In planning Opera Holland Park’s 2019 pre-season panel events, our focus has been on the female characters in this summer’s operas: a newly-married woman with a secret vice; a wife and mother whose loyalty is tested when she falls in love with her husband’s friend and commander; a daughter kept in a remote walled garden; a widow whose beloved son has fallen for the wrong woman; and the original femme fatale of French literature, Manon Lescaut. Not all of them are especially likeable but why should they be? For an art-form supposedly dependent on the suspension of disbelief, opera has sharp eyes for human foibles, regardless of sex.

The story told by any opera is rarely confined to the period and location of its setting or, in the case of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, which exists in two versions, settings. In almost every case, a work will tell us as much if not more about the period of its creation.

Countess Susanna

The fifty years between the 1859 premiere of Un ballo in maschera and the 1909 premiere of Wolf-Ferrari’s Il segreto di Susanna were ones of rapid change for women. That change accelerated wildly in the last decade of the nineteenth century, although Italian women of Susanna’s generation would have to wait until their late middle age to vote in their country’s general elections.

In January, at Leighton House, we looked at the ways in which notions of modernity, sensuality, emancipation and female agency are expressed in Il segreto di Susanna, an opera famous for the fact that its heroine smokes cigarettes. A young countess, Susanna is no vamp. She’s a modern woman who prefers to keep her pleasures private, driving her husband, Gil, crazy with suspicion. Susanna belongs to the twentieth century, whereas Gil, who has forbidden her to walk out alone, belongs to the nineteenth. The honeymoon is over but neither knows the other very well.

Princess Iolanta

Secrets and lies thread through the OHP season. With them come issues of jealousy, obsession and control. Sometimes it is the men who are deceived. Sometimes it is the women. In February, at the London Review Bookshop, we looked at the young heroine of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta, kept innocent of the world and kept ignorant of her inability to see it, by order of her father. The score moves from darkness to light – a light that is almost painfully dazzling at the climax.

Blindess was added to the fifteenth century story of Yolande, Duchesse of Lorraine, by the Danish author, Henrik Hertz, amplifying the pathos of a situation still common to young women whose marriages were decided for them. His play, King René’s Daughter, premiered in Copenhagen in 1845, and achieved rapid international success in translation. In the preface, Hertz indicated with some sympathy that the heroine “is to appear at first overwhelmed and, indeed, horror-struck by the strangeness and novelty at all that she, for the first time, beholds” when she can see.

By the time that Tchaikovsky’s adaptation of Hertz’s play premiered in 1892, the suggestion of a surgical cure for Iolanta’s blindness disappeared from the story. Even in Hertz’s play, Iolanta’s carers confess that they do not know whether her blindness was caused by an injury sustained when she was thrown from a blazing tower as an infant or whether the shock of this event had caused it.

The neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, to whose care Tchaikovsky entrusted his morphine-addicted, pregnant niece, Tanya, in 1883, had pioneered the study of hysteria: a condition defined by seemingly inexplicable physical symptoms noted largely, but not exclusively, among female patients. Sigmund Freud studied with Charcot, and the swirl of new ideas about the subconscious and suppressed sexuality that would lead to psychoanalysis is powerfully felt in Iolanta.

The mothers: Amelia and Rosa Mamai

Two mothers dominate our panel discussion in March: Verdi’s Amelia and Cilea’s Rosa Mamai. Amelia is unusual among Verdi soprano heroines in being a mother rather than a daughter. In her case, motherhood is what saves her life when her husband accuses her of infidelity. That the infidelity is what we would now term ‘emotional’ makes little difference to his rage. Amelia is not strictly innocent but she is good – a distinction that Verdi repeatedly explored in his work and his life, chafing against the hypocrisy and inflexibility of mid-nineteenth century morals.

Rosa Mamai is a more ambiguous character. The matriarch at the heart of Cilea’s 1897 opera, L’arlesiana, she is obsessive in her love for her elder son, Federico, but neglectful of her younger son. Barely mentioned in the libretto or Alphonse Daudet’s original short story is the fact that a widow would enjoy financial independence beyond that of a wife, although Rosa defers to the eldest male in the family when it comes to assessing the marriageability of the woman from Arles – a bad decision. Nonetheless, her aria ‘Esser madre e un inferno’ is outstanding in its depiction of the intensity of the mother-son relationship, and was unprecedented in Italian opera.

Manon Lescaut, the femme fatale

More idée fixe than feminine ideal, the woman after whom Cilea’s opera is titled is never seen on stage. Does this make her the ultimate femme fatale – so dangerous that she doesn’t even have to be present to wreak havoc on male minds? Abbé Prévost’s Manon Lescaut was the first character to enjoy this dubious appellation: an amoral eighteenth century literary creation who was made over thrice in the nineteenth century in operas by Auber, Massenet and Puccini, and made over again in the twentieth century by the film-makers Henri-Georges Clouzot and Jean Aurel.

In April we’ll be looking at the antiheroine of Puccini’s 1893 Manon Lescaut and other operatic women who have been called ‘difficult’ or ‘deadly’, with a panel including two of the three female directors who are working at Opera Holland Park this summer, Karolina Sofulak and Rodula Gaitanou. Manon may have been man-made but it is women who will be defining her this year.

Maternal Instincts: Cilea’s Rosa Mamai, Verdi’s Amelia and the mother in opera takes place on Tuesday 26 March at the Italian Cultural Institute. Femmes fatales: Manon Lescaut and her sisters takes place on Tuesday 30 April at the French Cultural Institute. Tickets can be booked for these and all our other events on our Events page.