Romance or Duty?
What on earth does romance have to do with opera? A lot more than you might think. I’m about to go see a favorite Verdi opera, “La Forza del Destino.” Why is it a favorite? Because somewhere between pity and terror, a grand exercise of all the emotions takes place, with an emphasis on the struggle between personal happiness and family duty. And that is a key theme of romance.
Of course, operas no longer feel like romances because so often all the principal characters die. Here’s the plot of Forza: The secret boyfriend accidentally kills his beloved’s dad, setting off a long and miserable chain of events during which the vengeful son of the dead man kills his sister and causes the boyfriend to kill himself, but not before the boyfriend manages to get in a lethal thrust and kill the brother. Got that?
Why does this all happen? Because the boyfriend is not of pure enough blood to please the girl’s family. No matter that he is an Incan prince (they made that one up), the brother calls him various nasty names. And even though they become good friends in war and swear eternal brotherhood while not recognizing each other (you don’t want to know), the brother still tries to kill the boyfriend to avenge the family honor. And the brother also kills his sister for polluting their family’s honor.
This plot might be considered curiously antique, except that versions of such honor killings are still happening in some of the more backward parts of the globe. In societies in which individual personalities are ignored and rigid codes are a way of life, nothing is as important as family identity, especially bloodlines. So any threat to the family honor via a possible pollution of bloodlines is violently rejected. The pitiful songs in Forza, in which the sister begs for peace, or the boyfriend begs for mercy and calls his enemy his brother, thus still ring true.
But it’s not just the honor killings that still resonate. It’s the issue of loyalties. Not so long ago, a French movie director made a blatant reference to Forza that was the key to the entire two part movie, “Jean de Florette” and “Manon of the Spring.” In “Jean de Florette,” a French village coldheartedly treats newcomers from the city like dirt and some villagers actively collude to starve them out. It opens with music from the Forza scene in which the suitor begs for mercy as brother to brother, “O, fratel, pieta, pieta.” And since the answer in the opera is a sword thrust towards his heart, we know from the first moments of this movie that Things Are Not Going to End Well. The villagers view the newcomers as outsiders because blood ties are more important in their society than individual personality. Fairness and decency are not extended to strangers. And the irony is that the supposed strangers actually are related to the very villager who actively causes their downfall, as the second movie, “Manon of the Spring,” reveals. But don’t worry. Manon gets her revenge.
In modern romances, these situations still happen, but usually without the revenge component. Instead, we have the happily ever after ending. The heroine who tries to start a medical practice in a small town that is against her gender or youth eventually wins the people over. The heroine who has been raised in an immigrant family and is being pressured to marry only within that same ethnic group finally secures the support of an influential family member in her choice to marry as she pleases. The heroine who has a dream of living a different life, of bettering herself, gets encouraged to follow that dream. The heroine of ordinary blood marries the handsome prince. The heroine who is weighed down by supporting orphaned siblings finally cuts the apron strings. The heroine who is the constant victim of a selfish parent escapes the toxic situation. And so on.
The element that ties these romance themes to operas is the dramatic dilemma that causes all the passionate outpourings. Operas frequently illustrate struggles to attain personal happiness by being more than a cipher, more than a name and a position in life, and yet to do one’s duty. And operas show the tides that run against such individualism, that doom one good man to take the life of another, and that doom a romance to frustration and tragedy. Sometimes, as in “La Forza del Destino,” these forces are described as fate or destiny. It’s powerful stuff, just as romances are.
But wait, you say. Romances aren’t like operas. Romances end happily. Not so. Throughout history, the great love stories have usually been tragedies. Tristan and Isolde, a story that resonated for hundreds of years, is about forbidden love versus family loyalty. Lancelot and Guinevere is much the same. Heloise and Abelard is an even more blatant honor situation and it really happened. But most modern romances as fiction end happily because in our society we value the individual over the family or social codes, and we have the wealth of opportunity that allows personal feelings to be followed.
Of course I have to cite the recent Diana-Charles-Camilla British royal scenario as a spectacular and amazing piece of old-fashioned, classic romantic tragedy based on a clash between family honor and individual feelings. Yet as strange as it seems, in a few decades, popular sentiment will probably swing to this being a romance with a happy ending. Remember that in Gothic romances, the beautiful but evil/wimpy first wife often gets killed so the plain-looking but sincere governess gets to be the second wife. As memories fade and new generations look at this royal soap opera, and as the survivors get to rewrite history as the winners always do, the judgment of history may be different from what we think it is right now. Diana evil or wimpy? Camilla a heroine? It could happen. Regardless, this romantic story is operatic to the core.
To me, the passionate outpourings of operatic characters, their attempts to connect with each other, are absolutely transporting. I find the passionate outpourings of romance heroines and heroes in novels to be similar; each takes me to the same emotional place. Although the outcomes often may be different, the central dilemma in many romances and operas is the same: How to attain personal happiness yet balance it with larger issues of honor and duty. We’re just so lucky today to have cause to believe that every romance can have a happy ending.