Mrs Lincoln

In the latest Canadian Opera Company podcast, we were asked about the way women are used and abused in opera.

As soon as the question was posed, and no one else started to speak, I seized the opportunity, to launch into a bit of a rant, knowing that if I didn’t get it in right away, chances are nobody in the room would really want to listen to my theoretical lecturing (notwithstanding the excellent manners displayed by Gianmarco Segato, John Gilks & Lydia Perović).  I was dimly aware that what I might be saying could be read as politically incorrect, even though I was really addressing something procedural about opera.  And I knew it might seem to be against the current of the historical progress of women in society, even though I was describing (and even a bit unhappy with what I saw), rather than prescribing.

Mary Todd Lincoln

Mary Todd Lincoln

I didn’t finish what I was saying before I had to yield the floor, because of course I was blathering on way too long.  Speaking of me going on too long, please bear with me, as I will eventually justify the title, which may seem like a non sequitur.

Opera for much of its history, particularly in the baroque, has been a form that combines structural features segregating action and passion.  Arias in the old model were static and passionate, while all the action was confined to recitative.

I only got so far as explaining societal expectations:

  • men were expected to be silent and to take action
  • women were endowed with special insight about our feelings, and so were sanctioned as the voice of passion

I argued that women are not just permitted, but even expected to sing about their feelings, and as a result we endow the diva with a special importance.

But there’s more.  I didn’t get to the functional part.  For a composer it’s usually easier to write a vocal line up above the ensemble, whereas a male voice is more of a challenge, because it competes against many of the instruments that would accompany.  I alluded to this briefly in my review of Julie Boulianne’s 2011 CD Mahler Lieder.  For example, while Richard Strauss wrote his Four Last Songs for high voice –without prescribing gender—the songs are usually sung by women because the voice harmonizes better with the orchestra, and is more easily heard over the big ensemble.  Women can undertake just about any song usually done by a man, whereas the reverse doesn’t work.

I was thinking of this as I watched Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln today.  While much will probably be written about the film, Tony Kushner’s screenplay, Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrayal of the American President and Sally Field’s approach to playing Mary Todd Lincoln, my thoughts were again on opera and our discussion of women.

I will strive to avoid giving too much of the film away.  Yes I admit that Lincoln is shot, but i suspect you knew that.  Everybody knows he was shot while attending a theatre, knowledge Spielberg & Kushner play off of in teasing the audience.

For me, the remarkable thing about the relationship Kushner & Spielberg elaborate between husband and wife –which may or may not be based on historical fact—is the classical delineation of their roles along the lines I spoke of above with respect to baroque opera.  Mary Lincoln is privileged, the irrational voice articulating the wild emotions of a nation at war, mourning, raging, suffering, alongside the man who—to use the modern phrase—“keeps it all together”.  While the Abe Lincoln we see is at times emotional, he is mostly larger than life in his ability to master himself, and almost too perfect: which is not surprising in a film about a national icon.

The film reminds us how far both black people and women have come in the last century.  Abe Lincoln was privileged to enter the arena of world events, while Mary Lincoln’s life was circumscribed, limited to the bedroom, the kitchen and the ballroom; and as such she was still among the most privileged of her gender.  Sally Field was given a series of moments not unlike arias, where her passion counter-pointed the prevailing maleness of the film.  While there are at least two other prominent female roles in the movie, Field’s place is especially foregrounded. And in the process Kushner & Spielberg flesh out this world for us, going far beyond historical details.

Seeing Field’s portrayal is an excellent reminder of the distance we’ve all come.  It’s not just that women can and do enter the same arenas as men.  We watch Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s portrayal of young Robert Lincoln, ashamed that he had not been able to enlist as a soldier.  And so men too are now liberated because we are now free to sit on the sidelines.

In case you can’t tell, I like the film.

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