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It's a long, long while from May to December

Warning: opera nerdery and more gender bias chat ahead.

In college, I took a really interesting course in Women's History, and one of the things the professor pointed out was how women in literature ---she included many examples of opera --- are frequently punished for stepping outside traditional roles, especially if they are sexual and/or powerful. Even if the character is likable and essentially good (Violetta in La traviata --- the quintessential hooker with a heart of gold), even if she is admired and loved by the men in her life, in the end she is punished for her transgressions with death or disgrace.

Earlier this month, I  did a show in which a May-December romance was a central element of the plot. It's a fairly popular theme in theater, but it got me to thinking, and then to compiling lists of operas and musicals (most of which are based on plays or novels). I had a suspicion I wanted to follow up on, which is this: the story only ends happily when the man is the December part of the equation, and the woman is the May.

 In these theatrical romances, when the man is older, the story is inevitably lighter, usually a comedy, and he is charming, often described as good-looking and hearty. The age difference is either not really an issue, or is rendered unimportant by his charm and good-heartedness.

In contrast, when the woman is the older party, the romance invariably is highly troubled, unreciprocated by the man, or ends unhappily; the woman is frequently delusional or downright crazy; sometimes she is a rather despicable person; she is always in some way portrayed as pathetic.

Here's my criteria for inclusion in this highly UNscientific survey.

  • The CENTRAL plot  or CENTRAL characters of the story as defined by the script must be involved in a May-December romance.
  • The work must be an opera or musical theater piece.
  • I define May-December romance as one in which one partner is significantly older than the other --- 15-20 years minimum.

Here's what I came up with --- with the help of some friends.

May-December romances in which the man is older:

L'amico Fritz (Pietro Mascagni, 1891; based on the French play L'ami Fritz by Émile Erckmann and Pierre-Alexandre Chatrian). Fritz, a wealthy landowner and confirmed bachelor, is charmed by Suzel, the daughter of one of his tenants. Although he initially resists the idea, eventually he realizes he loves her and wants to marry her. Although the age difference is implied rather than implicitly stated, it's clear from context (and also the source material) that Fritz is considerably older.

The Most Happy Fella (Frank Loesser, 1956, based on Sydney Howard's play They Knew What They Wanted). Tony, an aging Italian immigrant and rancher, carries on a mail-order romance with Rosabella, a young San Francisco waitress. He tricks her into thinking he's younger to get her to come to his ranch and marry him. They marry despite the deceit, and eventually genuinely fall in love.

Cold Sassy Tree (Carlisle Floyd, 2000; based on the novel by Olive Ann Burns.) Rucker Lattimore, a prominent citizen and grandfather, has just been widowed; he is determined to remarry as a "business arrangement" to have a woman to take care of him. He proposes to, and is accepted by, Love Simpson, a woman in her thirties who is described as "young enough to be his daughter", and this marriage causes great scandal in the town due to the age difference and the short amount of time between Rucker's wife's death and his remarriage. Over time, Rucker and Love come to truly love each other, and she is eventually accepted in the small town where they live.

South Pacific (Rodgers and Hammerstein, 1949, based on James Michener's collection of short stories, Tales of the South Pacific). Emile DeBecque, a French planter and widower, falls in love with the young nurse Nellie Forbush. Their romance is threatened when she discovers that his late wife was Polynesian, but she eventually overcomes her racism and marries him. The age difference between the two is a plot point which is brought up humorously, but ultimately is not a major obstacle to their relationship.

The Ballad of Baby Doe (Douglas Moore and John LaTouche, 1956; based on a true story).
Silver magnate Horace Tabor leaves Augusta, his wife of many years, to marry the much younger divorcee Elizabeth "Baby" Doe. They were happily married for 16 years, even after Horace lost his fortune, and after Horace's death in 1899, Baby lived for 30 years in the tool shed adjacent to the mine which had made his fortune believing that she communicated with him daily and that he waited for her in the afterlife.

A Little Night Music (Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, 1973. Inspired by the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night).
Frederik, a middle-aged lawyer, has an 18-year-old wife, Anne, who refuses to have sex with him. His 19-year-old son, Henrik, is in love with Anne. Meanwhile, Desiree, a middle-aged actress, and formerly Frederik's lover who has a daughter by him, shows up. The plot is complicated, but eventually Desiree and Frederik are happily reunited, and Anne loses her virginity at last to Henrik.

