Opera as an artistic form and performance vehicle has had a rich history of empowering women through performance and grand spectacle; however, through this spotlight, there is also a thorough silencing and vilifying of many of these women and the roles they portray. This is put on both direct, excruciating display, as well as subtle, indirect framing throughout Thomas Adès and Phillip Hensher’s 1995 opera Powder Her Face. I will first give a background on the silencing and vilification of women in past operas, discussing a few specific examples I feel exemplify this happening, I will then explore the ways in which Adès and Hensher attempt to make a commentary on this conscious and unconscious tradition through the guise of their collaborative efforts in Powder Her Face.
In opera, the role of women has been a tumultuous one. In the early days, they were often left out of roles entirely, with preference given to castrati voices. When women did begin to garner major roles, these roles often followed the tropes of many female roles we know today: a courtesan or queen (often one of ill repute), a coquettish young girl waiting to be wooed, a damsel of sorts looking to be rescued, etc. In many of these works a common thread is often found in these female roles: their fates are totally out of their control (often in control of a man), they are frequently seduced somehow, and this seduction eventually leads to death or serious punishment by the end of the opera (if not earlier).
Take for example Monteverdi’s 1607 L’Orfeo, in which Eurydice is immediately killed off in the second act after just a few numbers, her fate left up entirely to her Husband, Orfeo, who ultimately ends up killing (and forever silencing) her in the end. This trend continued with Mozart in his 1791 opera Die Zauberflöte, in which women are not only silenced but also ridiculed on stage when questioning the commands of what Brown-Montesano calls the “masculine power structure:”[i]
When the Queen object[s] to her husband’s decision to leave the Sun-Circle to Sarastro, he order[s] her to not meddle in matters beyond her womanly ken. The Three Ladies raise their concerns about Sarastro’s Order to Tamino, who answers them–indirectly with condescending disdain. Again and again the Initiated Ones warn against the intrinsic foolishness and duplicity of the female voice when unguided by a man of their understanding. (101)
Despite the opera largely featuring demanding and virtuosic female roles (including the infamous “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen” sung by the Queen of the Night), and putting these women on display, it is often an exploitative one rather than an empowering one, as the female characters are used more as objects of virtuosity, lust, and plot development rather than depth, introspection, and power as their male counterparts are. Even the Queen of the Night’s two powerful arias: the aforementioned “Der Hölle Rache,” and the earlier “O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn,” are made into nothing more than trifles with the Priest’s words to Tamino, “A woman does little, chatters much.”
Carrying the torch from Mozart, Donizetti’s 1835 Lucia di Lammermoor gives the titular role to a woman who is put on display as a vocal acrobatic and is readily and frequently taken advantage of in the proceedings of the opera; however, one major change in the traditional narrative is the famous “mad scene,” which features the demanding aria “”Il dolce suono…Spargi d’amaro pianto.” In this scene, Lucia enters, having taken control of her own destiny by murdering her soon to be husband (who was selected for her outside of her will), despite the aims and clutches of the various patriarchal figures at work in the play, and proceeds to descend into madness in front of the crowd (a Greek tragic chorus of sorts). Through this wanton public display, Donizetti gives Lucia a vehicle for escape from the regular constraints of her role, and through her madness, she is, as Catherine Clément suggests, offered one of the only ways a heroine can escape from the usual path given to her.[ii] Although Donizetti was not the first to include a scene such as this, the power and confidence given to Lucia affords this scene an important place in the narrative of women in opera.
Into the twentieth century, we saw a greater prevalence of strong female leads attempting to break out of their usually constructed boxes (through the guise of generally male composers). One of the foremost proponents of this movement was Richard Strauss, who’s operas commonly featured independent and intense female leads who all attempt to fight fate and the masculine power structure (albeit unsuccessfully). One important opera and eponymous role is Strauss’ 1905 effort Salome. Not only does Salome brazenly display her sexuality and strength over King Herod (one of the male leads) through her “Dance of the Seven Veils,” a section of the opera where no singing occurs, just music from Strauss and a disrobing (through her own volition) from Salome, she also has an even more manic mad scene with the head of John the Baptist (after her will was done to have him decapitated). Again though, we have the female titular character becoming seduced by a male counterpart which eventually leads to her downfall; however, what sets Salome apart from its predecessors is Strauss’ treatment of not only the character of Salome, but her removed “seducer” John The Baptist.
