The Dresden Semperoper premiered a new production of Fidelio scarcely a month before the fall of East Germany. Much has changed in the intervening decade. But it doesn't take much knowledge of German history to understand why it was a sensation at the time. The prison guards and the politics are those of the dying East Germany itself, and the crowd that hails Leonore and Florestan, triumphant fighters for freedom and justice, at the end of the opera looks no different from the one protesting in Dresden's streets in October 1989.
You can read the whole thing here. Excepting the always-excellent orchestra it wasn't a very good performance but the history is interesting.
I jumped at the chance to see Fidelio, as I always do. (That this one turned out not to be very good, well, alas, they can’t all be. It had historical and local interest, as you can read in the full review.) I belong to a not very exclusive club: women who have a reflexive, excessive love for this opera. I don’t want to speak for all the other ladies out there but I know enough of them to think that I’m not alone in this. (We’ve heard all the stuff about the awful libretto and mismatched acts, and I at least can say, I don’t care.)
The reasons why we love it seem at first painfully obvious: unlike the majority of women in opera who spend their time onstage pining or dying, Leonore does stuff. When the men of her world prove helpless, she takes their place, does their job better than they can themselves, and rescues the man she loves for the ideals they both believe in. She doesn’t dither or worry, she takes decisive action. And significantly, she saves him without sacrificing her life for his. Instead of dying for a two-timing jerk like Gilda, she saves someone who seems to be worth saving, and acted for a higher, abstract political purpose as well as for her own love. She gets to triumph through Beethoven’s brutal vocal writing (we hope), while he’s absent through the whole first act. When he finally appears he is more often than she brought to extreme grief by Beethoven’s brutal vocal writing. At the end the chorus hails not him but her.
Leonore is the most decisively, straightforwardly heroic woman in opera. Her lack of a backstory is an asset, because it isn’t there to weigh her down. We have no answers to the questions that normally determine a woman’s existence—her virtue and her beauty. We have to take her as she is, that is to say judge her as if she were a man, the man she is pretending to be. And we have no choice but to approve of her. Disapproving of her actions would be to hate all that is good in the world. No one wants to be on the side of Don Pizarro.
But I think it goes deeper than that. Sometimes it can be hard to be a woman who loves opera, the genre treats so many of our gender terribly and you have to satisfy yourself with a very limited range of representation. It can be hard to be a woman studying classical music in general, where the two most powerful figures, the Composer and the Conductor were inevitably, until extremely recently, almost exclusively male. The epitome of this is, cast in a role he never asked to play, Beethoven, Classical Music’s Greatest Composer, or, as a recent biography called him, The Universal Composer.
Whose universe are we talking about here? Beethoven’s “heroic style,” though it represents only a small portion of his music, has outsized importance in his image (see the Secession statue on the right), and also has come to serve as a keystone of an entire network of representations of the Romantic. But the figure in the center is inevitably a masculine one. The feminine Romantic doesn’t get her E-flat major, her Liszt, her Napoleon, her horns. The Romantic artist, which is to say the Romantic hero, is a man. The woman is, most commonly, relegated to the status of object.
Except in Fidelio she gets to be the hero, and she gets her horns (literally, I mean). (That the plot is a relic of the eighteenth century, well, we can ignore that part right now.) In Fidelio the Romantic heroic is given a woman’s voice, a woman in men’s dress because she has to be but nonetheless a woman’s voice. Here is one of the central works of Beethoven’s heroic style and that heroism is vested in a woman, a woman who is just as capable of heroism, and in fact more capable, than anyone else around her. What everything else has insisted is not our property is, here, finally ours.
How to end this except with this: