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Opera

The Undoing of Women

1999
Author:

Catherine Clement
Translated by Betsy Wing
Foreword by Susan McClary

Opera

An incisive and impassioned examination of women’s treatment in opera.

Catherine Clément analyzes the plots of over thirty prominent operas-Otello and Siegfried to Madame Butterfly and The Magic Flute-through the lenses of feminism and literary theory to unveil the negative messages about women in stories familiar to every opera listener.

Is any book about opera more startling and acute than Catherine Clement’s Opera, or the Undoing of Women? Clement’s bitter, uncomfortable insights into ‘this spectacle thought up to adore, and also to kill, the feminine character’ are only now, nearly 25 years after their initial publication in France, beginning to gain currency within the relentlessly male world of music scholarship and criticism. Clement’s impassioned, densely argued study makes the case for a single, obvious, repressed truth: that opera, as Susan McClary argues in the introductory essay, is ‘an art form that demands the submission or death of the female character for the sake of narrative closure,’ a genre in which women who deviate from traditional gender roles-powerful, angry, or sexual women-are abused and destroyed to the accompaniment of irresistibly seductive music.

Women’s Review of Books

Catherine Clément analyzes the plots of over thirty prominent operas-Otello and Siegfried to Madame Butterfly and The Magic Flute-through the lenses of feminism and literary theory to unveil the negative messages about women in stories familiar to every opera listener.


Opera

Catherine Clément has been an academic, a diplomat, and cultural editor of Le Matin. She has written books on structuralism, psychoanalysis, and Marxism and is the author of Syncope: The Philosophy of Rapture and the coauthor, with Hélène Cixous, of The Newly Born Woman.

Betsy Wing also translated The Newly Born Woman.

Opera

Is any book about opera more startling and acute than Catherine Clement’s Opera, or the Undoing of Women? Clement’s bitter, uncomfortable insights into ‘this spectacle thought up to adore, and also to kill, the feminine character’ are only now, nearly 25 years after their initial publication in France, beginning to gain currency within the relentlessly male world of music scholarship and criticism. Clement’s impassioned, densely argued study makes the case for a single, obvious, repressed truth: that opera, as Susan McClary argues in the introductory essay, is ‘an art form that demands the submission or death of the female character for the sake of narrative closure,’ a genre in which women who deviate from traditional gender roles-powerful, angry, or sexual women-are abused and destroyed to the accompaniment of irresistibly seductive music.

Women’s Review of Books

A provocative and original examination, by a prominent French philosopher and cultural critic, of an art form in which women rarely win.

New York Times Book Review

An engaging, continuously stimulating volume. Clément writes from the heart to the heart. She scintillates and astonishes on nearly every page.

The Sunday Times

Music critics will welcome this book. Clément, focusing on the position of women, examines traditional operatic plots and characters from a woman's point of view and presents a vociferous indictment of literary and theatrical dimensions.

The Antioch Review

Few authors write so gracefully and with such penetrating insight. For those with an interest in opera, but disturbed by its sociological implications, this work is highly recommended.

Ear Magazine

Clément’s book should be considered one of the first major examples of feminist criticism of opera works in their historical perspectives.

Translation Review

The University of Minnesota Press has provided a valuable service to non-Francophones interested in French feminist thought by making this volume available in English. An impassioned statement bearing the marks of the intellectual French currents of the late 1970s and of the personal experience of the author engaged in a struggle familiar to feminists who discover that old friends have lied.

South Atlantic Review

Clément’s Opera intertwines the tension among the amateur’s love, the intellectual’s analysis, and the feminist’s consciousness embodied in one woman’s arguments. Her Opera is a feminist critique written by a woman who loves opera, an ‘amateur’ in the best sense of the word.

Queen’s Quarterly

Like all good criticism the value of Clément’s analyses lies not in the truth or falsity of what they assert, but in their ability to direct us to important, meaningful, revealing, and rewarding features of the works they describe.

Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism

The most original and controversial book about opera in a long while.

Washington Post