Last week my husband and I went to the opera to see Carmen. We saw the opera at the beautiful Academy of Music in Philadelphia. Before the performance, an opera expert gave the background of the story and the characters.
Carmen was written by Georges Bizet, and premiered in Paris in 1875. Here’s the basic story, as described by Wikipedia:
The story is set in Seville, Spain, around 1820, and concerns the eponymous Carmen, a beautiful gypsy with a fiery temper. Free with her love, she woos the corporal Don José, an inexperienced soldier. Their relationship leads to his rejection of his former love, mutiny against his superior, and joining a gang of smugglers. His jealousy when she turns from him to the bullfighter Escamillo leads him to murder Carmen.
In his presentation, the opera expert explained that Carmen was a complex character, apparently based on one of Bizet’s lovers. She was seductive, headstrong, flirtatious, demanding, temperamental, argumentative, quickly became bored of her lovers and wasn’t terribly concerned about predictions that she would die.
“Gee,” I said to my husband. “She sounds like a sociopath.”
After watching the entire opera, it sure seems to me that this character is, in fact, a sociopath. Here’s the famous aria from the first act, called The Habanera. To set the scene, Carmen flirts with all the men in the village, and they all want to be her lover. She has everyone captivated, everyone except the soldier Don José. He, then, becomes a challenge.
As the story progresses, Carmen gets in trouble and is sentenced to prison. Don José is supposed to guard her, but she seduces him. Don José forsakes his sweet village girlfriend, falls in love with Carmen and lets her escape, ending up in trouble himself. Then he throws his entire military career away and joins Carmen’s band of gypsies. Carmen, however, gets bored of Don José; she falls in love with a bullfighter and flaunts it. Don José tries everything to get Carmen to return, from pleading to threats. Carmen knows the former soldier is on edge, but throwing caution to the wind, she taunts him with her love of the bullfighter. Don José flies into a rage and kills her.
The story was right out of the sociopath playbook: Over the top love bombing, followed by devalue and discard. Don José tries desperately to recapture the original euphoria, but failing, he becomes somewhat sociopathic himself—like some abused partners do—and lashes out.
A few months ago, I saw another classic drama with a sociopathic theme—Shakespeare’s Othello. This is a tragedy of love, deception and death, written in 1603. Othello is a Moorish general in the Venetian army, married to Desdemona. Iago, Othello’s trusted ensign, is angry because the general has promoted a younger lieutenant above him, and he hatches a plot to play people off each other so he can get what he wants. Here’s an explanation from Wikipedia:
Although eponymously titled, suggesting that the tragedy belongs primarily to Othello, Iago plays an important role in the plot he reflects the archetypal villain, and has the biggest share of the dialogue. In Othello, it is Iago who manipulates all other characters at will, controlling their movements and trapping them in an intricate net of lies. He achieves this by getting close to all characters and playing on their weaknesses while they refer to him as “honest” Iago, thus furthering his control over the characters.
The Shakespearean dialog is admittedly a bit difficult for our modern ears to understand, but with good acting we can see what is going on. Iago actually talks directly to the audience and reveals his intentions. You can see it here:
As a result of Iago’s plot, many of the characters in Othello end up dead.
Another opera that I saw (my husband likes opera) was Don Giovanni. This opera was written by Mozart and premiered in 1787. However, it is based on the legend of Don Juan. Yes, that Don Juan—the guy who went around seducing women for the fun of it.
The original legend dates back a play published in Spain around 1630. Here’s how Don Juan is explained in Wikipedia:
Don Juan is a rogue and a libertine who takes great pleasure in seducing women (mainly virgins) and enjoys fighting their men. Later, in a graveyard, Don Juan encounters a statue of Don Gonzalo, the dead father of a girl he has seduced, Doña Ana de Ulloa, and impiously invites the father to dine with him; the statue gladly accepts.
In the first act of Mozart’s version, Don Giovanni first tries to seduce a woman, Donna Anna. Her father shows up and Don Giovanni kills him, then escapes with his servant, Leporello. They come across another woman, Donna Elvira, who is upset because her lover has abandoned her and she wants revenge. And who was the cad? Don Giovanni. He makes a quick exit, and tells Leporello to tell Donna Elvira the truth about his character.
Leporello does, in a famous aria called Madamina, il catalogo e questo. He tells Donna Elvira about all the women Don Giovanni has loved—640 in Italy, 231 in Germany, 100 in France, 91 in Turkey, but in Spain, 1,003. Watch how Donna Elvira reacts to the news—it will seem familiar to many of us who were involved with cheating sociopaths.
Moral of the story
So why am I writing about opera and Shakespeare? To point out that sociopaths have been with us forever. I’m sure the playwrights, librettists and composers who created these characters were drawing from people they knew in real life. Watching these characters, we can all see reflections of what we experienced. The characters may have seemed unbelievable and outlandish to many audiences, but we know that the behaviors are real.
The only problem I saw with these particular stories was that in each one of them, justice was served. Carmen was killed, Iago was arrested and Don Giovanni was turned into stone. In the real world, as we know, that doesn’t always happen.