Saturday, April 25, 2015

The moment we stop believing them: ageism in opera and pop music

My mother-in-law was the one who pointed out this Madonna video to me. Appearing on the Jimmy Fallon show a few weeks ago, Madonna sang one of her new tracks called, "Bitch, I'm Madonna" with her usual gusto.

With long blonde hair, gold chains, a leather jacket, fishnet stockings, and no pants (of course), Madonna pranced and danced around stage, humping multiple men (including an audience member) in the process. 

Her appearance on Jimmy Fallon occurred shortly after her performance at the Grammys that some critics found "distasteful" because they believed she was "too old" to sing and dance in such a highly sexualized manner (see her Rolling Stone interview responding to that). 
And her Jimmy Fallon debut also occurred right before that now-legendary and, to some, shocking kiss she smacked on Drake. (It does seem to be a pattern with her: Brit-Brit, Xtina, and so on)
I thought for sure there'd be more memes out there about this incident. Internet, you have surprisingly failed me.

I have big issues with Madonna's takes on race in America. I will never be okay with her or anyone's use of the "n" word. And I'm not comfortable with her comparing sexism to racism, mostly because what she's really doing is pitting them against each other ("No one would dare to say a degrading remark about being black or dare to say a degrading remark on Instagram about someone being gay... But my age – anybody and everybody would say something degrading to me. And I always think to myself, why is that accepted? What's the difference between that and racism, or any discrimination?" My answer: A WHOLE EFFING LOT.)

But I agree with her statement in Rolling Stone that "[Ageism] is still the one area where you can totally discriminate against somebody and talk shit. Because of their age. Only females, though. Not males. So in that respect we still live in a very sexist society."

Just this past week, comedian Amy Schumer debuted a hilarious sketch featuring Tina Fey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Patricia Arquette playing with the fact that each woman in her career at some point faces a moment when the media tells her she's no longer "eff-able." 
The idea here is that women like Madonna, Tina Fey, Sally Field, and others all reach a moment when they have outlasted their usefulness as beautiful objects to be gazed upon by society. They have overstayed their welcome, have outworn their membership cards in the Young and Beautiful Club, and have stayed too long at the party even though the DJ has begun to play the "you don't have to go home but you can't stay here" music to get them to leave.

Before I move on, I do want to point out how most of these conversations center around white women losing their beauty and allure (in the eyes of an American popular imagination). Women of color are few and far between in these conversations, even though many like Viola Davis have been saying for ages that they were never really considered beautiful and "eff-able" to begin with. Sometimes it feels like they've been shouting into the wind, speaking into a terribly sexist and racist vacuum which sucks up their words to make sure they never truly reach a multitude of ears. You have to deliberately tune in to hear them, to find their frequency, because lord knows the other noises are much louder and are constantly drowning them out.

Anyway. Where was I? Ageism exists. There's a reason why we talk so breathlessly about Meryl Streep, why Viola Davis gives so much of us LIFE, why Shonda Rhimes is a goddess, why Miss Tina's wedding will go down as the stuff of legend. Why even Madonna, who I find so problematic in so many other ways, speaks to us. They're the exception to the rule, right? They're defiantly showing us other ways to live as women, as adult women, as mature women. Whether or not they're always truly doing it, they appear to be wresting themselves free from the strictures of patriarchy and sexism.
Miss Tina serving face.

But make no mistake: American pop culture regularly decides when a woman is no longer an acceptable romantic interest. The age of the woman shapes people's perceptions of her vitality and beauty (which is always there; people just choose to dismiss it).

I've been wondering lately how the world of opera both resists and submits to this view of women. Opera provides such a fascinating conundrum for its consumers here. So many of the plots involve young women living for the men around them, sacrificing themselves for a doomed and ill-fated love or falling for despicable creatures because they're too ignorant to know any better (I'm looking at you, Don Giovanni). 

Plenty of people have already written about this - Susan McClary (Bizet's Carmen), Catherine Clement (Opera: The Undoing of Women), and Naomi Andre (Voicing Gender: Castrati, Travesti, and the Second Woman in Early Nineteenth-Century Italian Opera), to name a few.

The conundrum, though, is that in order to produce these operas portraying either young, naive women seeking love in a cruel world or highly sexualized temptresses seducing strapping young men, opera companies today have to rely on voices who can actually take on these roles. Professional voices, experienced voices, mature voices. A quick glance at the roster for the Met's Live in HD series, which reaches movie theaters all over the US and in Europe, confirmed many of my suspicions. Anna Netrebko (43), Joyce DiDonato (46), Renee Fleming (56) all played young love interests this season. And the truly "young" and up-and-coming singers who offered something "fresh" and new to viewers were in their 30s (Anita Rachvelishvili, Isabel Leonard). Because of the nature of singing and the demands opera places on singers, it's very difficult for a young singer in her 20s to land a gig. In fact, it's actually quite dangerous for a young singer to try to take on opera before her voice has matured (which, from what I understand, really happens in her 30s). Young singers can ruin their voices if they're not careful if they try to do too much before they're ready.

Thinking about the matter geometrically, the height of a woman's singing career (30s-50s) does not align or intersect with the key years American society has deemed a woman to be at her most beautiful (20s). Unlike women in Hollywood, women in opera can sing about love, desire, and lust in their 40s and 50s. Indeed, they're expected to. 

What this means, then, is that operagoers' ears and eyes have become accustomed to - or perhaps even expect or demand - figures like Debbie Voigt (55) to perform for them. The world of opera tends to value, in other words, the Meryl Streeps over the Miley Cyruses. 

Or does it? There were grumbles back in 2011 when Debbie Voigt took on the musical, Annie Get Your Gun at Glimmerglass and Puccini's opera, Girl of the Golden West at The Met. And as we pointed out in a previous blog post, the opera world has fat-shamed women for years. They, too, have been held to socially constructed standards of beauty that glorify thinness and whiteness. Again: opera, like all other institutions, participates in the maintenance of sexism.
Debbie Voigt, singing in Annie Get Your Gun at Glimmerglass in 2011 (New York Times)

But I still find it really fascinating and secretly appealing that in order for operas to be performed, opera houses have to rely on mature bodies. Biology shapes the performance and production of opera, and in ways that cannot easily be overcome. Although this truism might not hold up quite so much anymore, the principle went that a woman retired from opera when she could no longer sing, not when she was no longer considered beautiful. 

So perhaps opera is a paradox floating through American and European cultures, making it more difficult for audiences determine when they should stop believing that a mature woman can be a romantic love interest. High culture, in this case, encourages us to revisit that moment when we begin to think of older women's musical engagement as "age appropriate/inappropriate." Opera calls us to pay attention to the moment when we stop listening to mature voices around us, when we stop wanting to hear what they have to tell us, and when we stop believing the veracity of their performance based on their age.