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Humanist Essay for May 2011
"Virtue and Honor"
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[Reprinted from the HSNM May 2011 Newsletter]

An afternoon or evening in the company of a creative work can be more nourishing than a seven course meal, more refreshing than a good night's sleep. This was certainly true in the case of La Traviata, recently performed at the Kimo - a true masterwork beautifully produced by Albuquerque's own Opera Southwest. The leading roles were played by visiting professionals, and guest conductor Francesco Milioto did a masterful job of meshing them with an orchestra and chorus of local musicians. The show provided both balm for the soul and food for thought. Opera can certainly be an acquired taste, and it helps to know the libretto, but the lyricism of Verdi transcends its time, place and language. You could close your eyes and love this opera without knowing anything about it.

Some of us have trouble getting past the pathetic plots which characterize opera in general. This particular tragedy, like all opera tragedies, hinges on the virtue - or lack thereof - of its women characters. Violetta, a courtesan (such a word!) falls in love with Alfredo, a young man of esteemed lineage, but is persuaded to end the relationship by his father (Germont) for the sake of his sister, a chaste young thing betrothed to a nobleman. If the family name is besmirched by the son's liaison, it will ruin the daughter's chance for this marriage. Leading one to ask: What kind of jerk is the father, or for that matter the fiance? God is invoked frequently, with apparent sincerity, by one and all. But the words are sometimes dripping with irony, such as Violetta's adamant, "God forgives but man does not."

Later, Violetta sings, "Religion is a great comfort to those who suffer." At the performance I attended, a good half of the audience tittered at this line. I wondered if our modern sensibilities caused us to read into this a modern disconnect between genuine grace and mere palliative, until I studied the program notes and learned that the opera is based on a novel by that clever cynic, Dumas. Indeed, it is the father who must suffer remorse and atone, not the so-called fallen woman, whose dignity and virtue were apparent at every turn. Germont sends Alfredo back to Violetta, and himself offers her fatherly love and blessings whilst she dies of tuberculosis. Well, she has to die. Dumas was no dummy. Mores of the time, not to mention theatrical convention, demanded nothing less.

Much as I enjoyed the music, staging and performances of La Traviata, I came away thinking that for all the lip service paid to protecting women's virtue and honor, there is little honor actually paid to women - no more now than ever - and hardly anything like fatherly love in the general sense. Women as a class continue to be treated callously and disrespectfully in much of the world including here at home. That said, let's not forget that Violetta is the one consistently admirable character in the story. She was played by diva Shana Blake Hill, who stole the show with her vibrant and virtuosic performance - a real-life super-hero of song and role model for free and accomplished womanhood.

We are highlighting women's issues for our May Speaker Meeting, and in the months to come we will consider other undervalued segments of society, because a humanistic worldview respects and supports all of the players on life's stage.

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Copyright © 2011 Zelda Gatuskin

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