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The Sopranos: A new look at the history and power of opera - by, for and about women


The QPAC Concert Hall had patrons back for the first time since the Brisbane floods with the opening night of a new Opera Queensland production paying tribute to the great women of opera on Tuesday night.

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The Sopranos celebrates the bold and rebellious women of opera from its beginnings in Florence to the present day.

The boundary-breaking production was brought to life by writer, Australian academic and award winning poet Sarah Holland-Batt, along with more than 90 artists and creatives.

These include Jessica Gethin who will conduct the Queensland Symphony Orchestra; Marg Horwell who designed the set; costume designers Karen Cochet and Bianca Bulley; and sopranos Lisa Harper-Brown, Leanne Kenneally, Sarah Crane and Eva Kong, alongside baritone José Carbó and the Opera Queensland Chorus.

Holland-Batt grappled with the complex and often conflicting questions of how women are represented in opera.

“On the one hand, there’s the argument, put forward most powerfully by the philosopher Catherine Clemènt, that opera is an artform that historically has glamorised women’s suffering and glorified male violence against women,” Holland-Batt said.

“I find this a hard position to dispute: you only have to look at some of the most-performed operas in the repertoire to see how frequently women are subjected to murders, rapes, suicides and other tragic fates.

“I think of Carmen, Tosca, Gilda, Norma, Butterfly—and the list goes on. And it’s true that, as Clement says, the power of operatic music can seduce the audience into almost willing its heroines to their deaths.”

Despite this, she is not in favour of discarding the canon because of its perceived sexism, and this forged her determination to find a way to continue to stage these operas “with a contemporary eye and outlook”.

“There’s also the unavoidable reality that the traumas and violence that are visited upon women in opera continue to exist in the real world—and that operas can play a role in reflecting male and/or societal violence against women, and exploring taboo subjects like abortion, infanticide, and rape,” she said.

“The meaning of art always changes over time; to suggest that the sum total meaning of these operas is fixed and begins and ends with the composer’s intentions is to ignore the huge contributions made in the production and performance, which can be transformative, as well as the audience’s sophistication in interpreting what they’re presented with.

“It’s also critical that more women are given the opportunity to direct and produce these works—and, of course, for women composers to be commissioned to write new works, too.

“Ultimately, my approach to these vexed questions is one that tries to hold those tensions and paradoxes in mind, to suggest that opera can be both a vehicle that celebrates the virtuosity of women artists at the same time as one whose representations of women can and should be questioned and challenged.

“Our hope is for audiences to leave The Sopranos with a renewed appreciation for the enormous contributions women make in opera and perhaps with new perspective on those female characters that are so familiar to us.”

She said on the other hand, “opera is an artform all about women’s power”, and those aspects are what she wants to celebrate in The Sopranos – such as the tremendous power and virtuosity of the female voice rising above the orchestra’s, on an equal footing with the male voice.

“Operatic divas, who are among the most celebrated artists in the world; the power of the highly subtle interpretations of female performers who embody their characters; the power of women’s narratives, inner lives, and free will—and the power and threat a single women can pose to the social order when she refuses to behave,” she said.

Opera Queensland Artistic Director Patrick Nolan said the new work was ambitious in scale and scope, responding to questions about the representation of women in opera.

“Women have played such a central role in the history of opera but it’s a complex dynamic, their absence as composers, conductors and creators is a challenging conversation we can’t shy away from,” Nolan said.

“The Sopranos addresses these challenges creating a space for audiences to engage with these ideas in an open and positive way.”

Nolan said Holland-Batt had crafted a performance of great humanity, examining the dynamics of power and the ever-changing role of women in opera. The Sopranos season goes from March 29 to April 2.




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