Opera, ballet still cling to offensive, outdated motifs

The above scene from Pyotr Ilyich Tchakovsky’s famous ballet, “The Nutcracker,” is a prime example of the show’s racism and cultural insensitivity. Both the style of the dance and the costumes play on harmful stereotypes about Chinese culture. Courtesy of Cpl. Isis M. Ramirez.

On Friday, March 15, I watched “Rigoletto” by Giuseppe Verdi with my mother. My mom loves Lincoln Center, loves opera and loves to sing opera. Opera aficionados consider “Rigoletto” to be standard repertoire, though this was my first formal encounter with it. However, the song “La Donna e Mobile” felt acutely familiar due to its widespread fame.

“Rigoletto” is a 16th-century tragic story about the lascivious Duke of Mantua, his court jester Rigoletto and Rigoletto’s beautiful daughter, Gilda. The Duke seduces a courtier’s daughter with Rigoletto’s encouragement, which prompts the courtier to curse them both. The curse is enacted when Gilda falls in love with the Duke and sacrifices her life to save him from the assassin her father hired. The opera takes place in “a world of men” where women are novelty objects to be used and thrown away.

Director Michael Mayer’s Met Opera production is set in a 1960s Las Vegas casino. The very first scene has red backlighting, casting an image of silhouettes of the 40-orso standing performers. Then, a quick flash later, the Vegas signs turn on, bam! Everything’s in motion; feathered dancers come out, and the suited men in the middle laugh and confront each other. There are neon signs with the word “Girls” and an image of a woman giving the middle finger between her legs.

This is not the first modern production to change the original setting of Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” However, chief music critic at The New York Times Anthony Tomassini was more than a little concerned about Michael Mayer’s new production. Mayer turned Monterone, an aristocratic Italian courtier, into an Arab sheik in order to make the curse more convincing, a change that Tomassini declared “glib and potentially offensive” (The New York Times, “Bringing the Sinatra Style Out in ‘Rigoletto,’ 06.29.2013.). Tomassini writes: “Making Monterone an exotic Arab marginalizes him.” This kind of directorial decision made by Mayer is a poor choice, as it falls into the orientalist narrative without much nuance—only enough space for exotica. This choice reminds me of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker,” which is also in dire need of an ideological update. Alice Robb’s article confronts the racial insensitivity in the piece, asserting, “Ballet, to put it mildly, is not a progressive art form” (The New Republic, “Sorry, ‘The Nutcracker’ is Racist,” 12.24.2014). Is opera?

Before lurching into the question of opera’s progressiveness, let’s first consider the problematic scenes in “The Nutcracker.” Robb summarized: “[T]here’s a woman portraying ‘Arabian coffee’ as she jumps around the stage in a belly shirt, with bells attached to her ankles. Then there’s the Chinese dance scene, where a white man who plays ‘Chinese Tea’ jumps out of a box and bows; and two white women, wearing chopsticks in their black wigs, dancing with index fingers pointed up in the air” (The New Republic, “Sorry”). The first time I saw that when I was a kid, I hated that scene. I wanted to kick the director who let that happen and knock the dancers out. I still feel this way, but instead of leaping on stage and committing unnecessary and unlawful battery, I write reviews.

Another reviewer, New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay, wrote, “Tchaikovsky never intended his Chinese and Arabian music to be ethnographically correct” (The New York Times, “Stereotypes in Toeshoes,” 09.12.2012). Robb writes back: “Perhaps the longevity of the tradition goes some way toward justifying adherence to its outdated imagery. But it’s less forgivable when contemporary versions—like Alexei Ratmansky’s new production for American Ballet Theater, or Mikko Nissinen’s for Boston Ballet—don’t correct it” (The New Republic, “Sorry).

Similar issues exist in “Rigoletto.” Aside from the production drawbacks, I thought about the opera’s storyline. In Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” the teenager Gilda is guarded by her scarily overprotective father, Rigoletto. Except for attending church on Sundays, she is completely isolated from the rest of the world. When watching this scene, I quickly thought of marriage—a bedrock of most civilizations, for whatever reason (there are several). In many cultural traditions, it is customary to have a bride walk down the aisle to be handed off from one man (her father) to the next (her husband). This has always bothered me. Now I have learned that the word “bride” comes from Old French, where it meant “rein” or “bridle.” In the same line of thought, I dislike that it was (or is) assumed that it would be bride X groom, not bride X bride or groom X groom.

Anyway, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. If you’re looking to experience “Rigoletto” for yourself, apparently Pavarotti’s recorded version is the best, my mom says. Otherwise, I’ll give a brief synopsis. So, the Duke of Mantua poaches other men’s wives and has discovered Gilda at Mass, figured out where she lives, and pretends to be an impoverished student to seduce her, since Gilda thought that was more romantic. She falls in love. Maybe she’s naïve—but remember that it was Rigoletto who kept her away from the outside world for months. Then the Duke recognizes that Gilda is the daughter of the annoying and infuriating Rigoletto, so he hatches a plan. He pretends to kidnap another person’s wife and Rigoletto, Gilda’s father, gladly joins. The Duke purposely leads Rigoletto to the wrong place. Meanwhile, the Duke and his buddies steal Gilda and put her in an Egyptian coffin.

Can we pity Rigoletto? The Duke and his buddies—the courtiers—verbally abuse him and abduct his daughter, but this is problematized by the fact that he gladly participates in the abduction of another man’s wife. Then later, when the Duke beds his third woman in the opera—who’s Gilda?—he sings that famous song about how women are fickle.

In “La Donna e Mobile” the Duke sings: “Woman is flighty/Like a feather in the wind,/She changes in voice/And in thought./Woman is fickle./Like a feather in the wind,/She changes her words/And her thoughts!/Always miserable/Is he who trusts her,/He who confides her/His unwary heart!”

At this moment, I knew that I was experiencing cognitive dissonance. I liked hearing a song that was familiar to my ears, and I couldn’t help but hum—dun, dun, dun, dunde duh, dun, dun, dun, dun de-duh—but the subtitles were ruining it. In 1989, Paul Robinson wrote a book review of philosopher and cultural critic Catherine Clement’s critique of opera (The New York Times, “IT’S NOT OVER UNTIL THE SOPRANO DIES,” 01.01.1989), in which he discusses how “[Clement] complains that the music in opera serves to anesthetize audiences to the hateful narratives being retailed by the singers.” Indeed, Robinson continues that “Clement argues that opera is the story of women’s undoing…Opera, in other words, is no different from other artistic products of our culture; it records a tale of male domination and female oppression. Only it does so more blatantly and, alas, more seductively than any other art form.”

In “La Donne e Mobile,” the Duke’s aria about the fickleness of women is just an excuse for his own gross and profligate behavior. Furthermore, I believe that Gilda seems to have more conviction (its accuracy could be debated) than anyone else in this damned opera. After Gilda discovered the Duke’s affairs with other women, she decides to give up her life to save the life of someone unworthy of her. Choosing death is the antithesis of fickleness.

In Mayer’s production, this moment occurs in a wholly dramatic scene, with zigzag neon lights flashing in white and blue in the back to mimic lightning, and sound effects of wind and thunder, along with rolling vibrations. The death happens with a fatal stabbing, and Rigoletto discovers that Gilda has died for his boss’ life.

Many operatic main characters, especially the women, make very bad role models, according to The Economist writer R.G. (The Economist, “Opera’s Awful Role Models and the #MeToo Moment,” 01.22.2018). R.G. declares, “They fall for the worst type of men: jealous, violent soldiers (“Carmen”, “Otello”) or unprincipled rakes (“Rigoletto”, “Don Giovanni”). They die horribly: Aida is buried alive; Madame Butterfly stabs herself; Tosca throws herself off a castle parapet. Even the ones who do not die violently succumb to unpleasant diseases (“La Boheme,” “La Traviata”)” (The Economist, “Opera”).

In an article, Perry Tannenbaum notes that conductor Sara Jobin referred to these pieces as “hospicing patriarchy.” Jobin continues, “I am so sick of seeing women being abused, raped, and killed onstage.” Therefore, what does watching and enjoying Rigoletto mean for audiences in 2019? Tannenbaum argues: “[I]t’s abuse, rape, and teen suicide, and it comes in the setting of Harvey Weinstein, presidential pussy-grabbing, and the #MeToo movement” (Creative Loafing, “Operatic Abuse in ‘Rigoletto’ Confronts the #MeToo Generation,” 02.07.2018).

Jobin gives 2019 opera-goers a sense of direction and productive conservation, stating, “If I were a mom and my daughter was watching the opera with me, [here I’d interject and say this applies to dads and sons too], I would say, ‘Honey, this is a really old-fashioned opera plot and illustrates the Italian word rapir, which means to steal. They steal the woman, and the word rape actually originally meant to steal someone else’s property. We don’t think that way anymore…but some people still do. I hope that you will write an opera where the girl fights back because she has a black belt in judo and puts everybody in the hospital, and then goes on to become president or whatever it is she wants to do, because it’s about time.”

I would suggest all Vassar students to give the opera a try and form their own opinion after a viewing or two. Registering as a Met Opera student for free allows you to order $35 tickets for up to four people with Orchestra seating (the best in the house), which would regularly cost upwards of $270. I’ll be there with my mom, so flag me down, and we’ll chat about your thoughts during intermission.

Giuseppe Verdi’s opera “Rigoletto” opened at the Metropolitan Opera House on Feb. 12, 2019 and will run until May 10, 2019. This production changes the show’s typical setting, placing characters in a Las Vegas Casino in the 1960s.
Courtesy of Annie Xu.


  1. It is singularly unprofitable to look at a centuries old opera through the lens of contemporary preoccupations. Also, you have it wrong about some of the “heroines” as Carmen, Aida and Tosca make their own death choices.

  2. Hi Constance,

    I don’t know what else young viewers are to make of opera. What else can we do but view things through, as you said, contemporary preoccupations?

    As for Carmen, Aida, and Tosca, I did not say that they did not make their own death choices, but rather that they fell for the worst type of men and all died horribly. I’m sure that death adds drama but I am frankly quite tired to be a witness to the same un-nuanced story. Centuries-old does not mean impervious to change. Tradition is not pure; this is my point. Tradition mutates.

    Thank you for your comments! I hope we can continue this conversation in person one day.


  3. Carmen didn’t fall for the worst kind of man; rather every kind of man, good, bad, or indifferent fell for her. As to Aida and Tosca, their lovers are hardly reprobates. Radames indeed mirrors Aida in their struggles with loyalty, duty, and love and he like Cavaradossi shares the heroine’s fate.

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