Sunday, June 25, 2017

Four last songs

Richard Strauss

Richard Strauss's Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs) were written when he was in his eighties, in declining health, and confronting mortality. But these songs are not filled with grief, but rather a kind of poignant acceptance.

In the aftermath of World War II Strauss and his wife Pauline had been allowed to leave a devastated Germany and move to Switzerland. There in the spring of 1946 he copied Joseph Eichendorff's "Im Abendrot" (At twilight) into his notebook. The poem describes two weary travelers resting at the end of a long journey; clearly it had a deeply personal resonance for Strauss as he and his wife approached the end of their lives together.  (For the text in German and English please see the end of this post.)

Perhaps because their living situation was so unsettled it took Strauss two years to set this poem to music. At some point he decided make "Im Abendrot" part of a larger song-cycle. After finishing the orchestral score of "Im Abendrot" in May 1948, he composed three additional songs over the next few months setting poems by Herman Hesse: "Frühling" (Spring), "Beim schlafengehen" (Going to sleep), and "September." This final song was finished, fittingly enough, in late September. Richard Strauss died a year later in September 1949, and Pauline just eight months afterwards. Neither lived to hear the first public performance of Vier letzte Lieder on 22 May 1950.

Vier letzte Lieder is not Strauss's title; it was created by his publisher Ernst Roth, who also determined the published order of the songs (the composer left no indication of song order). The most coherent thematic sequence would seem to be "Frühling," "September," "Im Abendrot," and "Beim schlafengehen," moving from spring to autumn and from twilight to sleep, but to my knowledge they have never been performed in that order. Roth published them in the order "Frühling," "September," "Beim schlafengehen," and "Im Abendrot"; this is the order that makes the most sense in terms of scoring (lighter to fuller), length (shorter to longer), and the progression of keys (C minor to E-flat major). It is the order that most performances follow today. [1]

Pauline was a soprano, and Strauss may have had her apparently remarkable voice in mind when he composed this cycle. The music is a supreme test of a soprano's art. The songs range over two octaves, reaching down to Middle C, the lowest note many sopranos can sing, and up to just a half-step below high C. They demand the ability to sing long, spun-out phrases, but at the same time to make the words understood over the sound of a large orchestra. The necessary combination of power, lyricism, security throughout the range, subtlety, sensitivity to the words, and breath control is rare.

I have listened in detail to ten different recordings of this work by seven different singers (plus several others that I didn't choose to write about here). Of course, there can be no definitive version of these masterpieces; each set of interpreters will bring different perspectives to the songs' realization. And a listener's response to these works will also necessarily be highly individual. So I don't expect universal agreement with the opinions I express below. In ascending order of my preference of performer:

Kirsten Flagstad

Kirsten Flagstad, with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler (1950)

This is a tape of the premiere performance (or more probably a rehearsal, since there is no applause) at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Strauss had specifically requested that Flagstad sing the first performance of this work. She was a renowned Brünnhilde and Isolde, and though by the time of the premiere she was in her mid-50s, her voice was still relatively powerful and largely secure (though the tape captures a few wayward notes). Furtwängler's tempi are generally fast, perhaps too much so in "Frühling." The sound quality is muddy and there is a good deal of hiss, crackle, and other distortion, so I don't recommend this recording as an introduction to these songs. But once you are familiar with them it's fascinating to listen to the first interpretations.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Otto Ackerman (1953)

Schwarzkopf was a well known lieder singer and was famous for her attention to the text. Her voice, though, can be a bit of an acquired taste: in particular, she has a tight vibrato that I sometimes find obtrusive. The recording is clear, but the mono sound is somewhat flattened and the orchestra is rather recessed. These songs are a farewell to remembered pleasures—the seasons, a lifelong love—but Schwarzkopf's approach (and vocal quality) is more austere than sensuous. My notes on relistening to this recording say "these performances require completion from the ideal version in your head."

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, with the Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by George Szell (1965)

This recording is in stereo, and the orchestral sound is much more lush and present than in the 1953 version.  However, Schwarzkopf's performance not more attractive: the vibrato is still prominent, and she struggles in her lower range (even sounding a bit off-key to me in places). And Szell takes the final song, "Im Abendrot," at a tempo that feels sluggish.

