Poor Manon Lescaut: She just can’t get a break in Puccini’s opera of the same name. Fine, so she does not-so-clever things like waffling about getting her jewels when she should be rushing out to escape, but does it really warrant deportation to Louisiana with a bunch of harlots for company? And what about that endless walk in some kind of desert? Or the fact that Manon (SPOILER ALERT!) dies at the end. Ah, opera, so kind and yet so cruel to your women… And so inspirational?
This week’s broadcast embodies my idea of a perfect weekend: You can both see Manon Lescaut and hear about the exciting exhibition “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution” (which you can visit until May 12 if you happen to live in New York City). Manon Lescaut and “WACK!” balance each other perfectly, the peanut-butter-and-jelly combo of cultural snacks.Indeed, they go well together because despite its bummer appearances (its heroines often encounter a tragic fate—just ask poor Lucia, Cio-Cio-San, Isolde, Carmen, Violetta, Mimi…), opera more often than not places women at the center of the action, elevating them through the power of music to the status of towering beings radiating potency. The dames may die, but they do it in the most aesthetically pleasing manner possible—which is just dandy since we are talking about art and not real life, a crucial distinction the more socially conservative among us need to be reminded of sometimes.
“WACK!” is just as thrilling in a completely different way. There, women are center stage again, but this time they are the authors—and with an often ferocious agenda at that, like the ancestors of the riot grrrl who rocked the 1990s. Gathering about 120 contributors as diverse as Carolee Schneemann, Martha Rosler, Louise Bourgeois, Adrian Piper, Nancy Spero, Ulrike Ottinger and Judy Chicago, the show covers 40 years of art that could be political, contrarian, messy, inspired. Even when it’s, frankly, not all that good, it displays unabashed passion that makes it endearing. We’re a far cry from Puccini’s heroine, beautifully emoting her love before expiring; the “WACK!” women scream and shout, experiment, trample preconceived notions about gender, and generally misbehave the way women aren’t meant to.
In one medium, women’s emotions are delivered with overwhelming stylized beauty, while in the other they often deliberately come across as ugly and screechy (visually screechy—yes, it’s possible), reality hitting you full-on like a hammer. The great thing is that both approaches are not mutually exclusive but mutually enriching, and both are a far cry from, say, the chick-lit we’re told women dig. It’s just nice to know there are options.