Still Faithful in Today's Age

As the opening bars started, I recalled my motivation for coming here. Besides looking to see and be seen, for what reasons does opera appeal to its audience? I tried to picture how opera was once a popular art form (indeed, the first best-selling record was that of an opera star, sold in Italy). "Così Fan Tutti" was first performed in an era with no recorded media, set to a style of music that was popular. But even without contextualizing it within its time — making the medium seem anachronistic — it is not hard to place the motivation for opera firmly in the modern day. Look at soap operas, telenovelas and k-dramas today, and it starts to make sense: the same over-the-top plots and lovers are not hard to find. With the medium seeming less alien, it becomes clear that opera is purposefully hyperbolic to draw out shared parts of human nature — a trait shared by popular music and movies today. For example, "Così"’s aria “Love is Like a Little Thief” resonates with anyone whose love life has ever been anything but sublime.

I am not a big fan of the Classical period (I think the music is mostly repetitive, with an emphasis on the technical, and forgettable compared to the work of later composers) but I was pleasantly surprised. There was one lovely aria (the aforementioned “Love is Like a Little Thief”) with a simple, lyrical melody that made my hair stand on end. The operatic exaggeration resonated with me here; despite the overwhelming differences between when the piece was written and now, the alternating joy and frustration of being in love remains the same (“a little serpent is love/He takes away and gives peace/as he pleases to the heart”). Some things truly defy both time and custom.

The attitudes of the time shone through in this piece, however. What stood out to me is the cavalier attitude towards war, reflecting a more violent era. Women believe they may never see their husbands again (and that they may die horribly), and yet the joke is on them. I found it difficult to laugh. The overall message of the work is “all women cheat, but we live with it.” Unsurprisingly, men escape scrutiny. They are arguably more easily persuaded to cheat on their lovers — and with their best friends’ beaus no less. Indeed, they instigate the infidelity: they accept the bet (that each can seduce the other’s fiancée) and are not chided for it.

To look down on "Così"’s plot from the standpoint of a more enlightened society would be a mistake. It is not hard to find similar misogynistic attitudes in media today: specifically, the idea that badgering enough — even to the point of assault — will lead to affection. The performances show little developing attraction otherwise (between disguised men and fiancées) and give very little in the way of an alternative explanation, other than that the harassment was successful in its aim. This notion is reflected in modern day rom-coms where predatory behavior is rewarded. The manipulative tactics used by the protagonists also go unchallenged by any character, and are again played for laughs. In one scene, a man even threatens suicide if the woman he desires does not return his affection — and it works. Such antics would not be out of place in “Revenge of the Nerds” or “Animal House.”

Presenting such a piece in an environment such as Carnegie Mellon raises questions about whether directorial choices could, or should, moderate some of the protagonists’ worst excesses. I came away concluding that there is only so much an old text can be re-interpreted short of modifying it. (“Albanians” was translated from Italian as “hippies.”) I wonder if the director could have gone further in terms of blocking, such as the degree of intimidation of female lovers. However, I believe there is a strong argument for presenting the piece in its original form, transposed into the modern day. Seeing such behavior in a more modern context raises questions of how unrealistic it is. Similar misogyny would not have been out of place in 1960s San Diego, where this production was set. While the director’s stated intention was to set the piece in a time of female sexual liberation, the setting was also, maybe unintentionally, a shrewd choice for drawing attention to male chauvinism in a time considered relatively modern. Perhaps viewing "Così" as a dusty time capsule is a mistake at everyone’s peril.