Renee Fleming

Renée Fleming, with the Houston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Christoph Eschenbach (1996)

A bit of a surprise. Although I very much enjoy Fleming's Strauss Heroines album, also conducted by Eschenbach, I hadn't expected to like this recording as well as I do. Those for whom Fleming's occasional tendency to scoop up to notes rather than attack them at pitch is infuriating, or who demand precise German diction, should probably avoid this release. The rest of us can enjoy Fleming's rich, full voice, which was pretty much at its creamy best in this period. She is more secure in her lower range than either of the singers mentioned so far, and to my ears her vibrato is less obtrusive. Eschenbach favors slow tempos; while clearly he wants us to luxuriate in the sheer aural appeal of Fleming's voice,  "Im Abendrot" almost comes to a standstill near the end. Fleming manages the extraordinary breath control required, but the result is finally just a bit too slow for my taste.

Kiri te Kanawa

Kiri te Kanawa, with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Davis (1979)

Kiri te Kanawa's voice has a prominent quick vibrato that is somewhat similar to Schwarzkopf's tightly focused sound, but she is more tonally secure here than Schwarzkopf was in the Szell recording. Like Schwarzkopf, her lower register is not particularly rich-sounding. Davis (or his engineers) highlight some of the details in the scoring that aren't as audible in the Szell recording, and his tempi in every song are faster than Szell's. But these versions don't convey much of a feeling of poignancy or autumnal reflection; to this listener they are lovely without being especially moving.


In dämmrigen Grüften
träumte ich lang
von deinen Bäumen und blauen Lüften,
von deinem Duft und Vogelgesang.

Nun liegst du erschlossen
in Gleiß und Zier,
von Licht übergossen
wie ein Wunder vor mir.

Du kennest mich wieder,
du lockest mich zart,
es zittert durch all meine Glieder
deine selige Gegenwart.

In gloomy crypts
I long dreamed
of your trees and blue skies,
of your scents and birdsong.

Now you lie revealed
in gleaming adornment,
bathed in light
like a miracle before me.

You know me once more,
you invite me tenderly.
Through all my limbs quivers
your blissful presence.

Lisa Della Casa

Lisa della Casa, with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Karl Böhm (1953)

This was the first commercial studio recording of the cycle, and as Michael Kennedy writes in his survey, "A generation learned to love this work from this recording." [2] It's easy to hear why. Della Casa's voice has both "silver purity of tone" (Kennedy's words) and a touching quality made even more so by the singer's restraint. Just two years after making this recording she made her role debut as the Feldmarschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, a role that requires precisely these qualities. Karl Böhm's tempi, although among the quickest of any recording, rarely feel rushed, and the songs lose none of their emotional impact. In the original version of this recording the songs were given the order in which they were performed by Flagstad at the premiere: "Beim schlafengehen" is first, and Autumn ("September") comes before Spring ("Fruhling").


Der Garten trauert,
kühl sinkt in die Blumen der Regen.
Der Sommer schauert
still seinem Ende entgegen.

Golden tropft Blatt um Blatt
nieder vom hohen Akazienbaum.
Sommer Lächelt erstaunt und matt
in den sterbenden Gartentraum.

Lange noch bei den Rosen
bleibt er stehn, sehnt sich nach Ruh,
langsam tut er die [großen]
müdgewordnen Augen zu.

The garden mourns,
the rain falls coolly on the flowers.
Summer shudders
quietly to its end.

Leaf after golden leaf
drops from the high acacia tree.
Summer smiles, amazed and weary,
on the dying dream-garden.

Long by the roses still
it lingers, yearns for rest,
slowly it closes its [great]
weary eyes.

Lucia Popp

Lucia Popp, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Georg Solti (1977)

Lucia Popp has an almost ideal voice for these songs. Her sound is gorgeous, and at the same time she is very alert to the text, but not in a mannered or over-emphatic way. This cycle was recorded in concert and was issued on DVD (it is viewable on YouTube). Solti takes an approach similar to Böhm: "Im Abendrot" takes only six minutes (compare to Eschenbach's nearly nine minutes with Renée Fleming). But as with Böhm, there is no lessening of emotional impact; at the end of "Im Abendrot" Popp has tears in her eyes, and you probably will too.

Lucia Popp, with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas (1993)

These were Popp's last recordings. In 1993 she was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, and when she recorded these songs about mortality she was probably all too aware of her own impending death. Although her voice is perhaps not quite as youthfully fresh as it was in her earlier recordings of the cycle with Solti and Tennstedt, it is infused with even more profound feeling. However, Thomas is so determined to avoid sentimentality and maintain brisk tempi that I think he misses some of the expressive opportunities in the music. Still, these performances are treasurable.

Lucia Popp, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Klaus Tennstedt (1982)

Tennstedt's tempi are on the slow side, but they don't feel overly indulgent. Although the slow speeds may have presented technical challenges to Popp, she performs the songs with a lyricism, tenderness and a hint of vulnerability that are irresistible. Simply radiant.


Nun der Tag mich müd gemacht,
soll mein sehnliches Verlangen
freundlich die gestirnte Nacht
wie ein müdes Kind empfangen.

Hände, laßt von allem Tun,
Stirn, vergiß du alles Denken,
alle meine Sinne nun
wollen sich in Schlummer senken.

Und die Seele unbewacht
will in freien Flügen schweben,
um im Zauberkreis der Nacht
tief und tausendfach zu leben.

Now that the day has made me weary,
My ardent longing is to be
kindly enfolded by the starry night,
like a tired child.

Hands, cease all your labor;
brow, forget all your thoughts.
Now all my senses
only yearn to sink into sleep.

And the soul without constraint
wishes to soar free in flight,
so that in the magic circle of night
it may live deeply and a thousandfold.

Gundula Janowitz

Gundula Janowitz with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajan (1974)

This was the performance that first made me fall in love with this work. Janowitz's voice has all the power and lyricism and range the songs require. The first time I heard her gorgeous melisma taken in one breath on the word "Vogelgesang" in the first stanza of the first song, "Frühling," I was stunned. Karajan's tempi are on the slow side, but it gives the listener time to revel in the lush sound of the Berlin Philharmonic and the superb singing of Janowitz. Utterly ravishing. If you only want to own one version of these great works—and I hope I've convinced you that one version is not enough—this would be my recommendation.


Wir sind durch Not und Freude
gesangen Hand in Hand,
vom Wandern ruhn wir beide
nun überm stillen Land.

Rings sich die Täler neigen,
es dunkelt schon die Luft,
zwei Lerchen nur noch steigen
nachträumend in den Duft.

Tritt her und laß sie schwirren,
bald ist es Schlafenszeit,
daß wir uns nicht verirren
in dieser Einsamkeit.

O weiter, stiller Friede,
o tief im Abendrot.
Wie sind wir wandermüde –
ist dies etwa der Tod?

Through hardship and joy
we have walked hand in hand,
now let us rest from our journey
as we look out over the quiet countryside.

Around us the valleys grow dark,
already night is falling.
Two larks alone still soar
as though dreaming, into the fragrant air.

Draw near, and let them flutter about,
soon it will be time for sleep,
lest we lose our way
in this lonely place.

O boundless, silent peace,
so profound in the twilight.
How weary we are of travelling –
is this, perhaps, death?

Update 26 June 2017: In a previous version of this post the positions of Renée Fleming and Kiri te Kanawa were reversed.

  1. The "Four last songs" are not actually Strauss's final lied composition. In November 1948 he completed a setting for soprano with piano accompaniment of a poem by Betty Wehrli-Knob entitled "Malven" (Hollyhocks). He sent the manuscript to the soprano Maria Jeritza with the dedication "Der geliebten Maria dieser letzte Rose!" (To my beloved Maria, this last rose). The manuscript was found among her papers after her death in 1982, and the song was premiered by Kiri te Kanawa in 1985.

  2. Michael Kennedy, "Richard Strauss: Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs)," in Song on Record: 1. Lieder, edited by Alan Blyth, Cambridge University Press, 1986, p. 334.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Bollywood and beyond mini-reviews

Finding Fanny (2014) and Piku (2015): Two road-trip movies with Deepika Padukone

Finding Fanny wants us to remember that in any adventure it's not the destination that matters, but the journey. If you don't find this message to be stunningly original, then on your own journey you may want to steer clear.

Ferdie (Naserrudin Shah) has kept a torch burning for decades for his first love, Fanny. When the letter in which he confessed his feelings to her is returned undelivered after 40 years, his young friend Angie (Padukone) decides that he needs to find Fanny and tell her his feelings in person. Angie, widowed on the day of her wedding to Gabo (a very brief cameo by Ranveer Singh), recruits a motley crew including her mother-in-law Rosie (Dimple Kapadia), randy artist Don Pedro (Pankaj Kapur), and Savio (Arjun Kapoor), who has nursed a hopeless love for Angie since childhood, and who happens to own a (barely) running car.

