Opera’s Empathy Among the Stereotypes
Faith Snyderman, a young Jewish soprano trying to shape a meaningful career, expressed unease (You Should Know, April 13) that opera is “an art form that’s historically racist, xenophobic, bigoted and antisemitic.”
Ms. Snyderman is correct that few operas, as originally staged, had characters who were Jewish or, to use today’s phrase, “persons of color.” I should add that many opera plots can also be seen as misogynistic, in that a central woman character remains passive despite cruel treatment by a man or by society as a whole.
Still, Ms. Snyderman portrays the situation too starkly. Many operas urge us to empathize with individuals who are different from “us” (understood as “white European males”) or less privileged than we are: notable examples include Verdi’s “La Traviata,” Berg’s “Wozzeck,” and Britten’s “Peter Grimes.” Verdi’s “Nabucco” has not only several Jewish characters but also the most famous choral number in opera: “Va, pensiero,” the captive Israelites’ hymn of longing, by the rivers of Babylon, for their distant homeland.
Although many characters (such as Cio-Cio-San in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” and the title character in Bizet’s “Carmen”) reflect long-prevalent stereotypes of one or another ethnic/racial group, the libretto and music help us care about them and understand the character’s motivations and actions.
Great operas are intricate entities, open to multiple interpretations. I hope that Ms. Snyderman will bring her talent and her evident determination to soprano roles in the existing operatic repertory as well as in new operas, such as the one by Rabbi Arnold Saltzman in which she performed recently at Adas Israel Congregation.
Ralph P. Locke, Clarksburg
Emeritus Professor of Musicology
Eastman School of Music (University of Rochester)
Importance of Debunking Antisemitic Myths
Regarding “Holocaust Education Alone Won’t Counter Antisemitism” (Opinion, May 4): My concern is that many efforts to combat antisemitism are missing a key component: debunking myths about Jews. Antisemitism is not inborn, and it is not exactly a feeling.
Rather, it is a cluster of beliefs in response to widespread current and age-old propaganda. (All forms of hatred seem to stem from certainty that misguided views are actually facts.) While important, it is not enough to educate people about the history and consequences of antisemitism (and how to respond to it). Why? Because a person who believes Jews are 1) all acting together as one entity, and 2) making decisions that are to the detriment of mankind, might not be dissuaded from those beliefs by hearing about ghettos, persecution, pogroms, expulsions and the Holocaust. Learning about atrocities toward Jews may even reinforce their beliefs; thus, we hear and see, “Hitler was right.”
Of course, it is important to teach the history of antisemitism and how to respond to actions and remarks. However, a better approach would be to also carefully and thoroughly discuss and debunk each of the false myths that are circulating freely over the internet.
Rhona Bosin, Silver Spring