Monday, November 3, 2014

Monday Musical Opinion: Opera and the Bechdel Test

Here's the names of this year's lambs:  Uberto, Tristan, Marthe, La Castafiore, Gerhilde, Heliane, Ortlinde, Vixen Sharp-ears, Elvira, Ernani, Carmen, and Linda di Chamounix.  (There were a bunch of other ram lambs, who are unnamed and are destined to become either other peoples' pets, or meat).  Like a lot of breeders, we have a theme for naming our sheep; we use opera characters. 

I was looking at who we bred this year, and thinking about what names would be appropriate.  I strive to have some sort of continuity in naming.  So, for example, Truffles is a bit nutso, so her daughters are Lucia di Lamb-ermoor and Linda di Chamounix--both of whom have "mad scenes."  Tristan is out of Isolde.  Some are a bit more of a stretch.  La Castafiore, for example, will be recognized by fans of Tintin...

as the diva who always bursts forth with the "Jewel Song" from Faust; the song is sung by a character who sometimes is called Gretchen--and Gretchen is the name of the ewe who gave us La Castafiore.  Kinda torturous, but it helps me to remember who is who. 

It's not as though there are a shortage of opera characters.  Naming the rams is easy, because there is definitely no shortage of randy, testosterone-driven, brutish male characters.  Female characters?  They are there, but they are often a lot less interesting.  As often as not, the Soprano is a fairly passive object of dispute between two tenors or a tenor and a baritone, and the Alto is either the Soprano's mother or maid.  Sure, there are lots of exceptions, but they are exceptions nonetheless.

Mulling on this (I was driving from San Francisco to Roseburg, listening to the opera station on the satellite radio, so plenty of time for mulling), I got to wondering if there were any operas which pass the Bechdel Test.  The Bechdel Test (named after the woman who committed it to ink) asks if a movie has a) at least two named female characters who b) talk to each other about c) something other than a man.  Given that operas generally have few named characters, are often composed in (and about) times when men were the only acknowledged movers and shakers, and are almost always about complicated heterosexual interpersonal relationships, it's hard to think of many that pass the test. 

"Dialogues of the Carmelites" is an easy one.  "Suor Angelica" also passes easily.  It gets harder to find operas that pass the Bechdel Test outside the walls of the convent:  "Lakme" has the famous flower song, which is a nice duet about flowers (completely free of innuendo).  The barcarolle from "Tales of Hoffman" is about night and love, generally--but the mezzo is a trouser role, Nicklausse.  Really, I'm drawing a blank on this--if you can think of any, please let me know. 


  1. I haven't heard enough opera to be able to come up with anything, but I gotta say that Gretchen am spinnerade is one of my favorite things to listen to.

  2. 'Tis lovely. Do you have a favorite performer you'd recommend? Being who I am, I know it mainly from the Liszt transcription for piano solo.