As I've noted previously, it's a thin line between whimsical and annoying, and for me Fanny crossed that line repeatedly. The film's attempts at black humor are jarring, and Dimple Kapadia's prosthetic rump (and the relentless attention paid to it by Don Pedro and the camera) is demeaning. Wikipedia defines a shaggy-dog story "as an extremely long-winded anecdote characterized by extensive narration of typically irrelevant incidents and terminated by an anticlimax or a pointless punchline." That's a pretty good description of writer/director Homi Adajania's movie. Although this household finds Deepika Padukone to be always watchable, ultimately Finding Fanny strains for both humor and pathos.

Speaking of straining, Piku is a road-trip movie that asks the great Amitabh Bachchan and his excellent supporting cast to spend 90 minutes making constipation jokes. Screenwriter Juhi Chaturvedi's story, such as it is, is about learning to value legacies from the past and to enjoy the moment. Or to put it another way, it's not the destination that matters, but the journey.

Once again Deepika is the best thing about the movie. This time she plays an exasperated career woman accompanying her irascible father Bhashkor (Bachchan) on a road trip to their ancestral home in Kolkata. But for this household even Deepika's presence wasn't enough to rescue Piku from its relentless focus on Bhashkor's bowels. And yes, constipation is a metaphor. If you don't find this stunningly original, then you may want to let it go.

Fan (2016)

SRK's performance in a dual role in Fan is astonishing. He is creepily effective as the unhinged Gaurav, an obsessive lookalike fan of the Bollywood superstar Aryan Khanna (SRK again). Gaurav has built his entire life and identity around his screen idol; of course, disillusionment must follow, and Gaurav must punish Khanna for not living up to his expectations.

We've seen SRK play deranged characters before. In fact, Gaurav is a bit of a mashup of two of his early characters: Rahul, the psychotic stalker of Juhi Chawla's "K-K-K-Kiran" in Darr (Fear, 1993), and Ajay, the revenge-seeker in the thriller Baazigar (Deceiver, 1993). If you remember those movies you'll know that Fan isn't likely to end well for Gaurav.

Even more remarkable than his uncanny performance as Gaurav, though, is SRK's Khanna. It wouldn't seem to be much of a stretch for him to play a driven actor who has worked his way up to superstardom through a relentless work ethic; after all, Khanna's story is SRK's. But what's surprising is that Khanna's affable, charming persona is shown to be just another role that he assumes when necessary. It's a striking (and demystifying) portrayal of the pressures and constraints of stardom.

When rising Bollywood hero "Sid Kapoor" (Taher Shabbir, who is made up to look like Hrithik Roshan, and whose name evokes Ranbir Kapoor, one of whose early successes was the movie Wake Up Sid (2009)) says that Khanna's days as King of Bollywood are done, Gaurav cons his way into Kapoor's trailer and violently extracts a video apology from him. Instead of being grateful, as Gaurav believes he should be, Khanna has Gaurav arrested and beaten. Gaurav's excessive love turns to a burning desire for revenge.

The second half of Fan does powerfully convey how trapped Khanna feels by a monster he has helped to create, but it also devolves into lengthy chase scenes and fights. SRK is utterly convincing as both characters, and the fight and chase scenes must have required some skillful filmmaking. But in the end the thrills become wearisome. Fan is for SRK fans only.

Heaven on Earth (2008)

This is the fourth film in writer/director Deepa Mehta's Elements series, after Fire (1996), Earth: 1947 (1998), and Water (2005). Given the renown of the first three films in the series and the presence of Preity Zinta in the cast, it was a bit puzzling/concerning that the final installment was never released in theaters or on DVD in the US (at least, not so far as I've been able to determine).

One reason might be the relentless grimness of the story. A marriage is arranged for Chand ("Moon," played by Zinta) with Rocky (Vansh Bhardwaj)—and the opposing elemental qualities of their names (heaven versus earth) is obviously not by chance. Clearly their marriage is primarily a financial arrangement between the families. Rocky lives with his parents and adult siblings in Toronto, and the frigid winter landscape is mirrored in his treatment of Chand: from the first he is distant and cold.

That coldness soon becomes violent when Rocky hits her in front of everyone in the household. (Although I have to say that the incident that triggers Rocky's violence does not seem consistent with Chand's character.) No one intervenes, of course; the beatings continue, and increase in frequency and intensity. Chand is later told by her sister-in-law (Ramanjit Kaur) "That's just the way Rocky is."