In comparison to previous incarnations of this sort of scheme, where the female is directly seduced by the appearance and “clear masculinity” of one of the male characters, Salome is instead seduced by the perceived masculinity and assumed appearance of John The Baptist; it is her fantasy for that which she cannot have and John The Baptist’s objectification that becomes the impetus behind her lust and eventual downfall, silencing, and vilification by society. John becomes the disembodied masculine power structure that Salome is fighting to destroy; however, in her obsession, she is overtaken and her “correct” path is fulfilled through blind lust and death at the hands of society, just as Lucia.
The aforementioned “Dance of the Seven Veils” also plays an integral role in this dichotomy between seeming empowerment and subsequent silencing. In this scene, Salome suddenly becomes completely mute for the entirety of the dance. Strauss takes away her main tool to express herself: her voice. The only tool that remains for Salome is her sexuality, which she exploits in order to win her way. So in this scene, Strauss presents us with a set of oxymoronic dichotomies, in which: the literal silence of Salome gives her a stronger voice than before through her body, and through the clear exploitation of her womanhood, she is able to exploit the exploiter, King Herod. After her consummation with John The Baptist’s head, the true and literal disembodiment of the masculine power structure, she is quickly put to death for her crimes; the second major silencing in the opera.
Following in these composers’ and librettists’ footsteps, Thomas Adès and Phillip Hensher came together to craft a new opera which would again focus on a powerful and overtly sexually powerful female lead in that of the historical figure Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll, the so-called “Dirty Duchess” because of her infamous sexual exploits and surviving photographs which lead to a large scandal in Britain during her subsequent divorce; as Hensher said of the opera, “A 1960s sex-and-Polaroids scandal centering around an allegedly sex-crazed duchess seemed perfect;”[iii] however, outside of the general scandalous interest the story provides on the surface, is a reflection and commentary on the past and current role of women in opera and their ability to break free of these roles on and off the stage.
In the opera, the Duchess is portrayed as one of the last true “debutantes” of her time (she was named “debutante of the year” in 1930 after her “coming out ball.” As such, she carries herself with a great deal of pomp and circumstance vocally, musically, socially, and physically on the stage, with Adès painting her with a pastiche of colors in the orchestra, hues that want so desperately to be bright and bold against all odds (or taste). Because of her social status, she was constantly in the public eye, and most of her relationships were with those who surrounded her because of the fame, wealth, and supposed power. It is with these things in mind that Adès and Hensher set out to craft their 1995 effort Powder Her Face.
The most infamous and certainly the most shocking scene of the opera (as well as what Hensher himself described as “what gave it a life beyond the first run”), is Act I Scene 4, described below by Adès in the score:
On one of her frequent visits to the capital, Her Grace relaxes in her room in one of London’s foremost hotels. She telephones for Room Service and gives the Waiter the friendly welcome which has earned her such popularity among the staff.
In this scene, Adès goes one step beyond that of Salome’s Dance and taboo consummation, and instead brings the fantasy to life with no pretenses or subtlety. We open on the Duchess masturbating on a hotel bed while calling for “room service.” After dialing the wrong number multiple times, she finds what she’s looking for. The waiter drops by the room with her wine and meat, and tells him to put the tray of edibles on the table. She then implores him to “come here.” He refuses for a time, until suddenly and deliberately accepting the duchess’ less than coy offer. What ensues is a sexual encounter that quickly turns from naughty and playful to uncomfortable and unnerving, with an excruciatingly quiet and sparsely orchestrated on-stage depiction of fellatio which Hensher describes here:
The notorious photographs of the Duchess of Argyll “performing” (I loved the word) fellatio on a stranger was at the centre of her divorce case. From day one, I had told Tom that the opera had to contain “a blow-job aria – you know, it begins with words and ends with humming”.
A falling half-step gesture introduced at the beginning of the scene becomes the moaning motif which appears throughout the entirety of the scene; what started as ecstasy, not becomes an insatiable mantra. The “performance” ends with the Waiter becoming more aggressive, forcing the Duchess to cough and sputter her way to the close of the sexual act (all notated in the score with precision from Adès). The scene closes with the secret being exposed to not only the audience but to the Duchess herself, as she inquires with, “Have I seen you before?” To which the Waiter responds, laughing, “All the boys know you your grace; Last April, the same story.” This is not an isolated incident and everyone knows.
