Kill or Cure? The Fates of Disabled Characters in the Operatic Canon
Many disability studies scholars have pointed to the fact that narratives about disability almost invariably end with the elimination of impairment through the killing or curing of disabled characters. We only need to look fleetingly at some of the most well-known disabled characters in literature, film, and television to see the kill or cure paradigm in action. But what happens to disabled characters in opera?
I’ve spoken before about Opera’s Narrative Prosthesis and how this process enables the creation of narratives in which disability becomes a ‘problem’ to be eliminated or overcome. As in literature, film and television, the solution to the ‘problem’ of disability in opera often falls into the ‘kill’ or ‘cure’ category of narrative resolution. Generally speaking, disability presents a problem within an opera’s narrative arc, whilst its elimination or rehabilitation participates in the story’s resolution.
Instances of a ‘cure’ might involve the restoration of a character to a state of so-called ‘normality’. Here, opera’s ‘mad’ characters might have their sanity restored, the blind might regain their sight (as is the case for the title character of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta ), and so on. In Wagner’s Parsifal, the fate of Amfortas is both redemptive and curative, as Parsifal’s intervention heals his ‘unhealing’ wound and absolves him of his shame and suffering. On the other hand, the cure may not be literal, and might involve the rehabilitation of an impairment through the likes of prosthetics, as in Sergei Prokofiev’s The Story of a Real Man (1948).
The ‘problem’ of disability in opera can also be met with a solution in the form of a ‘kill’ narrative. Examples include the death of Chernomor, an example of the evil dwarf stereotype in the Russian opera Ruslan and Lyudmilam (Mikhail Glinka, 1842), and the demise of various ‘mad’ characters including Lucia di Lammermoor and Peter Grimes. John Adams’ controversial The Death of Klinghoffer (1991) depicts the off-stage shooting of Leon Klinghoffer, and the subsequent disposal of his body and wheelchair by being thrown overboard a cruise ship. There also exist many operas adapted from literary texts which feature the death of a disabled character, as is the case for Tiny Tim in Thea Musgrave’s 1979 A Christmas Carol, and that of Quasimodo in various operatic adaptations of Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris (Louise Bertin, 1836; Alexander Sergeyevich Dargomïzhsky, 1847; William Henry Fry, 1864; Franz Schmidt, 1904).
Not only does this kind of narrative determinism foster damaging ideas about the expendability of the disabled body, it implies that disabled people are somehow ‘better off dead’. For Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, the formulaic killing-off or rehabilitation of disabled characters in disability narratives reflects the ‘cultural logic of euthanasia’ and promotes the kind of binary thinking that considers certain disabled bodies redeemable, and others disposable. The rehabilitation of impairment modifies the disabled body into something deemed to be more socially practical, rather than making provisions for the accommodation of the disabled body in society. Kill or cure outcomes offer a form of compensation for (or a solution to) the ‘burden’ of disability and depict the removal of the inconvenient presence of disability.
In Crip Theory, Robert McRuer writes that ‘There is no guarantee that even the most foundational disability studies theses will function in the same way when we talk about global bodies’ (p.201). Whilst his statement is grounded in the sensible suggestion that disability studies ought to expand its lens of consideration to include non-Western cultural productions, it can also be argued that the perspectives of musicology (and more specifically opera studies) can yield new avenues of exploration. Examining the fates of the operatic canon’s disabled characters reveals their almost unfaltering depiction as narrative ‘problems’, there also exist modes of narrative resolution less often found in literature, film, and television.
For one, characters with disabilities so often constitute minor roles that, in number of operas, their fates are uncertain. Minor characters depicted as disabled also occasionally survive the narrative of the opera (as is the case for Demo in Cavalli’s Giasone), nevertheless, this becomes problematic as disability is appropriated as a powerful marker of difference, and as a vehicle through which to emblematise a form of estrangement from the supposed ‘normality’ of the main narrative or the hero. Even in cases where the disabled character is a protagonist, instances of survival are typically equipoised by the use of archetypal disability stereotypes, the appropriation of disability as a metaphorical device, or the use of disability as a tool for comedic relief.
Moreover, even when disabled characters survive (and remain disabled), they are often subjected to tragic and violent fates that include oppression, abuse, and loss of sanity. Take Verdi’s Rigoletto, for example. Although the protagonist survive the opera with his disability intact, the loss of Gilda, the only person for whom he feels love, renders his fate undoubtedly tragic.
There is also a notable prevalence of ‘feigned’ disability (particularly ‘madness’) in opera narratives. The information gathered in the Database of Musical Representations of Disability suggests that, with the exception of the exception of Donizetti’s I pazza per progetto (1830), this occurs predominantly in operas of the Baroque era, and ca be seen in Francesco Sacrati’s La finta pazza (1641), Andrea Ziani’s Le fortune di Rodope e Damira (1657), and Domenico Freschi’s Helena rapita da Paride (1677). Although these instances may be interpreted as an example of the ‘cure’, in that disability is eventually removed from the sphere of normality, it is difficult to overlook the fact that, in these narratives, disability never truly existed. I think there is more to be unpicked here, and I hope to take a closer look at the trend for ‘temporary’ disability in a future post.
So, how does all of this help us? If we were to stop performing operas on account of their adherence to the kill or cure paradigm there wouldn’t be much left to perform. Moreover, there is no simple narrative solution that would render all representations of disability unproblematic.
What we can do is begin to question what it means when we see (and hear) when disability appears in opera. We know that the representation of disability can provide insight into how disabled bodies have been perceived and how value has been assigned across various times and cultures. We can return to what Carrie Sandahl calls ‘Representational Conundrums’, and ask ourselves what the fates of opera’s disabled characters reveals about socio-cultural attitudes to disability, not only historically, but also in the present day.
Embracing the central premises of the social model of disability, scholars in the field of cultural disability studies recognise the ways in which disability transcends the notion of impairment in a traditional, medical sense and takes on new social meanings through its representation in literary and other artistic endeavours. But representations of disability in opera narratives are affective as they are reflective, in that they influence and contribute to society’s constantly fluctuating attitudes towards disability. Understanding representation, therefore, is a vital first step in the right direction towards creating meaningful depictions of disability in the future.