The scenes of Rocky's violence are very difficult to watch; the acting and filmmaking are all too effective. Soon, like Chand, we start to flinch every time Rocky comes into the room. There's a scene where Chand and Rocky start arguing while she is ironing clothes, and thinking about what Rocky (or Chand) might do with a hot iron was sickening. Mehta doesn't go there, fortunately.

In addition to having to watch Zinta's character repeatedly get brutalized, there are a couple of other aspects of the film that didn't work very well, at least for me. The first is the film's switch to black and white in certain scenes: the logic behind the change was not immediately apparent on a first viewing, and so the switch felt somewhat arbitrary. The second is the fantasy/magical realist element involving the conjuring of a cobra, who then begins to live in the family's backyard (and take sympathetic human form, as in the feminist fable of a few years earlier, Paheli (Puzzle, 2005)). It doesn't help that some of the special effects look artificial in a way that doesn't seem fully intended. So despite Zinta's excellent performance and the film's undeniable effectiveness I don't think I'll be in any hurry to experience Heaven on Earth again.

Parched (2015)

Tanishta Chatterjee, who was the best thing about Road, Movie (2009), is also the best thing about Parched. She plays Rani, a widow living in a Rajasthani village and trying to get her son Gulab (Riddhi Sen) to pay attention to his new bride, Janaki (Lehar Khan), for whose bride price she has mortgaged their hut. Gulab would rather get drunk and visit brothels, and to do so he steals the money Rani has saved to pay back the mortgage. Meanwhile Rani's neighbor Lajjo (the excellent Radhika Apte) is being violently abused by her husband and turns to Rani for comfort. When the travelling nautch show of Rani's old friend Bijli (Surveen Chawla) arrives in the village, tensions erupt and the lives of all four women will be radically changed.

What was most compelling for me was not writer/director Leena Yadav's rather heavy-handed messages but the relaxed scenes between the women—which were funny, touching and occasionally bawdy—when they're finally able to get away from the (sexual and other) demands of the men around them. A telling sequence occurs when the women take a day trip together; when they return, Gulab complains that he hasn't had anything to eat all day: he is literally incapable of feeding himself.

In many places, though, the film feels almost exploitative. There are pole-dancing numbers, topless scenes, a Tantric (hetero) sex scene, and hints of lesbian attraction. As the hints of lesbian attraction (and the film's incendiary ending) might suggest, Parched seems to allude to Deepa Mehta's Fire (1996) more than once. But for me Mehta's film is far more subtle, more thoughtfully structured, and ultimately far more moving. Still, the performances of Chatterjee and Apte in particular were excellent (and brave), and I'll definitely be seeking out more of their films.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Suffering for art: Opera, books and Bollywood

Beraud, After the Misdeed

After the Misdeed, by Jean Béraud (detail), ca. 1885-90

It hasn't escaped my attention that central to the art by which I am most powerfully engaged—18th- and 19th-century British literature, opera, and Indian films—is suffering. And, primarily, the suffering of women.


Opera begins with women's suffering.

The first opera by most accounts is Jacopo Peri's Dafne (1598), in which the title character flees an attempted rape by the god Apollo. The first opera whose score survives complete is Peri's Euridice (1600), in which the title character is bitten by a snake, dies, and is taken to the Underworld.

The story of Euridice and Orpheus was also the subject of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo (1607), often described as opera's first masterpiece. The second masterpiece was the same composer's L'Arianna (1608), which contained opera's first hit song, "Lamento della ninfa"—Ariadne's lament after she has been abandoned by her lover Theseus on the island of Naxos:

(The words by Ottavio Rinuccini in translation: Hear me, O Love, [she begged the heavens] / What happened to the faithfulness that traitor swore? / [Unhappy woman!] Return him to me, but as he was. / If you cannot do this, then kill me; / I cannot bear this torment."
Montserrat Figueras with La Capella Reial de Catalunya, directed by Jordi Savall.)

That opera's first popular hit was a lament is fitting: Women's suffering has continued as a frequent theme throughout the history of the form. What follows are the ten most performed operas internationally over the past five years (according to, in descending order, with the fates of their heroines:
  1. Verdi's La Traviata (The Fallen Woman, 1853): the courtesan Violetta finds love but dies of consumption.
  1. Bizet's Carmen (1875): the free-spirited heroine is stabbed to death by her rejected lover.
  1. Puccini's La bohème (The Bohemians, 1896): the seamstress Mimi finds love but dies of consumption.
  1. Mozart's Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute, 1791): Pamina is imprisoned, threatened with rape, believes she has been abandoned by the hero, and contemplates suicide.

