assailant seized her, muffling her voice with one hand and holding her tightly with the other, preventing her escape.

What clearly reads as rape has long been characterized as seduction—or laughed away as a fumble in the dark. A famous example of this comes in the 1977 book The Operas of Mozart, from prominent British music critic William Mann.

He portrays Donna Anna as an aristocrat “who has etiquette where her feelings and brain should reside.” He goes on to quip that it would have been “beneficial to her personal growing-up if she had been pleasantly raped… as some writers on Mozart’s opera assume, I think optimistically.”

A similar situation unfolds in the 20th-century opera Susannah by composer Carlisle Floyd. The title character—a teenager pilloried with false accusations of sin—finds herself alone with a reverend who rapes her in her hour of need.

The late soprano Phyllis Curtin originated the role, and according to Hershberger, she grew weary of hearing about the scene talked about as seduction.

“She pushed back enough so that Carlisle Floyd eventually said, ‘You know what? That is the wrong word,’” Hershberger explains.

But every so often, Hershberger receives pushback from an audience member who rejects that interpretation of the scene. She was told once that Floyd’s music was communicating consent nonverbally. Hershberger had to clarify: Music doesn’t give consent. People do.

“Sometimes there's this sense that [operas] need to be protected or defended against contemporary notions of what is—and isn’t—acceptable,” Hershberger says. “And I think that's kind of sad because I actually think there's a tremendous amount of potential and power from addressing what is happening in some of these operas.”

Nowadays, Hershberger herself teaches Don Giovanni to college classrooms. It seems to be the opera that connects most with her students. They see their lives reflected in its drama.

“That weirds me out so much,” Hershberger laughs. But it also makes her optimistic about the art form. “I wonder if that's a powerful way to show that opera is still relevant, that it's still worthy of repeat performances and critical attention.”

Hershberger sometimes worries about how the through-line of sexual violence might affect survivors sitting in the opera audience. But a colleague once reminded her that there are perpetrators out there too. Not to mention people whose understanding of sexual violence might still be evolving.

That puts a huge responsibility on the art form to get it right. But if nothing else, Hershberger says, opera has an advantage. It’s an aural art form. And it has the potential to teach us how to listen—really listen—to survivors, both in song and in real life.

If you think you or someone you know is a victim of sexual violence, help is available. Consider calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673).