Mozart’s character Dorabella has temper tantrums and fits of lovesick swooning, but Joanna Lynn-Jacobs wants to dignify her sorrow.
Alumna and mezzo-soprano Lynn-Jacobs will perform in “HIDDEN TREASURES: The Innas, Ettas, Annas & Donnas of Mozart’s Operas,” a concert by Performances à la Carte, a Southern California-based arts organization, at the Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena on Sunday afternoon. The concert seeks to frame Mozart’s female characters in an egalitarian manner, in contrast with women’s historically restricted roles in opera, said Carla Jamie Perez, the artistic director of Performances à la Carte.
“We want to … pay homage to the people of those times, the women in those times who had to struggle through those kinds of portrayals and those roles they were forced into,” Lynn-Jacobs said.
Lynn-Jacobs said she believes historical representations of the women in Mozart’s operas are controversial because the portrayals were written mainly by men. Historically, women had three main pathways to power in opera storylines: dying, going insane or manipulating men through their sexuality, Lynn-Jacobs said.
For example, Lynn-Jacobs said the German operetta, “One Touch of Venus,” featured a female character who goes from stating her emotions freely to feeling societal pressure to “properly” express herself, through demure and ladylike actions such as getting her hair done, which Lynn-Jacobs said she thinks is a disenfranchising representation of women.
“We just want to point out that these characters made up by men are a perfect example of the (inequality) that was so rampant in those times,” she said. “It kind of gives us examples of where that came from and why we have those problems today.”
In preparation for most opera roles, Lynn-Jacobs said she sometimes has trouble fully getting into character because the plotlines and characterizations feel ridiculous and one-dimensional. For instance, the role of Despina, a young maid in Mozart’s “Così fan tutte,” is often costumed with frills accompanied by a talky patter song, which has faster, shorter notes that alternate in pitch, contributing to the stereotype of a cute-but-sassy girl. But in her upcoming performance, Lynn-Jacobs said she can perform similar roles without worrying about the harmful stereotypes that operas can propagate about women.
“We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, we don’t want to say, ‘Don’t listen to classical music, it’s sexist,’ … but we do want to recognize the fact that it’s not OK,” she said.
Perez, who will also be singing in the performance, said the program will feature an ethnically diverse group of actresses from different professions, such as engineering, in singing and acting roles to highlight the freedom women have to pursue different aspirations.
“There’s still a long distance to go, from being free (to) being independent, and really being able to live out your dreams without being stopped by the perception of who you are, of the fact that you’re a woman,” she said.
Perez said the landscape of opera is changing: Women of different sizes and ethnicities are being included, and more women are directing and composing operas than before. In her youth, Perez said opportunities for women to be involved in opera production – beyond just singing – were scarce.
Perez said modern audience members would likely be troubled by many of Mozart’s characters. In one of the featured operas, “Don Giovanni,” the play opens with the sexual assault of the character Donna Anna by the titular character.
“He’s a Harvey Weinstein of the 18th century and used his power to take advantage (of women),” she said.
In her experience navigating the opera industry, Julia Metzler, another UCLA alumna performing in the show, said many directors have trouble translating operas into the 21st century because the message they deliver about women can be harmful. For example, the opera “Così fan tutte,” often translated to “women are like that,” tells the story of two men who try to trick their lovers, who are sisters, into being unfaithful.
The opera makes a broad generalization that women are unfaithful through its title. However, Metzler said she thinks “Così fan tutte” and its characters still retain a level of complexity that makes the opera resonate with even modern viewers. Despite one of the sisters, Dorabella, swearing that she would never be unfaithful, she eventually betrays her own expectations.
Lynn-Jacobs said her role as a singing actress is to have the characters make emotional sense. By portraying them as believable, Lynn-Jacobs hopes the audience will become sympathetic toward their situation in the story.
“You still find humanities in the characters, you still find the strengths, you still find the parts that you’re empathetic to, no matter who they are, how bad they are, how ridiculous they are,” Lynn-Jacobs said. “You go about trying to find the humanity in the character.”