This Thursday, I got to sit in on a dress rehearsal of Werther. I was asked to join at the last minute, but it doesn’t take much to talk me into the opera anymore. The Minnesota Opera has been wonderful to my comic collective, treating us to a full season of dress rehearsals this year and giving us an inside look at the history and making of their shows. I can’t say enough good things about the Minnesota Opera. They do excellent work and are passionate about performing. I’m not much one for stage performances, usually, but they’ve–guys, I think they’ve gotten me hooked on opera.
I willingly skipped a night of fanart and new TV to go to Werther. I KNOW. I told you. Hooked.
Opera is a fascinating art form. You can sit in the theater feeling the actors’ voices surrounding you and know that, in most cases, this same song has been heard in just this way by generations of audiences. Technical aspects of the show may have been modernized since the tradition began, but the success of it still relies on the power of the human voice, carefully trained and unaided by microphones.
Werther was first performed in 1892. It’s a tragedy about a young poet, Werther, who falls in love with an engaged woman, Charlotte. When Charlotte marries her betrothed, Werther pines, convinced that she’d be happier with him. He sends her letters trying to convince her of this, then making implicit threats of suicide when his affections are not returned. Charlotte is tormented by his advances and his threats. The opera ends with Werther’s suicide, his head cradled in his beloved’s hands as his final song finishes.
I suppose it was meant to be romantic in its day, but to me, it came off as a cautionary tale about the ways we’re taught to think about love.
Love is an all-consuming goal for Werther. He’s a poet, and he treats the idea of love like a grand ideal rather than a type of affection to be shared between two people. He announces his love for Charlotte at the end of the first night he knows her. Granted, they do have an awesome amount of chemistry, but chemistry and a night dancing do not a true love make. Charlotte points out that he hardly knows her, and he dismisses her concern, too in love with the idea of love.
Charlotte seems to have a better grasp on reality than Werther, but his insistence on LOVE, LOVE, LOVE above all else – above her engagement and then marriage, above her own personal protests – outweighs her reasonableness. She asks if there’s not some other woman worthy of his affections, someone not married, and he dismisses her yet again. He won’t consider anyone else because she is the object of his love – and he treats her just like that, as an object. He doesn’t listen to her, he doesn’t consider her emotions except when her mutual crush supports his hypothesis that she’d be happier with him.
Werther haunts her life long after any well-adjusted person would have backed off. He stands at the railing singing about his woe, a hell he’s created for himself by refusing to listen to reason.
“I will not be so harsh as to say ‘never,’” Charlotte sings at one point. But anything short of “never” gives him the sliver of false hope he needs to fan the flames of his love.
There’s a chilling moment in the final act where Charlotte has been re-reading Werther’s letters to her. He writes about how lonely he is, how hollowed out by anguish at not having her as his, and how, if he doesn’t show up for Christmas, to see that he’s buried someplace nice. Charlotte is wrecked by these letters, collapsed sobbing into a chair, when Werther steps out of the shadows in the entryway behind her. During his time in her home this evening, he will plead with her, force her to kiss him, claw at her clothing and limbs when she tries to get away, and ignore every “No” until she runs away from him.
Because that’s what Werther is: a villain. But the scary thing about this story is, he’s a villain we all know. Walking out of the theater, I talked with my comic collective friends about how we’ve all known, dated, or briefly been a Werther. He’s that guy in your math class in eleventh grade who declares the world is against him because he can’t get a date. He’s the ex who insists you’re meant to be together and will hurt you or himself if that’s what it takes to prove it to you. He’s that part of your brain that says, “It’s okay if she doesn’t like you back. If you just keep showing her how much you like her, she’ll come around.” Werther is so driven by the idea of love that he’s blocked out the fact that it needs to be a two-way street.
The cultural messages that shaped Werther’s story are still being taught today. We still say through pop culture, “If you love someone enough, they will love you back.” We still talk and write and sing about romantic love like it’s as intrinsic to life as oxygen. We still undervalue consent. And we still teach boys to put girls on pedestals and teach girls that it’s not okay to give a definitive “no” because that’s too harsh.
The real tragedy of Werther is that it’s not an unusual story. Maybe that’s why it’s survived for 120 years.
(And hey, that got depressing. How about a cute drawing of Charlotte’s adorable little sister Sophie, who spent the whole play encouraging other people to be happy?
Isn’t her hat adorable? Yeah, that’s better.)