Strong female characters in opera

8 March 2022
Woman singing with arms outstretched

Despite the commonly held belief that opera is full of tragic heroines, of women oppressed by men, there are composers who also write about strong female characters. In recognition of this year’s International Women’s Day, we explore just some of those who take control of their own destinies, who go at least some way towards breaking the bias.

From Hélène in Les vêpres siciliennes, to Verdi’s take on Shakespeare’s determined (if perhaps a little crazy) Lady Macbeth, Verdi especially seems to acknowledge the strength in women and that they can give as good as they get. Hélène longs for revenge for the death of her brother, and so sets out to sort it herself, using her lover Henri and the rebel Procida to exact this retribution. And Lady Macbeth is the driving force behind her husband’s ultimately doomed thirst for power. But he isn’t the only composer to give women their power.

Don Giovanni, in white coat and hat, calms Donna Anna, in black mourning dress

In Mozart’s Don Giovanni, although they could be classed as ‘victims,’ the female characters all possess a level of determination – there’s Donna Anna who sets out to avenge her father’s death. Zerlina, who seems almost up for that last minute fling before settling down. Or Donna Elvira, who determinedly seeks Don Giovanni out and makes it her business to warn all others about his behaviour, ensuring no-one else suffers the same fate as her.

Tatyana in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is another who doesn’t take the dismissiveness of one man to define her, instead going on to raise herself to the upper echelons of society, albeit by bagging herself a prince. It isn’t a marriage of love, but she sees it for what it is and accepts it, enjoying her life and not about to ruin things on the whim of a man, even if that man is Onegin. She may have been a romantic, preferring her own company, reading or on long solitary walks, but time proves she is a wise, mature, confident woman who takes command of her own life.

In Beethoven’s Fidelio, it is Leonore who is truly the ‘hero’, assuming the role of a male prison guard to find out what happened to her husband, Florestan. Taking on Don Pizarro, the tyrannical villain, both surreptitiously and face-on, when she kills him just as he is about to kill her husband. She not only rescues her husband but many others who suffered at Pizarro’s hand.

Woman on balcony holding rail looking down

Bizet’s Carmen lives her own life and by her own rules, enjoying all that life offers despite the opinion people hold of her and the reputation it gives her. She chooses who she spends time with, and in what way. She is not afraid to be herself, no matter the consequences – why should men have all the fun? Puccini’s Musetta, from La bohème, is another similar character, cut from the same cloth she won’t let men tell her what to do, instead using them for her own benefit, whether that is for love or material things.

Can Emilia from Janáček’s The Makropulos Affair be included in this list of strong female characters? A case can certainly be made for her: she makes her way through the years (and years…) – and the men who come along in the process, always coping and moving on, looking after herself when one ‘life’ ends and the next one begins. So it may be a strength born of necessity rather than character, but how many others could survive those decades of deaths and departures? Decide for yourself when we perform our new production in Autumn 2022.