As an aficionado of classical music, few things thrill me more than listening to Mozart, Beethoven, Puccini or Wagner. Opera in particular (the word comes from Latin for “the works”) offers wonderful music, elaborate sets, sumptuous costumes, glorious singing and almost more passion and drama than one can pack into a three hour extravaganza — in other words: ”the works.” At this very moment I am listening to a recording of Beethoven’s one and only opera, Fidelio — but more on that later.
Mozart’s comic opera, Così fan tutte, translates to the title of this post: All Women Are Like That. Though I adore the music, as a 21st century liberated woman I find the plot of this opera rather difficult to swallow. It involves two friends who, spurred on by a cynical acquaintance, test their fiancées’ fidelity by donning disguises to see if either of their ladies will succumb to a stranger’s affections. Each man attempts to seduce the other’s fiancée. As much as I pray that at least one of the women will resist temptation and remain faithful, proving after all that “all women are not like that,” both yield to the wooing. Since this is the 18th century equivalent of a romantic comedy, all ends happily. The gentlemen forgive their fiancées for their transgressions — after all, they are members of “the weaker sex.” Despite Mozart’s glorious music, I can’t help but feel a little disheartened by the condescending portrayal of my gender. But I try to forgive the storytellers, hindered as they were by living in a less enlightened age than our own.
So I look to other operas for more inspirational models of womankind. There’s another lovely opera by Mozart, Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute). The heroine, Pamina, courageously stands by her hero’s side through a perilous trial of fire and flood. She is certainly an exemplary feminine archetype. But misogynistic themes permeate the libretto. The villain is a woman, Pamina’s own mother. Pamina’s wise male guardian advises her that “a man must guide your heart, for without a man, a woman would not fulfill her aim in life.” The hero, too, is warned to ignore the counsel of women because “a woman does little, chatters much.”
Operatic heroines often fall victim to frailty, intemperance, or their own or their lovers’ errant ways. Violetta (La Traviata), Carmen, Madama Butterfly, and Mimi (La Boheme) all succumb through illness, suicide or murder. Though a more sympathetic prototype than the villainess, these are not models that a strong, self-sufficient, modern woman would care to emulate.
But back, as promised, to Fidelio. Beethoven’s opera, first staged in 1805, weaves thrilling melodies into a tale of intrigue. Yet it is the heroine, Leonore, who shines above all. Disguised as a man, she rescues her husband from certain death. The divine music is that much sweeter because Beethoven has lifted the female ideal to a higher plane. In the magnificent, soaring finale the chorus exalts “the devoted wife, the savior of her husband’s life.” In Fidelio, I discovered a synthesis of music, lyrics and plot that affirms my deeply held convictions. Through Leonore, the opera devotee’s faith in the strength, courage and fidelity of heroines is restored. And I do believe that many (though not all) women are like that.
You’ll find another courageous heroine — along with a dashing hero — in Lisbeth Eng’s World War II romance novel, In the Arms of the Enemy, available online at Amazon, Barnes & Nobel and The Wild Rose Press. Please visit her at www.lisbetheng.com.