Putting the Words into Women’s Mouths

Ruth Padel on the female role in opera

In the 1640s, every musical household in Italy had a copy of ‘Ariadne’s Lament’, high-spot of Monteverdi’s Arianna and his most famous song. The lament expressed the opera’s theme: abandonment. Monteverdi called it Arianna’s ‘most fundamental part’. There have been many Ariadnes since. Cambert, Marcello, Porpora, Handel, Strauss: only Dido can challenge the number of times Ariadne magnetises ‘abandoned’ to her name. At the moment of the lament, Ariadne’s abandonment is fourfold. Two past abandonments: she abandoned her home and herself, for and to Theseus. Two in the present: abandoned by him, she again abandons herself, this time to her feelings in song. Her self-abandoned expression of abandonment is a hieroglyph of all four abandonings.

It is a fundamental part of the male Western musical stage that the most large-scale, lavish, man-made performances should focus on one woman’s self-abandoned, isolated voicing of pain. Dido, Ariadne, Butterfly abandoned-fine. Theseus, Heracles, Attila abandoned? No: Heracles mad, Prometheus bound, Don Carlos betrayed. Other bad things happen to men. They are blinded, tortured or exiled, like Philoctetes and Coriolanus, in a political, not a sexual, un-selving. So far, Western tragedy and opera have preferred to express the pain of sexual desertion through a woman’s voice.

They have also made it the voice of universal solitude. Ariadne is the symbol of ‘mensch-lichen Einsamkeir’, ‘mankind in solitude’, the Composer-figure who created her says in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos. Poulenc’s opera La Voix humaine, which is set to a Cocteau libretto, consists of one woman on the phone to a lover who has rejected her. She finally strangles herself with the line that connects her voice to his self-absenting voice, which the audience never hears. Her throat, ‘la voix humaine’, where the ‘opera’ takes place, is silenced.

The solo female expression of abandonment is crucial to opera’s voicing of the human condition. In European music, the figure of Ariadne encapsulates this tradition. Her family, the first family of Crete-her father, King Minos, was one of Europa’s children by Zeus – provided the prime material; and the first composer to use the image on stage was Euripides in the late fifth century BC. Euripides sent Shockwaves through Athens by changing the stage image of women along with the way female characters expressed themselves in music. In Aristophanes’ comedy Frogs (the first documented response to Euripides), Aeschylus complains that Euripides ‘picked up Cretan monodies’ and dragged gamous (‘marriages, fucking’) into tragedy. ‘Cretan monodies’, whatever they are, go with sex. Neither belongs in tragedy’s music or libretti as Aeschylus bequeathed them to his heirs.

That word gamous in Frogs shocks even Dionysus:

Aeschylus: You picker-up of Cretan monodies, bringing unholy gamous into the art of tragedy …

Dionysus: Sssh! most honoured Aeschylus!

Aeschylus parodies Euripides’ ‘Cretan’ arias by imitating a kitchen girl lamenting her rooster in a song full of sexual double entendres:

Aeschylus: I want to show the way he does his monodies …
‘O Mania, help! O mountain-born Nymphs:
Glyce’s gone, she’s snatched away my cock!
I, poor girl, was working within …
He flew up flew up to the sky on the lightest tips of his wings
and left me laments, laments. Tears tears
fell fell from my eyes, unhappy me!
O Cretans, children of Ida, take your bows:
protect me!’

A good few Ariadne ingredients here, as opera would come to know them: sex (implicitly), desertion, musical extravagance (those repetitions) and emotionalism – all tied to Crete by the apostrophe ‘Cretans … protect me!’

This passage must parody a Euripides play with Cretans in it. Euripides wrote at least two, and both are now lost. Cretan Women, which was probably written before any of his surviving plays, featured Aerope, Minos’ granddaughter, and Ariadne’s niece. Aerope married Atreus but went to bed with his brother Thyestes, igniting the spectacular family curse that led to Orestes’ murder of his mother Clytemnestra. Cretan Men probably followed Hippolytus and starred Ariadne’s mother Pasiphae, who had sex with her husband’s bull and produced the Minotaur. Both plays spot-lit wrong female desire. This was Athenian imagination playing tigers: orientalising, making Crete a just-far-enough-distant locus of abandoned female sexuality. In the Athenian imagination, Crete becomes the cradle of Western women’s ruinous sex lives. Cretan women betray husbands, fall in love with stepsons, brothers-in-law, bulls; abandon modesty, fathers, natural law, self-control. Athenian men lapped this up. Not just the stories but the songs, in which a single voice, designer-female, sings of a woman’s pain in public.