Within this scene, a major confluence of every standard female operatic role comes to a head. The tropes and expectations crash into this one vestigial act of lust and violence that lingers from the greater mass of seduction and silence assimilated from the course of the female journey of empowerment, exploitation, silence, and vilification in opera. The Duchess is freely liberated from the expectations of her previous incarnations of Eurydice, or The Queen of the Night, or Salome, if only briefly, for this one fantasy; however, in this liberation, she is forcefully and jarringly silenced by the overpowering and unrelenting force of the masculine power structure in the form of the sexual experience of the Waiter; after the act, Adès even marks a long Grand Pause in the score, with the expression marking “Absolute stillness,” thus furthering The Duchess’ muteness.
The Waiter, as the embodiment of masculine power, takes full advantage of The Duchess, as do all of her “friends” and acquaintances in the opera. To further this blank transparency between all of those around her, the characters from scene to scene (which switch time periods frequently) are all played by the same three performers, so as to make each social interaction with the Duchess and her guests that much more meaningless and exploitative: the society is simply there, surrounding the Duchess in her prime, to take advantage of her wealth, sexuality, and social status, as soon as these are spent, they are all gone in an instant, vilifying and mocking her. The Duchess only comes to realize all of this in the end, when she has lost everything, is destitute, and is thrown out of her hotel room, saying, “And the only people who were ever good to me were paid for it,” followed by yet another silencing gesture from Adès, in the form of a grand pause: when youth, status, wealth, and virtuosity run out, the only pathway for the female lead points to death, damnation, and destitution.
In the final scene with the Duchess, Adès provides with one more muted hurrah for the Duchess to be choked by, this time not physically a blatant sexual act, but socially and musically through public eye as personified by the orchestra. After losing everything and being thrown out of her hotel room, the Duchess attempts to play for herself the gramophone again, the only item she has left in the world that held the records of the past on it, and the memories and songs of her in her prime, when society and men wanted her; however, these days are past. When the needle drops, all we hear is what Adès describes as, “the hideous white noise of [the] needle going round the rubber turntable,” with the full ensemble playing fishing reels, and the percussion dragging microphones across tam-tams and cymbals; effectively the ego death of Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll: with no one to provide her with any sort of attention, her life has become white noise, the masculine power structure giving a blind eye to a mute and shapeless shell of a woman.
Through the various consummations and empowerments of each heroine’s sexuality/fantasy, i.e. Salome’s eroticism with a literal headless man, and The Duchess’ explicit encounter captured with a figurative one, each seals their fate to be damned by the society in which erected these expectations: one is physically crushed, while the other crumbles under the weight of expectations. While the mad scene of Lucia returns here, as the Duchess forces herself on the manager kicking her out of her room (after minutes of begging and pleading to not kick her out), it lacks the boldness and empowering sting of escape that Donizetti’s scene captures, instead framing a broken and pathetic woman, desperate for an outlet and any form of attention. There is no strength, no blind fury, no displays of virtuosic freedom, merely a breakdown of the worst sorts from a woman who has no escape or purpose for herself.
In having the Duchess’ story come to an end this way, I believe there is a warning from Hensher and Adès: if a female lead deviates the path of what is expected of them (on the stage or in life), not even madness can offer you an escape as it did before. As a woman in opera, you will be silenced brutally directly, and stingingly passively, you will be vilified for your sexuality regardless of the context, and you will be tossed aside once you are spent. The work paints a darkly humorous picture of not only the life of an English socialite, but the struggle of a female operatic performer, often stuck performing roles of the past (and today) which subtly and blatantly undermine the role of women in opera and society; however, this ominous ending is rounded out by a still sinister, but more lighthearted final coda of sorts.
After the Duchess has been forcibly vacated, the Maid and Electrician return, playing flirtatious and coquettish games while the hotel room is “made ready for the next occupant,” the pair totally ransacking the entire suite. This destruction of the space in which the Duchess called home shows the destruction of the society she too inhabited. This raucous roughhousing destroys the space which held these archaic and oppressive societal norms, pressures, and beliefs. Through this ransacking, Adès and Hensher paint a brighter picture for the future of the female opera role, and the course of opera as a whole, the two working together to tear down the room which housed this veiled empowerment, the Maid singing, “Enough,” and storming off stage, leaving the Electrician alone to sing, “Or too much!”
-Daniel Sabzghabaei (2016)
[i] Brown-Montesano, Kristi. Understanding the Women of Mozart’s Operas. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. 101–102.
[ii] Clément, Catherine, Betsy Wing, and Susan McClary. Opera, Or, The Undoing of Women. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988.
[iii] Hensher, Philip. “Sex, Powder and Polaroids: Philip Hensher on His Libretto for Powder Her Face.” The Guardian. 2008. Accessed April 28, 2016. http://www.theguardian.com/music/2008/may/29/classicalmusicandopera2.