A rich, powerful man convinces himself that his colleague’s faithful wife desires him. When she rejects him, he forces himself on her. Another wealthy man abuses his power to seduce and abandon as many women as humanly possible, and if a woman’s not interested he assaults her. Noticing the pattern, a group of survivors and allies work together to stop him.
Ripped from the headlines? Nope, that’s Britten’s “The Rape of Lucretia” and Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” which will be presented in March by Boston Lyric Opera and Boston Opera Collaborative, respectively.
From President Trump’s comments about women to the snowballing #MeToo movement and the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings, sexual assault and gendered violence has been the subject of much national conversation in recent years. And for the directors of these upcoming productions, engaging with the themes of sexual violence and power in these operas is a topic at the front of their minds.
Britten’s chamber opera adapts the Roman legend of Lucretia, a noblewoman whose rape by the son of the king and subsequent suicide sparked a rebellion that purportedly led to the overthrow of the monarchy and Rome’s transition into a republic around 509 B.C. She’s been the subject of plays, poems, and visual art for centuries — yet, says director Sarna Lapine, there’s something missing.
“Sometimes I feel like there’s this tradition of male artists making art out of women’s suffering,” says Lapine, who says she sees “Lucretia” as a timely political fable. “I also think there’s this tradition of the woman’s body as a political tool. But where is Lucretia as a person in it? Where is her experience, where is her psyche, where is her agency?”
Consulting with Michelle Lapine McCabe (her cousin), who has a background in art history and is serving as an art-history consultant on the production, Lapine noticed that visual art of Lucretia often shows her with highly eroticized imagery during her assault or moments before her death. BLO’s production will avoid that kind of approach, the director says. And instead of perishing quickly and appearing as a “sleeping beauty,” Lapine adds, Lucretia will die throughout the final scene — just one of a few changes designed to minimize the audience’s remove from the character and give her a more active role.
“In my mind I decided, ‘This is clearly an act of revenge,’” says Lapine, who with “Lucretia” directs her first opera. “In keeping her alive, she’s sort of saying ‘This is my choice, and this is how I want you to use it.’ . . . By giving her agency and understanding that the suffering belongs to her, I think we bear witness to it in a different way that doesn’t allow us to have a fantasy about it.”
For BLO, this spring’s focus on sexual violence continues offstage as well. In conjunction with “Lucretia” and a production of Poul Ruders’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” in May, BLO has partnered with Boston Area Rape Crisis Center and Casa Myrna, a Boston provider of domestic violence awareness, support, and shelter services.
“We see that as part of our responsibility in producing those works to make sure that the issues are fully explored and contextualized,” says Lacey Upton, BLO’s director of community engagement. BARCC staff will be on hand to support the cast and creative team during the rehearsal and performance period for “Lucretia,” Upton says. They’ll also be on site at performances to provide information and resources related to sexual assault, and take part in post-performance talkbacks.
With “Don Giovanni,” Boston Opera Collaborative co-artistic directors Greg Smucker and Patricia-Maria Weinmann see clear links between the character and the present day. “We’re really interested in what this piece can say to a contemporary audience,” says Smucker on a conference call with Weinmann.
In Mozart’s opera, the charismatic cavalier goes after women with impunity, all in the name of adding to his manifold list of conquests. At the beginning, he either seduces or rapes a young noblewoman, Donna Anna, and then kills her father when she calls for help. Minutes later, he’s picking up the peasant bride Zerlina at her own wedding. “If she wears a skirt, you know what he does,” sings his servant Leporello in his famous catalogue aria.
Despite his behavior — or maybe because of it — there’s an unsettling appeal about him, says Weinmann. “I think if [Mozart] wanted Giovanni to be hated, he would have written a different kind of show, but he didn’t,” says Weinmann. “I think he deliberately made Giovanni very attractive, so we could get into the hearts and minds of women who have been seduced by him. . . . We ourselves are seduced by him.”
But for Weinmann and Smucker, Giovanni isn’t the focus of their modern-dress production. It’s always troubled Weinmann that the opera’s women are so “de-powered” at the end, as she puts it. “At this point in my life the women are much more interesting to me than Giovanni is. Maybe it’s because I’ve had so many conversations with women who have spoken out against someone who is misusing their power.”
As in BLO’s “Lucretia,” the directors aim to give female characters more agency. This “Don Giovanni” production omits the epilogue, in which the determined Donna Elvira announces that she’ll retire to a convent. Zerlina is given a shot at revenge with a rarely included duet, “Per queste tue manine.”
And some choices can be accomplished through staging. Weinmann brought up Donna Anna’s aria “Non mi dir,” which she sings when her fiance Don Ottavio blows up at her for not wanting to marry him right away. In her experience, says Weinmann, Anna often is trying to console Ottavio. “It can be more her turning it back on him, saying ‘You expect this of me? In what kind of world would you expect me to do that days after my parent has been murdered?’” says Weinmann. “That’s a key moment. Throughout the show the women are leading the way.”
THE RAPE OF LUCRETIA
Presented by Boston Lyric Opera. At Artists for Humanity EpiCenter, March 11-17. 617-542-6772, www.blo.org
Presented by Boston Opera Collaborative. At Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology, March 28-April 6. 617-517-5883, www.bostonoperacollaborative.org
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.