European male scholars followed Athenian males in believing that Euripides had underlined a link between wrong female desire and Crete. Most, however, resisted the idea that Sophocles could have represented Cretan women in such a way. The arguments here depend on several more lost plays and a bundle of Edwardian male assumptions. Sophocles wrote a play about Ariadne’s sister. His Phaedra (lost) was performed after Euripides’ first shot at the same story in his play Hippolytus Kalyptomenos (also lost) – the surviving Hippolytus, the one Racine knew, was Euripides’ second go at the story. The German scholar Welcker suggested that Sophocles’ play contained a scene that is known to have existed somewhere, in which Phaedra made a direct approach to Hippolytus and then hanged herself when seduction failed. Other scholars said this scene must have been written by Euripides. In his 1917 edition of The Fragments of Sophocles, A.C. Pearson concluded that in assigning Sophocles’ Phaedra a ‘shameless hardness of character’ Welcker is speculating. It might well be that Sophocles’ portrait of Phaedra was ‘free from grosser traits; and if that is so, her infatuation may have been excused as the consequence of her husband’s desertion, who had abandoned her to assist his friend in a hopeless expedition.’ Sophocles’ Cretan women can be ‘excused’, are not ‘gross’. So what is or was it about Euripides that made 19th-century European males, following Athenian ones, pick on the ‘grossness’ of his Cretan women? The reaction seems to have been based on original Athenian reactions to Euripides’ music. Athenian playwrights composed the music as well as the words of their pieces: this is why Monteverdi, Verdi and Wagner saw themselves as re-inventing Greek tragedy. The tragic poets also sang in performances of their works. Sophocles supposedly had a lovely voice and sang the title role in his play Thamyras (lost), accompanying himself on the lyre; he later retired from the stage because his voice was too small.

Greek musical expression had clear moral dimensions. It seems that, in traditional tragic music, melody was led by metre with, probably, one syllable per note. Euripides seems to have changed things, bringing in slurs (two or three notes for a long vowel, for instance), repetition, sensuality, all the traffic of emotionalism. Aristophanes’ rooster parody reflects what Athenians perceived Euripides to be doing both musically and morally. Sex plus music, the sexiness of music, was new to the masked and heavily robed tragic stage, though present elsewhere in Greek culture. The Athenian view of Euripides’ revolution comes out in an exchange between older and younger composer in Frogs:

Aeschylus: I didn’t make Phaedras prostitutes.
No one can say I made a woman in love.

Euripides: No. You had nothing to do with Aphrodite.

It would be ironic if Athenian responses to Euripides’ music fed later European responses to his words, since we and the Ed-wardians would probably be pretty deaf to Euripides’ musical innovations; but it is not odd when you think how close sex and music have been in opera.

Euripides won few competitions but his work was magnetic. Frogs shows Dionysus going to Hades to fetch him back after his death; Athenian prisoners-of-war in Sicily are said to have got food and water from their captors by singing his songs. Frogs suggests that his magic lay, at least partly, in emotionalism coupled with a new use of the fictional female voice.

Bronze Age Greece could not escape Cretan sea-power, and classical Athenians could not escape Cretan myth and its effect on Greece. In Euripides, the boat carrying Phaedra from Crete ‘flew ill-omened to glorious Athens’. Sinister Cretan boat, shining innocent Athens: it is a Jamesian image of Old World and New. In a 17th-century vision of barbaric intrusion that reflects Athenian images of Crete as bestial-cum-royal, Racine’s Hippolyte says Greece changed when Phedre landed there:

Tout a changé de face
Depuis que sur ces bords les dieux ont envoyé
La fille de Minos et de Pasiphaë.

She is daughter of Minos: think Minotaur, the King’s name in a monster. She is daughter of Pasiphae: think bestiality, a bull in a queen.

In a fragment from Euripides’ Cretan Men, Phaedra’s mother asks ironically:

Why should I have fallen for the bull?
For his dashing clothes and sexy glances?
No: Minos’s daimon was at work in me,
filling me too with destruction.

