Feminist to the Core: La Bohéme

Categories: Event Recap, Fall 2017, Featured, and Graduate Fellows.

Erica Richardson, English and Comparative Literature, PhD candidate and 2017-2018 Graduate Fellow

How does the microphone create new sounds of intimacy out of the traditional opera? How can a singer’s voice and body express the excesses of a female character’s interiority in performance? What happens when we turn to feminist artists to provide an intellectual critique of the opera? Does the adaptation of opera into musical reframe gender norms? These questions and more were explored in the IRWGS and Department of Music Feminist to the Core program addressing Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Bohéme (1896).

Suzanne Cusick, Professor of Music at New York University, opened the event by expressing the collective intent of the panel to encourage and demonstrate feminist engagement with La Bohéme. Annie Randall, Professor of Music at Bucknell University, followed with her consideration of the opera’s relative ability to adapt to different environments. Professor Randall compared how performance and soundscapes evolved with the technology of the microphone. According to Randall, electronic amplification invited pop singers to perform songs with a kind of sonic intimacy. Singers could whisper and sing at speaking level, creating illusions of disclosure and conversation. These changes had an important effect on performance.

Mary Birnbaum, opera and theater director at the Juilliard School, walked the audience through the questions that feminist performers and directors might think about in the production of an opera like La Bohème.

For example, in La Bohéme, Musetta sings an aria in which she muses about the way the townsfolk gaze at her as she strolls down the street. The Juilliard performers – sopranos Maria Brea and Nicolette Mavroleon and pianist Cherie Roe — explained the importance of striking a balance between what they identified as “catcalling” and the expression of female sexual confidence, a choice that ultimately gave each woman who sang her own distinct sound and swagger.

Lydia Goehr, Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, further framed the project of recognizing tradition and reading against the grain in her presentation and discussion of Sally Potter’s experimental short film Thriller (1980). Thriller explores the voice and perspective of the character Mimi from La Bohème, inverting her role as a romantic victim. Professor Goehr’s exploration of the film demonstrated some of the ways in which a woman’s sound can reverberate and haunt an audience with powerful effect.

Naomi André, Associate Professor of Women’s Studies and Afroamerican and American Studies at the University of Michigan, discussed the portrayal of women and expressions of realism in La Bohéme and its contemporary counterpart, the musical Rent (1994). Andre’s comparative review of key scenes and narrative arcs in the opera and play suggested that while the pacing of the musical suspends the reality of time, gender norms are reversed in Rent. In Rent, the timid character of Mimi of La Bohéme becomes a vibrant, sexually confident woman. Of course, Professor André pointed out, Mimi needs saving in both productions, which may be a commentary on how pervasive or compelling certain narratives of romance can be.

During the Q&A, scholars and audience members alike debated what it means to read against the grain, generating a passionate discussion not only about the implications of feminist readings of La Bohéme, but also about how issues of class and race determine who has access to the world of the opera, onstage, behind the scenes, and in the audience.

This popular event was rebroadcast on WKCR on October 14th, for those who might have missed the live program, as a part of the “Saturday Night at the Opera” series. Co-sponsors for this event included: the Heyman Center for the Humanities and the Society of Fellows, Columbia University School of General Studies, Department of Italian, Office of University Life, Department of Philosophy, Columbia College, and the Department of Sociology.