You know what the Bechdel test is, right? Let’s refresh our memory. A movie passes the Bechdel test if:
- There are two women in it, whose names are known;
- they talk to each other;
- they talk about something other than a man.
The test is not meant to evaluate if a movie is good or bad, and not even whether a movie is sexist or not. It is not a test on the actual movie, it is a test on the movie industry: it tells us how the movie industry sees (or rather doesn’t see) women. This is the fact:
Only about 57% of all movies pass this test.
Let sink this in. Only about 57% of all movies ever made have at least 2 named women in it, who talk to each other, about something which is not a man. This is how under-represented women are in our popular media.
So I though of doing the same thing for opera. Others have tried, but of course I will give you my take, and my reasons for it. Now, an opera is not a movie, for so many reasons. The differences which affect the Bechdel test are in particular that the plot is more streamlined, and often it revolves around a love interest, so very often characters do talk only about their lover. So I also took a look at the reverse Bechdel test: are there two men in the opera, who talk to each other, about something which is not a woman? Instead of putting typical pass/fail for the Bechdel test, I have used male/female symbols: if the opera gets a male symbol, it means that it didn’t pass the regular (female) Bechdel test, but it did pass the reverse. If neither or both pass, the opera gets an even scale.
Let’s give it a try, starting with:
- Il barbiere di Siviglia. There are two female characters, Rosina and Berta, but they never speak to each other. Plenty of conversations among men about other subjects (Pace e gioia).
- L’italiana in Algeri. 3 female characters, speak to each other a lot, but always about Mustafa. On the other hand, the males also have conversations about other things, like when Mustafa makes Taddeo his “Kaimakan”.
- Tancredi. Isaura and Amenaide do have a very brief exchange commenting, horrified, the battle that they hear in the distance, but Amenaide immediately starts talking about her father and her lover. Fail.
- Otello. Emilia and Desdemona have several conversations all about Otello.
- La cenerentola. Finally a pass! The two step-sisters talk about what to wear, and push Cenerentola around quite a bit, without talking about men. Also the men talk about other things, like when Don Magnifico becomes Head of the Cellar.
- La donna del lago. Elena and Albina never speak to each other. Men talk about war a lot.
- Semiramide. Again, the only two female characters never speak to each other.
Not very promising.
- Fenena and Abigaille speak briefly, but not about men! In a first exchange, Abigaille tries to get the crown away from Fenena, and at the end of the opera she asks for Fenena’s forgiveness. Pass!
- Ernani. Not even close.
- Attila. Only one woman.
- Giovanna d’Arco. Only one woman.
- Macbeth. Only one woman with a name.
- Luisa Miller. Luisa and the Duchess have a conversation, but it is about who Luisa is in love with. So fail. The reverse test passes because Walter and Wurm talk about the murder they committed, years before.
- Rigoletto. Gilda and Giovanna talk only about the duke.
- Il trovatore. Leonora and Azucena never speak to each other.
- La traviata. A surprising pass! It is due to the very brief conversation that Violetta and Annina have at the beginning of the last act, when Violetta tells her maid to give half of her money to the poor. The reverse test passes because of Di Provenza il mare e il suol, and the card scene at Flora’s.
- Un ballo in maschera. Amelia and Ulrica do have a conversation, where Ulrica explains to Amelia what she has to do to stop being in love, but the whole reason of their conversation is Riccardo.
- La forza del destino. Not even close.
- Don Carlo. There is a great scene between Elisabetta and Eboli, but they only talk about men. Fail.
- Aida. Aida and Amneris have a conversation in the first act about the incoming war, and then, in the big scene in the second act, they do talk about Radames, but before that they again talk about the war.
- Otello. Verdi’s Otello fails like Rossini’s. Maybe it is Shakespeare’s Othello which fails?
- Falstaff. Incredibly, Falstaff fails. Plenty of female characters, and they talk to each other quite a bit, but always about Falstaff. He, on the other hand, talks about wine and food a lot.
This is depressing.
- Manon Lescaut. Only one female character, but on the other hand the men only talk about her, so, even.
- La bohème. Mimì and Musetta never speak to each other.
- Tosca. Only one female character (but what a character!). The men talk about revolution a lot.
- Madama Butterfly. The pass is due to the flower duet between Butterfly and Suzuki. The reverse pass is because of the first conversation between Pinkerton, Sharpless and Goro, which revolves also around the house, and not only around the bride.
- La fanciulla del West. The exchange between Minnie and Wowkle is too brief to qualify.
- Turandot. Liù and Turandot have a quite famous conversation (Tu che di gel sei cinta), but it is all about Calaf. Ping, Pong and Pang have a conversation about their retirement.
- Anna Bolena. Anna and Giovanna (Joan) Seymour have a couple of conversations that qualify: Anna talks about her sadness, and later Giovanna tells Anna that Henry VIII has sentenced her to death and advises her on how to avoid her execution. Also the men have several qualifying conversations.
- Lucrezia Borgia. Fail.
- Lucia di Lammermoor. I am torn on this one. Lucia tells Alisa the story of the ghost of the woman killed by her husband, but it’s not really a conversation. The “duel” scene between Edgardo and Enrico is much more of a conversation.
- Maria Stuarda. This is a pass with flying colors! Maria and her old nurse Anna talk about her destiny, and then Maria and Elisabetta insult and slut-shame each other in the most beautiful confrontation in all of opera. All the men in the opera only talk about Maria.
- Roberto Devereux. Sara and Elisabetta only talk about Roberto. The conversation between Nottingham and Roberto qualifies.
- La fille du regiment. The only hint of a conversation between Maria and her aunt/mother is the voice lesson, but I don’t think it qualifies.
- La favorite. Leonora and Ines only talk about the king.
- Don Pasquale. Only one female character, Norina. But, in this case, the opera doesn’t pass the reverse Bechdel test either, i.e. the male character never talk about anything else except Norina, or another woman to get married to. So we’re even.
- Il pirata. Fail.
- I Capuleti e i Montecchi. Only one female character. Men talking about politics.
- La sonnambula. Adina and her mother never speak about anything else except her wedding. The count speaks to Elvino about sleepwalking, and this qualifies.
- Norma. The duet between Norma and Adalgisa, where they promise eternal friendship, gives a pass to this opera. I could not find any conversation between named male characters which wasn’t about a woman, so we have another reverse opera!
- I puritani. Elvira asks Enrichetta to help her put the wedding veil on her head.
- Le nozze di Figaro. The duet between Marcellina and Susanna is a fight where they don’t talk about men. Antonio complaining with the Count about his flowers gives the reverse pass.
- Don Giovanni. The women only talk about Don Giovanni. The final scene shows men talking about death and hell.
- Così fan tutte. This opera is so symmetric that, of course, it ends up even.
- Carmen. Several conversations about smuggling.
- Cavalleria Rusticana. Women onlytalk about men, and men only talk about women.
- I pagliacci. Only one woman, but men don’t talk about anything else.
So 4% of all operas pass the Bechdel test but not the reverse, i.e. they have women talking to each other about regular stuff, but not men. 65% do not pass the test, but they do pass the reverse, so they are like a lot of movies: men talk about all sorts of things, women either don’t talk, or talk about men. 31% are egalitarian.
Overall, a worse result than movies.