When most people think of opera, the plot goes a little something like this: boy meets girl, girl meets boy, both characters fall in love with one another in less than five minutes, and they either end up together forever— happily ever after— or dead. Seems pretty simple, right? Wrong.
Move over, Mozart. The romance stories of Classical operas were a little too stale for composers like Puccini and Bizet. Allow me to introduce to you the operatic friendzone.
It’s exactly what it sounds like. Instead of the story I told you above, the plot is a little more complicated: girl meets boy and falls in love with him. Boy pays her no attention and pursues another woman, usually the principle female character of the opera. Girl does something dramatic to try and win his love, and either fails, or vanishes completely from the opera. Not only does this added layer make the opera more interesting, but it also allows viewers to connect to the drama a little bit more.
It’s hard for viewers to relate to a character like Carmen, the provocative gypsy who tugs on the heartstrings of every man she meets. Or Turandot, the princess who slays her suitors in order to avoid marriage. These are the leading ladies that win the tenor’s heart, either resulting in a happy marriage or a miserable demise. But these are stories that I know, personally, I could never connect to.
But I can somewhat connect to the story of Michaela, the other soprano of Carmen hopelessly in love with Don Jose. She’s the good girl—Carmen’s polar opposite– and does all she can to bring Jose back to the light when he joins a band of smugglers to impress Carmen. In Act III of Carmen, Michaela journeys alone into dangerous territories solely to deliver a message to Jose about his ailing mother and to beg for him to return to both his home and to her. In her famous aria, “Je dis, que rien ne m’épouvante,” (“I say that nothing can frighten me,”) she calls to God for strength and courage, anxious about seeing Don Jose again and lamenting she is not as beautiful as Carmen herself. Just like that, after her brief appearance, she vanishes, unable to stop Don Jose from going mad and returning to Carmen in the next act.
Even the story of Liu from Turandot is easier to connect to than that of the ice queen herself. A peasant girl taking care of Calaf’s father, Liu admits the only reason she is so kind and generous is because she saw the prince’s face in the palace many years ago, and has been lovelorn ever since. Despite her strong, pure love for Calaf, she helps him win Turandot in the end— even if it means putting her own life in peril (no spoilers here, you’ll have to see the opera to know what happens).
When watching both Carmen and Turandot, I felt no pangs for either leading lady. But I was moved by the genuine emotions of Michaela and Liu, touched by their wistful natures, the heartbreak in their faces as they watched the men they loved declare their love for another, becoming victims of the operatic friendzone.
These are the stories that while, yes, can be just as dramatic as the other relationships within the opera, are easier for just about anyone to understand and relate to. At some point or another, we have all suffered from unrequited love: that middle school crush, the girl in your lecture class that doesn’t seem to notice you, or the boy who makes you wonder what could have been. The addition of these characters (and yes, there are men in Romantic operas that suffer from the operatic friendzone too) exposes flaws in the human condition and human connections that applied in 1815 as much as they do today. To Eponine of Les Mis: you’ve got some competition when it comes to heartbreak.