(Kathleen Battle performing Pamina's "Ach, ich fühl's" from the 1991 Metropolitan Opera production conducted by James Levine.)
  1. Puccini's Tosca (1900): the heroine fights off an attempted rape by her enemy Scarpia, killing him in the process, and then leaps to her death when she realizes that her lover has been executed on Scarpia's orders.

(The words by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa in translation: "I lived for art, I lived for love, / Never did I hurt a living soul! / . . .In the hour of my grief / Why, why, o God, / Am I repaid in this way?"
Angela Gheorghiu performing Tosca's "Vissi d'arte" from the film by Benoit Jacquot, with the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, conducted by Antonio Pappano.)
  1. Puccini's Madama Butterfly (1904): the 15-year-old Cio-Cio San is married to an American sailor, but when she discovers that he has abandoned her she commits suicide.
  1. Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro, 1786): the Countess Almaviva laments the loss of her husband's love and is fearful of his violent jealousy. Meanwhile, her lady's maid Susanna is being sexually coerced by the Count.

(The words by Lorenzo da Ponte in translation: "O Love, give me some relief / From my sorrow, from my sighs! / Either give me back my beloved / Or let me die."
Renée Fleming performing the Countess Almaviva's "Porgi, amor" from the 1994 Glyndebourne production with the London Philharmonic conducted by Bernard Haitink.)
  1. Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville, 1816): Rosina (later to become The Marriage of Figaro's Countess Almaviva) is held a virtual prisoner in the home of her elderly guardian, who plans to force her to marry him against her will.
  1. Verdi's Rigoletto (1851): after one night of passion Gilda substitutes herself for her inconstant lover the Duke, and is stabbed to death in his place.
  1. Mozart's Don Giovanni (1787): the title character sexually assaults Donna Anna in her bedroom and Zerlina, a peasant bride, on her wedding day. A third woman, Donna Elvira, has been seduced and abandoned; although she rages against Don Giovanni she remains hopelessly in love.
The French critic Catherine Clément has written that "on the opera stage, women perpetually sing their eternal undoing." [1]

18th- and 19th-century British literature

The list of 18th- and 19th-century British novels with suffering heroines is long. To name just a few:
  • Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1748), the heroines experience attempted (and in Clarissa's case, perpetrated) rape; in her misery Clarissa wastes away and dies.
  • Fanny Burney's Evelina (1778), Cecilia (1782) and Camilla (1796): the heroines are repeatedly beset by men whose aggressive and importunate actions threaten the women with disgrace and ruin. Believing themselves abandoned by the men they love, each of the three heroines falls into a near-fatal delirium.
  • Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847): the heroine flees across a storm-lashed moor to escape her deceitful lover Rochester. When night falls, exposed without shelter to the cold, rain and wind, she nearly dies.
  • Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White (1859): Laura Fairlie's domineering husband stages her death and imprisons her under a false identity in a mental asylum so that he can defraud her.
  • George Eliot's Middlemarch (1872) and Daniel Deronda (1876): women are trapped in marriages with emotionally withdrawn, cruel and self-centered men.
"What the novel deals with is what women have to deal with," wrote G. K. Chesterton. [2]

Indian films

While men can also experience emotional pain and even weep in Indian films, many films focus on women's self-abnegation, self-sacrifice and suffering. As examples I've limited myself to only one film from each of the past seven decades:
  • Sadhna (Devotion, 1958, directed by B. R. Chopra): a dancing girl (Vyjayanthimala) finds acceptance and love under an assumed identity, but realizes that due to her profession she will be forever excluded from domestic happiness:

(The words in translation: "Woman gave birth to man / And he gave her the flesh-trade. . .She is trampled, abused, and discarded at will / She is weighed in dinars or sold openly in the marketplace. . .A man has a right to every luxury / For a woman life itself is a punishment. . ."
The music is by Datta Naik with lyrics by Sahir Ludhianvi; Vyjayanthimala's playback singer is Lata Mangeshkar.)
  • Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (Master, mistress and servant, 1962, directed by Abrar Alvi): a neglected wife (Meena Kumari) spirals downward into the depths of alcoholism and despair; and a young woman (Waheeda Rehman) is separated, perhaps forever, from the man she has grown to love:

(The music is by Hemant Kumar, with lyrics by Shakeel Badayuni; Waheeda Rehman's playback singer is Asha Bhosle.)
  • Amar Prem (Immortal Love, 1972, directed by Shakti Samanta): Pushpa (Sharmila Tagore) is violently driven away from her village home by the brutality of her husband; the passer-by who prevents her suicide betrays her by selling her to a Calcutta brothel. When a wealthy client falls in love with her, his disapproving family forces them to separate.
  • Umrao Jaan (Beloved Umrao, 1981, directed by Muzaffar Ali): the child Ameeran is kidnapped from her village and sold to a Lucknow brothel, where she becomes the famous tawaif Umrao Jaan (Rehka). During the 1857 Uprising she flees to the countryside and finds herself in her old village. She has a bittersweet reunion with her mother, but her brother demands that she leave the village and never return. She goes back to Lucknow, only to find the city in ruins.

(The music is by Khayyam, with lyrics by Shahryar; Rehka's playback singer is Asha Bhosle.)
  • Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Something Is Happening, 1998, directed by Karan Johar): the tomboyish Anjali (Kajol) falls in love with her classmate Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan). At the moment she is about to confess her feelings to him, he tells her that he has fallen in love with the new girl at the school, Tina (Rani Mukherji). Anjali conceals her pain from Rahul and Tina, but, devastated, leaves school. (the song ends at 1:23:40)

(The words are: "O God, why does love hurt so much? / Let the heart remain silent / Let it not speak / . . .My heart weeps, and my eyes are full of tears / What is there to say? / You didn't even think of me. . ."
The music is by Jatin-Lalit with lyrics by Sameer; the playback singers are Manpreet Akhtar, Alka Yagnik and Udit Narayan)
  • Kal Ho Naa Ho (Tomorrow may never come, 2003): the shy Naina (Preity Zinta) falls in love with her new neighbor, the extroverted Aman (Shah Rukh Khan), only to discover that he has a life-threatening illness. 
  • Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (These Young People Are Crazy, 2013): the shy Naina (Deepika Padukone) falls in love with her new acquaintance, the extroverted Bunny (Ranbir Kapoor), only to discover that he has a relationship-threatening aversion to commitment.
Sadism, patriarchal complicity, or something else?
So for those of us who love these forms, an uncomfortable question arises: Are we conscious or unconscious sadists, openly or secretly experiencing pleasure in the spectacle of women's suffering? Is to enjoy opera, 18th- and 19-century literature or commercial Indian movies to be complicit with patriarchy? And why is women's suffering so essential to these forms?

One obvious explanation for the predominance of women's suffering in art is its predominance in reality. Taking a global and historical view, in comparison to men women have been prevented from earning, inheriting or controlling as much money, have been blocked from as much educational attainment, and have been given poorer nutrition and health care. They have been allowed fewer social, political and personal freedoms and have been subject to significantly more sexual violence and trafficking. If art reflects the culture within which it is produced, then art created within patriarchal cultures will inevitably reflect sexual double standards, women's enforced dependence and powerlessness.

But I think something more is going on as well. Fiction doesn't straightforwardly mirror the real world; as we know, operas, novels and movies all have a complicated relationship to reality. And while of course artists are embedded in the culture of their societies and times, they don't always unthinkingly reflect its values—which, after all, are hardly monolithic, but are continually being contested and changed.

Certainly it's true that opera and Indian films are largely created by men, but many 18th- and 19th-century novels were written by women, and all of these forms have large and enthusiastic female audiences. In fact, almost all of the examples I've listed can be read—and many were explicitly intended—as critiques of the condition of women.

In all of the works I've listed above, it is the threatened, abused, rejected, ostracized and vulnerable women at their center who intensely engage our sympathy. As Chesterton wrote, ". . .sympathy does not mean so much feeling with all who feel, but rather suffering with all who suffer." We do not seek out the experience of opera, novels and movies because we enjoy the spectacle of others' suffering; we seek it out in order to share that suffering.

1. Catherine Clement, Opera, or the Undoing of Women, University of Minnesota Press, 1988, pp. 5 - 6.
2. G. K. Chesteron, The Victorian Age in Literature, Home University Library, 1913, Ch. II: "The Great Victorian Novelists"