This was a family filled with sexually destructive daimon. In Hippolyte’s words, you get the whole exotic Cretan package in one girl. Phaedra is ‘gross’ because of her inheritance.

In Greek tragedy and in Racine, the idea of Crete crystallises the paradox of barbarism at the heart of civilisation, the monster in the bowels of a palace, cruelty in the codes of the ruling class. Directly behind Scarpia’s claret-and-crystal assault on Tosca is the torture-chamber. During the 19th century, the emphasis in opera shifted towards the hidden cruelties of the bourgeoisie. ‘Piangi, piangi, o misera,’ Germont sings to Violetta, whom he can afford to pity now he has forced her into self-sacrifice for his own family’s sake. Minos’ palace is a prototypical place where art collaborates with power: Knossos sums up the decorated armature of violence incarnate in 19th-century opera.

But another reason Fin-de-Siècle male scholars called Euripides’ Cretan women gross, lay in their own very different experience of hearing women’s voices sing abandonment. In the mid-1850s, 90 per cent of British popular songs were written by men. Women’s songwriting grew at great speed in the 1860s and by 1870 women were responsible for most middle-class popular songs. When they were children, Edwardan classical scholars would have heard their mothers sing drawing-room songs composed by women, the words of which articulated the bourgeois value of self-veiling resignation through a soft-focus prism of working-class rural life.

Claribel’s Mother Take the Wheel Away’ is typical. ‘Claribel’ was the pen-name of Charlotte Alington Barnard, née Pye (1830-69), who probably took her name from Tennyson’s poem. Like him, she came from Lincolnshire. She began composing after marrying a parson while still (probably) in love with a barrister she was engaged to before her father broke it up. She began to get her songs published in 1858 and was one of the first British songwriters to make a royalty deal with her publisher. The songs, like contemporary painting, express womanly consent to abandonment:

Oh mother take the wheel away and put it out of sight,
For I am heavy hearted, and I cannot spin tonight:
Come nearer, nearer yet, I have a story for your ear,
So come and sit beside me, come and listen, mother dear …
Mabel came among us, and her face was fair to see,
What wonder was it, mother, that he thought no more of me?
When first he said fair words to her, I know she did not hear,
But in the end she listen’d, could she help it, mother dear?
And afterwards we met, and we were friendly all the same:
For ne’er a word I said to them of anger, or of blame,
Till both believed I did not care, and maybe they were right,
But mother, take the wheel away, I cannot spin tonight.

Words, music, flow and rhyme all incarnate ‘womanly’ self-restraint and resignation. Not abandonment of convention, like Pasiphae; not self-abandoned delirium like Euripides’ Phaedra, who is desperate to escape to the beach and woods where the man she wants is playing.

Women also wrote religious songs and farewells to soldier sons, but the most popular genre was the ‘jilt song’. Sometimes these women composers wrote their own words; but often they used those of male poets, especially Tennyson. These songs, male text with female music, fit a general distinction between word as male and voice as female, music as woman and poetry as man: a division explored by Wagner in Opera and Drama. These women’s musical settings served the sound of the female voice as it was imagined and blueprinted by men. As in Euripides and Monteverdi, this was a man’s idea of how a woman feels and sounds, even though the music was written by a woman. The music gave legitimacy to the man-made message.

Tennyson’s own voicings of abandoned women were avidly read by budding male scholars as well as women songwriters. He was familiar with Greek texts and modelled his idylls on Alexandrian poets, who had themselves been reworking Euripides’ soliloquies for female characters. His imagination lunges out to Greek poetry and Shakespeare and heads for the unnoticed woman, abandoned by lover and mainstream narrative alike. Mariana is ‘moated’. Rusty nails fall off walls, latches are unlifted. ‘“He cometh not,” she said,’ as the ‘fruit drops unseen’. The sexual symbolism could hardly be clearer. ‘She said, “I am aweary, aweary, would God that I were dead.” ’ How seductive and authoritative the rhythm and rhyme make this as a man’s image of a woman’s feeling.

Oenone, Paris’s abandoned fiancée, is also aweary of life. She, too, appeals to mother, to ‘mother Ida’ (Aristophanes’ parody is an appeal to Cretan not Asian Ida, but must have crept in somewhere here):

Hear me, for I will speak … for it may be
That while I speak of it, a little while,
My heart may wander from its deepest woe.

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