The Baker's Wife (Stephen Schwartz and Joseph Stein, 1989. Based on the French film La Femme du Boulanger by Marcel Pagnol and Jean Giono).
 Genvieive, the beautiful young wife of the middle-aged baker Amiable who is a kind and gentle as his name, is often mistaken for being his daughter; but they seem happy enough together. Then Dominique, a  "beautiful young man", manages to seduce her, and they run away together. Eventually, however, she is persuaded to return to the faithful Amiable, who forgives her, and the implication as the show ends is that they will resume their happy, quiet life together.

Lolita (Rodion Shchedrin, 1992, based on Vladimir Nabokov's 1955 novel of the same name).  This is not really a story about May-December romance or indeed, a  romance at all; it's about pedophilia and exploitation, but I include it since it's the only example I could come up with in which the older male is a predator and his obsession ends badly for all concerned. 37-year-old Humbert Humbert, becomes obsessed and sexually involved with the 12-year-old Lolita. He marries her mother to be closer to her, and eventually succeeds in "seducing" her. Years later, he murders her husband, who has exploited her in pornographic films. Humbert dies in the electric chair, and Lolita dies giving birth.

May-December romances in which the woman is older

Vanessa (Samuel Barber and Gian-Carlo Menotti, 1956-7; original story loosely inspired by Isak Dineson's Seven Gothic Tales).
Vanessa, a beauty in her late thirties, falls in love with the much younger son of her former lover, who deserted her many years prior. She rather willfully ignores the fact that Anatol is in love with and in fact impregnated her niece Erika. Anatol is a gold-digger and marries Vanessa when Erika will not accept him out of pride. Although the audience never sees the results of their relationship, in the final ensemble, the text implies unhappiness for them both. "Anatol, Anatol ... how hard it will be, the backward road of regret ... Poor Vanessa, only to die empty-handed."

La mere coupable (Milhaud, 1966, based on the play of the same name, the final of Beaumarchais' famous Figaro triology).
The Countess Almaviva, unhappily married to her unfaithful and jealous husband, once succumbed to the attentions of their young page, Cherubino. Thereafter she rejected him and he died on in battle, but not before writing her a letter recalling their many amorous exploits; and shortly thereafter she bears him a son, who is raised as the Count's. The Countess's deception is eventually discovered, and although all ends well for her illegitimate son, one can surmise that she is no happier in her marriage than ever, and her lover is dead. It's never specifically stated how much older the Countess is than Cherubino; he's a young teenager in the second play and she has probably been married to the Count for a few years, so a good guess would be that she's about 10 years older. Not such a big age difference.

Emmeline (Tobias Picker, 1996; based on Judith Rossner's novel of the same name).
Emmeline, a 19th century millworker, becomes pregnant by her supervisor; she is subsequently fired, and the baby, when born, is taken away from her. Twenty years later, Matthew, a handsome young man, boards in the house run by Emmeline's aunt. They fall in love, get married, and begin to build a home together, but the aunt returns from a trip and recognizes Matthew as the child she took from Emmeline so many years before. Matthew is disgusted and runs away; a broken-hearted Emmeline lives alone in their unfinished house.

Der Rosenkavalier (Richard Strauss, 1911. Original German libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Harry von Kessler, loosely adapted from Louvet de Couvrai's novel Les amours du chevalier de Faublas and Molière’s comedy Monsieur de Pourceaugnac).
In the absence of her husband, the Marschallin, an elegant and beautiful noblewoman, has been carrying on an affair with her much younger lover, the Count Octavian. Their affection for one another is true, but when Octavian falls in love with Sophie, a girl his own age, the Marschallin gracefully withdraws, engaging in bittersweet reflections on her fading beauty, advancing age, and the inconstancy of men.

Gloriana (Benjamin Britten and William Plomer, 1953. Based on Lytton Strachey's Elizabeth and Essex: A Tragic History).
The opera chronicles events of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the "Virgin Queen", including her well-known affections for the much younger and married Earl of Essex. Despite her unrequited love for him, she eventually condemns him to death because of his treasonous political machinations.

Passions (Stephen Sondheim and James LaPine, 1994, based on Ettore Scuola's film Passione d'Amore).
A young soldier, Giorgio, is drawn into a troubled relationship with a much older woman, Fosca, who suffers from a nervous condition. After resisting her love for sometime, to the point of rejecting her, he finally realizes that he does love her. They consummate their relationship; but Giorgio himself falls ill to a nervous disorder and when he recovers, he finds that she has died.

