Over the last few months I have had the pleasure of taking part in a mentor scheme with ENO’s wonderful chorus. As part of this scheme I attended the dress rehearsal of the company’s new production of La Traviata, Verdi’s much loved and frequently performed opera. It was only an announcement prior to opening curtain that let me know the performance formed part of the HeforShe Arts Week.
La Traviata is a fitting choice for a gender equality campaign, certainly for showing the inequality that reigned one hundred and sixty-five years after the opera’s premiere, with many of the roots of this inequality being found in societal, moral and religious principles. As can be found in other Mediterranean-European areas the idea of family honour was an incredibly important one. There existed an accepted moral paradigm that placed family in a prominent position. Within this model the pinnacle of a woman’s role was as wife and mother (prior to this the role would have been as dutiful daughter who prepares herself for marriage and children). There were, of course, always exceptions to this widely accepted social framework. However, anything, or anyone, who stepped outside this role regardless of their motivation, was usually treated with fear and disdain. This was not restricted merely to “loose” or sexually liberated women, but to victims of circumstance and to women who had any level of financial independence. There were very few paying jobs that would be socially acceptable, and “prostitute” certainly wasn’t one of them. But jobs that put women in the public sphere (and that are sociably acceptable now) such as “actress” or even “waitress” were often considered synonymous with the word prostitute.
Sexuality was one of the few ways in which a woman could gain power in a society that did not give them many options. By the 1880s, women in Italy were beginning to make inroads into higher education, but that was thirty years after La Traviata was premiered (and even though initially it was staged as if the 1700, Verdi intended the opera for a contemporary setting). Education for women, especially the poorest classes, was not given any real importance. Schooling was more likely to focus on etiquette and “accomplishments”, useful for a woman to ask as a wife and hostess. It is likely then, that becoming a courtesan was not only a way to escape poverty, but an opportunity to gain power and social status. Examples of famous courtesans illustrate this: Nell Gwyn (1650-1687) a famous actress and mistress of King Charles II of England. Gwyn was among the first wave of women to take to the stage in England, and certainly the most well-known. Certainly low-born, though little is known of her childhood, she went on to gain semi-official status at court, and became a property owner (unusual for a woman in her own right at the time). She also produced two sons by the King, the eldest being created Earl of Burford, later holding the title of Duke of St Albans (the younger died at 10 years of age). Madame du Barry (born Jeanne Bécu and known professionally as Mademoiselle Lange) an illegitimate daughter of a seamstress became a Comtesse and was the last Maîtresse-en-titre (chief mistress, a semi-official title that came with its own apartments) of King Louis VX of France. Mata Hari (born Margaretha Zelle) the Dutch exotic dancer and courtesan used her position to spy for Germany during World War II. There are many such examples of a courtesan being raised above her status, but history also shows that any woman finding herself thus also found themselves in a precarious position. Many died in poverty, after scandals, a change in tastes or just plain aging took its toll. The prospects of others were affected by monumental events such as War, revolution and plague. Others by politics and undermining by nobility and competition. During the Renaissance, the charge of witchcraft was a common complaint against courtesans, as seen in the case of Veronica Franco (1546-1591), a celebrated poet and courtesan in Venice.
While prostitution in some way, shape or form has existed since ancient times, its various forms and its level of acceptance by society have inevitably changed. For example, during the renaissance, there were two types of courtesans recognised by Venetian Society (the very city for which La Traviata was commissioned), the lower-class prostitutes or cortigiana di lume (courtesan of light) and the “intellectual courtesan”, cortigiana di onesta (courtesan of honest). Whether or not these distinctions still had notable form in Violetta’s time is not clear, and while both types of cortigiana were considered above the average prostitute, it was le oneste that were treated on a relatively equal level to woman in the highest echelons of society (often to their chagrin). Le oneste were renowned as much for their wit and conversational skills as their physical appeal. They tended to be highly educated often to an even greater degree than your average upper-class woman. Many simultaneously held positions as artists and performers and sex formed only a part of the services they had to offer. While these categories of sex worker might not have been so distinct by the period in which Violetta would have lived, it can be certain that she would have fallen into this highly esteemed group of courtesans, celebrated as she was for her wit and joie de vivre.
We meet Violetta at the height of her popularity, indeed at the time we are introduced to our heroine she is already ill and more than aware of her consumptive state and impending death, even if she does not yet wish to confront her own mortality. She is one of literature’s most famous courtesans (under the name Margurite Gautier in Alexandre Dumas’ original book and play), and while we do not know her journey into the “oldest of all professions” during the first act we encounter a woman who is determined to keep others at a distance, to present a light-hearted and energetic façade to the world. It is only Alfredo who can break through her barriers and take a chance at finding happiness in love. This happiness is put into jeopardy by Alfredo’s father Giorgio Germont, who demands Violetta end the relationship to save Alfredo and his sister’s impending union from the stigma of Violetta’s past. She agrees and her dignity and selflessness impress Germont, who did not expect such behaviour from a fallen woman. Alfredo’s response to her ending the relationship is to humiliate her publicly. Despite the perceived stain on her character it is Violetta who shows true strength of character, remaining committed to her sacrifice, so adamant in her belief of unconditional love. It can be surmised then that despite her socially unacceptable past, she still fulfils that most historically valued of feminine virtues, though it is a purity of the soul that Violetta possesses, if not of the body.
It is perhaps shocking that this opera still holds relevancy for us today, but we still experience scrutiny over what should be personal choices. We are questioned over our desires to marry, to have (or not have) children, to pursue a career or be a stay-at-home parent. We are highly sexualised both in media and on the street. We are shamed both for dressing provocatively, or not provocatively enough. It is a damned if you do, damned if you don’t attitude, a discrimination which is deeply embedded not only in our psyche. For Violetta it is unclear which is the most condemning of her crimes: sex outside marriage, sex in exchange for money and gifts, sexual liberty, sex for purposes other than procreation, or her financial independence, and her redemption only comes through her sacrifice and ultimately her death.