• Opera, Gender and Death: The Statistics of the Standard Repertoire

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    Not to be morbid, but recently I saw a discussion online comparing and contrasting the different causes of male deaths vs. female deaths in Game of Thrones. The discussion’s aim was to see how gender politics, both in-universe and in the real world, effect the ways that characters die. This inspired me to do some similar research about the myriad deaths in the standard repertoire of opera.


    I looked at Operabase’s list of the 100 most frequently performed operas worldwide. Then I made a painstaking list of all the characters in those operas who die, first according to gender, then according to causes of death. Then I used a percentage calculator to fully understand the statistics. Not surprisingly, but interestingly all the same, I found that gender and gender politics do indeed strongly influence the way opera characters die – and the way audiences respond to their deaths too.


    In the 100 most frequently performed operas, I found a total of 131 characters who die: 71 male and 60 female. This only includes named characters who appear alive onstage at some point, so offstage figures like Don José’s mother or Nemorino’s uncle don’t count; nor does Gianni Schicchi’s Buoso Donati, who’s only seen as a disrespected corpse.


    One finding that surprised me is that male deaths far outnumber female deaths. Male characters total 54% of the whole, while female characters total 46%. This despite the cliché that operatic tragedy is all about doomed female victims. But I think the main reason for this cliché is that while male deaths are more common, the operas that revolve around female deaths are more popular. Of the top 10 of these 100 most performed operas, 6 end with the heroine’s death (La Traviata, Carmen, La Bohéme, Tosca, Madama Butterfly and Rigoletto) and only 2 (Tosca and Don Giovanni) include any male deaths at all. I suppose it’s like cinema and TV, where the overused “Woman in the Refrigerator” trope is still a problem, even though statistically male characters die more often. Among the general public, there’s still a certain romanticizing and fetishizing of beautiful young women’s deaths, no matter how common they actually are.


    Far and away the most common cause of male death in these operas is stabbing, at 43%. This is followed by gunfire (10%) and beheading (7%).


    The most frequent causes of female death are stabbing, illness, and overwhelming emotion (grief, fear or joy), all tied at 15%. The third category consists very heavily of examples from Wagner.


    Overall, both male and female characters are most often killed by other people (57% of the men, 43% of the women). For men, suicide comes at a far second (10%) and natural causes come third (just 6%), while for women, natural causes are a close second (38%), followed by suicide (22%).


    As those percentages show, female characters kill themselves much more often than male characters and die of natural causes more often still.


    In a tragic operatic love story, if the male lover dies, the woman is more likely to die too, while the man is more likely to survive if the woman dies. This fact undoubtedly contributes to the “women are always the victims in opera” myth. Out of all the many operas on the top 100 list that depict romantic tragedies, 40% each end with either both lovers dying or the woman dying and the man surviving; only 20% have the man die and the woman survive.


    Stabbing and poison are fairly common for both genders, but there seems to be a taboo against women being shot. Compared to the 10% of male characters, only one female dies by a bullet and it’s the non-human title character of The Cunning Little Vixen.


    Male characters who die by poison are divided 50/50% between murder and suicide, but women are more likely to kill themselves with poison (75%) than be murdered with it (20%).


    Drowning is surprisingly common for both genders (8% for women, 5% for men), but it’s more common for men to be drowned by external forces (e.g. Hagen by the Rhinemaidens, or the Dutchman by Senta’s self-sacrifice), while women (e.g. Senta, Katya Kabanova, or The Queen of Spades’ Lisa) more often drown themselves. Only one man, Peter Grimes, commits a watery suicide.


    Actually, drowning is the most frequent method for female suicide (31%), although most of the operas that feature it are Russian and not especially popular in the West. For women in Italian and French opera, the preferred methods are poison and stabbing (tied at 13%). For male suicides, stabbing is by far the preferred method worldwide (43%), followed by poison (29%).


    Even though the “consumptive opera heroine” is such an iconic figure in the public imagination, only two exist: Violetta and Mimí. Statistically, TB is no more common on the opera stage than death by childbirth (again, two examples: Sieglinde and Melisande), which is nowhere near as popularly associated with the genre. But of course fewer people know and love the Ring Cycle and Pelléas et Melisande than they do La Traviata and La Bohéme. As with female deaths in general, it’s less a matter of frequency than a matter of popularity.


    Of the many operatic murder victims, both men and women are mostly killed by men, although women killed by women (33%) outnumber men killed by women (19%). Women also tend more often to be killed by loved ones (husbands, lovers or relatives) over a perceived betrayal; while this sometimes happens to men too, their killers are usually just enemies.


    Of the women who kill other women, 60% of the time it’s out of rivalry over a man’s love, compared to just 27% of male murderers who kill a man out of rivalry over a woman.


    Operatic male beheadings take place in a wide array of times, places and contexts, but all the beheaded women on the list are either French Revolution victims or historic British queens.


    It’s interesting to see how traditional gender roles effect the way death plays out on the operatic stage.

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