Sunset Blvd. (Andrew Lloyd Webber,Don Black and Christopher Hampton, 1993. Based on Billy Wilder's 1950 film of the same title).
An unsuccessful young screenwriter, Joe Gillis, accidentally crosses paths with faded silent film star Norma Desmond, who lives shrouded in her past glories and the delusion that she is going to make a comeback as Cleopatra in a film she hires Joe to co-author with her. Joe, something of a gold digger, reluctantly becomes her kept man, but she murders him when he threatens to leave her.

Harold and Maude (Tom Jones and Joe Thalken, 1980, based on the Hal Ashby film of the same name).
Harold is a disturbed young man, obsessed with death. He is befriended by Maude, a feisty 79-year-old who attempts to teach him to take pleasure in life; they fall in love, and he eventually declares he wants to marry her. But at midnight on her 80th birthday, Maude commits suicide. In despair, Hal follows her into death.

May-December romances are a regular source of hilarity in Gilbert & Sullivan operettas; but almost always, the woman is the older party and the object of fun.

The Pirates of Penzance: 47-year-old former nurse turned "piratical maid-of-all-work" Ruth is engaged to be married to her 18-year-old former charge, Frederick; who has been apprenticed to a pirate since boyhood and has not seen a woman other than her in all that time. As soon as he sees girls his own age, he accuses her of trickery and abandons her. Sometimes, directors pair Ruth up with the dashing Pirate King at the end of the opera, but this is a bit of a stretch, as he has previously referred to her as the "remains of a fine woman".

The Mikado: the elderly and famously ugly Katisha believes herself engaged to the young prince Nanki-Poo , who has fled the court in order to avoid marrying her. In the meantime, the recently graduated Yum-Yum is engaged to marry her guardian, the much older Ko-Ko. Through various machinations, Katisha ends up married to Ko-Ko (an arrangement with which both are less than pleased), and Yum-Yum marries her beloved Nanki.

In HMS Pinafore, there is one May-December romance which ends happily for the much older lady: Captain Corcoran marries the peddler Buttercup, who in her youth had nursed him and his seaman, the hero Ralph Rackstraw. Ralph ends up marrying Corcoran's daughter, Josephine. Two happy May-December romances for the price of one! Also, Buttercup is a charming and beloved figure, and is not ridiculed. (She does, however, harbor a dark secret). Confusingly, Ralph is usually portrayed as being much younger than the Captain, though if one honors the storyline, this would be impossible.

Even with its idealized, exaggerated versions of reality, theater manages to reflect and/or reinforce society's deepheld prejudices. How might audiences react to a happy love story about an older woman and a much younger man? What if the gender roles in a story like Most Happy Fella were reversed, and an older, financially secure woman who was well-liked but not considered good looking or smart, tricked a younger, financially insecure man into giving up his job and traveling to her ranch to marry her by sending him a photo of a younger, prettier employee? Would she be considered a charming, good soul who simply made a mistake, or a manipulative, pathetic creature? Would the young man feel so sorry for her, upon arriving and finding her severely injured, that he would go ahead with the marriage? Would he be considered compassionate, or a gold-digger? Would we cheer when the couple survived their hardships and realized they were truly in love?

My guess is that, even if there were more stories with older leading ladies, they would have to be really hot --- Demi Moore hot ---  in order for the storyline to fly, and even then, some people would view them with a distaste they would not have for the older man/younger woman scenario. We regard such stories, both in real and theatrical life, with amused tolerance at worst --- Old So-n-So's got himself a trophy wife --- and admiration at best. Older women with an interest in men are referred to unflatteringly as cougars. There is no equivalent name for old dudes who are into young girls (but I, personally, call them walruses).

So here's a challenge to any who care to take it up: find more examples from the lyric theater that fit my criteria (May-December romance, meaning at least 15 years' difference in the characters' ages; central to the plot as defined by the script). I'd be interested to see what we can collectively come up with.

And my challenge to librettists and composers? Come up with a positive, happy love story for an older woman and a much younger man ...  and if you make the leading lady a sexy mezzo from Texas (hourglass figure with lots of extra sand) ... well, so much the better. ;)