I have a lot of questions for Opera Australia.
The first being, whose idea was it to program Bluebeard’s Castle, a sinister and frankly, horrifying opera about a man who serially tortures and kills his wives, in a time when women are boiling with rage and disgust over the seemingly endless murders of women at the hands of their partners, and the repeated ignoring and condoning of sexual violence from men, who remain silent, including in the highest offices in the land?
Written by Bela Bartok, in 1911, the 60-minute opera is the Hungarian composer’s only opera. It’s more frequently staged as in concert form.
For those who don’t know the story, Judith (Carmen Topciu) has run away from her wedding and family to be with Bluebeard, a man who lives in a gloomy castle with no windows or light, and plenty of dark secrets and rumours. She is now isolated. Inside the castle, there are seven locked doors. She begs Bluebeard (Daniel Sumegi) to open them because “she loves him”.
She opens the first door to find a torture chamber. The second door reveals a room full of blood-soaked weapons. The third room is full of jewels stained with blood. The fourth door reveals a garden, soaked in blood.
The fifth door reveals his wonderful kingdom (a moment director Andy Morton described as Bluebeard’s “willy-waving moment” in a Sydney Morning Herald feature piece).
Bluebeard asks Judith to stop there, to not ask him to open the last two doors. But of course, she does. The sixth room is a lake of tears. Judith starts to suspect Bluebeard has murdered his three previous wives.
But the seventh room has a horrifying surprise.
His three wives are still alive. We see them trapped in a cupboard, tied up in awkward positions, with black hoods over their heads.
So far, the audience has only imagined the bleeding walls and the instruments of torture.
Now we see three young women in short negligees, bound and dehumanised. Why did the director choose to show this when up until this point, everything else has been imagined? Are we meant to be titillated?
Bluebeard further dehumanises the three women by explaining that he has one of each kind: a morning, noon and night woman. Judith will be added to his collection, his midnight woman.
Can Opera Australia please read the room?
How many more operas about women being slaughtered or dying for love, can we stomach? We’ve talked about violence against women in opera for years. This particular production, at this time, feels beyond the pale.
In 2020, 55 women in Australia were violently killed by men, mostly by their partners. In this context, how can we sit through art depicting violence against women with no comment? This opera has nothing to offer women except more pain.
I understand Opera Australia may have considered the story in this gruesome fairytale “topical” or “current”, maybe even urgent. The reviews are now flowing in – all very positive – we can hear what the critics thought of the staging, its musical moments and the performances of its stars.
But does anyone stop to consider how women in the audience might feel watching this story? We’ve been saturated with news of rape and sexual assaults on school-aged girls and women, and mysterious deaths, washed-up body parts, suicide and resignations in disgust. All this, while men largely remain silent.
As an experienced theatregoer, I don’t know if I want to see even more violence by men against women on stage. I’ve had enough.
We have to move beyond the cautionary tales that tell women to submit, not ask questions, and stay in their place. Stories like these should be left in the dark ages.