- Survivors' Songs in OperaWhat the Vulnerable Voice Can Do
Stories matter, and it matters how they are told.
When Dr. Christine Blasey Ford described her sexual assault before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in September 2018, the trauma she had experienced was communicated by the vulnerability in her voice and expression as much as by her words themselves. I was among the millions of people, especially women, who felt compelled to watch the proceedings, in my case livestreamed to my office computer. Feminists, survivors, and activists watched her testify and admired her strength, but they also braced for the backlash that Professor Anita Hill's courageous testimony nearly three decades earlier, in 1991, had taught two generations of us to expect. If we were prepared for the backlash, "what we weren't prepared for," in the words of journalist Joanna Weiss, writing in Politico, "was the quaking. The quivering voice, the shy affect, the facial expression of abject terror."1
While stories of sexual harassment and assault are all too familiar, their telling matters in ways that go well beyond the immediate purposes of Hill's and Ford's congressional testimonies.2 When survivors tell their stories publicly, the act of testifying changes a community's sense of what can be said in a range of settings. More troublingly, their manner of narrating their experience, including their vocal manner, influences what survivors can effectively communicate about their [End Page 33] violation and how credible they seem to listeners.3 In Ford's case, her manifest vulnerability—the "quivering voice" and "shy affect"—underscored the sincerity and plausibility of her testimony, even for observers not inclined to believe her.4
Scrutinizing survivors' embodiment and affect to determine their credibility is deeply problematic, as is underscored by the long history of victimblaming in rape cases and the variation in survivors' responses to their assault.5 Yet the prevalence of such scrutiny points to the importance of bodily, affective communication. Like it or not, survivors' voices often come in for scrutiny, especially vocal sound associated with vulnerable states. Indeed, those who show vulnerability in recounting their assault fit expectations of rape victims, reflecting and reinscribing widespread cultural narratives that define rape as irreparably traumatic.6 Vocal sounds signaling distress often strike observers as a particular "tell," because modern listeners tend to presume that trauma embeds itself in the body and that the body can override a person's conscious control under stress, disrupting their ordinary vocal production.7
On the other hand, listening to survivors' stories and bearing witness to their experiences—including their strength, anger, and lingering precarities—are reparative practices familiar to many women, femmes, and queer people, as well as to members of First Nations and communities of color that are structurally more exposed to sexual violence.8 For me, listening to Ford narrate her rape and its aftermath on television recalled other transformative experiences listening to survivors I have known personally and, in a different modality, listening to survivors' stories in music, including in popular music and especially in the opera repertories I know and love.9 In fact, some of the most powerful survivors' stories I know are [End Page 34] told in operas that, when performed and produced well, can make these stories felt, can make them matter here and now.10 While it may not seem intuitive to compare actual survivors' testimonies with their performed operatic counterparts, opera offers a chance to think about how vulnerable embodiment and affect matter in narrating survivors' experiences.
In this essay, I consider the intersubjective exchange that occurs in performing and listening to narratives of sexual menace and violation performed in opera, focusing on several contemporary operas created by female BIPOC artists. Sexual violence and the emotional responses it elicits have been a pervasive trope in Western opera across its four-hundred-year history, as feminist musicologists have shown.11 Naturally, artists' treatment of this trope has varied historically, depending on the social mores of the time and the expressive resources available to them. Even so, most operas devote some stage time to states of distress associated with sexual violation, such as shock, fear, pain...