The Women behind the operas

8 March 2021
Violetta sits in a large chair.

It’s International Women’s Day and Welsh National Opera is taking a look at some of the real-life women behind the operas.

Verdi’s La traviata was originally named Violetta, after its main character. She is the soprano in this opera, a prominent courtesan who is adored by Alfredo Germont. The opera is based on the novel La Dame aux Camelias and the leading lady was inspired by the author’s mistress Marie Duplessis. She was known for being a prominent mistress among wealthy men, attracting males with her beauty and style.

Duplessis was known for being a regular attendee of opera performances while living in Paris. It is believed she was the primary inspiration for this opera, as she had a reputation for being an intelligent, loving character. With the title translating to ‘The Fallen Woman’, we can relate this to the strong involvement of women and their role in this grand piece of work. First performed in 1853 in Venice, La traviata was performed by WNO in 2018/2019, and was described as a ‘heart-wrenching’ production full of power and emotion.

International Women’s Day is a time to celebrate and acknowledge the movement and status of women’s rights internationally. We can relate this to dominant women and female roles in opera, a contemporary example being the opera based on model Anna Nicole Smith which premiered at the Royal Opera House in 2011. Written by Richard Thomas, this performance focuses on the life of the American model and what was described as a ‘soap-opera’ lifestyle. Many believed she was an appropriate character to base a new opera, and compare her to tragic figures in operas such as Carmen or Violetta in La traviata. The opera portrays her turbulent life as she battled with the death of her 89-year old husband, inheritance battles and exploitation which inspired the making of this story-telling performance based on a female whose life faced major troubles. Composer Mark-Anthony Turnage wrote the music to represent the obscene, hardship and challenges of her life using discords and dissonances in the score to reflect this in the performance. Through music and performing, Turnage has managed to bring Smith’s life to the stage, embodying her life in songs of extreme partying, drugs and the effects these had on her life.

We can also celebrate women in opera back in earlier periods, as Donizetti composed a tragic opera Anna Bolena, based on Henry VIII’s once wife, Anne Boleyn. Notably, there are four operas which Donizetti wrote during the Tudor period, based on leading female characters in which the three in question are often referred to as the ‘Three Donizetti Queens’. Receiving tremendous success in its reception, Anna Bolena was performed internationally, promoting Donizetti’s works based on women around the 19th Century.

It’s often said that women are portrayed as victims in opera. In Iain Bell's opera Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel he took the so-called victims and made them the heart of the story and told us all about who they were before their lives were cut tragically short.

We can celebrate this International Women’s Day, with these prominent females and their key roles in opera and beyond, acknowledging their achievements not only in the world of music and the arts, but to recognise the equality and actions women have achieved in both past and present times.