The incident behind Benjamin Britten’s opera “The Rape of Lucretia” occurred, according to Roman lore, in 510 BC. But, in the wake of today’s #MeToo movement Britten’s opera and its story have become more relevant than ever.
Here in Boston March 11 to 17, Sarna Lapine directs Boston Lyric Opera’s staging, and she’s prepared to get her hands dirty.
The story goes that a son of the king of Rome rapes Lucretia — who is married to someone else — for his own entertainment and as an expression of his own power. Lucretia is so ridden with guilt following the rape that she discloses what has happened to a group of witnesses, and then, she commits suicide. This horrifying scene incites the Roman public and later leads to the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of a Republic (though this portion isn’t depicted in the opera).
“On a historical spectrum, ‘The Rape of Lucretia’ is a very old story, and the #MeToo movement is a very young movement,” says Lapine. “I think the #MeToo movement is about giving voice to the consequences of silencing women, oppressing women, and to powerful men abusing women and expecting them to be silent.”
In a way, Lucretia was the original survivor shouting #MeToo into a previously silent crowd. She didn’t just commit suicide; she made sure, first, to tell the world what had happened to her, and because of that, the history of Rome was changed.
Lapine emphasizes the importance of the political implications of Lucretia’s story.
“It’s an interesting political drama about corrupt leadership,” she says. “I think what’s surprising to me is that we currently have a sitting president who’s a known violator of women. I view this opera as a societal tipping point, and I keep wondering what is ours?”
“The Rape of Lucretia” is not an easy play to watch. For all its artistic beauty, it’s raw, and violent, and potentially triggering.
But, Lapine says it’s important that we continue to have the hard conversations, without which we can’t make change.
The set is designed to encourage this kind of audience participation. Held at the Arts for Humanity EpiCenter in South Boston, the opera will be performed in the round with the audience surrounding the action. This implicates the audience as part of the scene.
“Because rape is often such a private, heinous, and secretive thing, I think to bear witness to the impact and the aftermath of it as a community is very important” says Lapine. “It is something that the #MeToo movement is asking all of us to do. There’s tremendous value in sitting with your own discomfort in an experience.”
The collective emotional experience that theater provides in some ways mimics the community bond required to create a safer culture for women. Lapine hopes that the show will prompt audiences to think more about the issues.
She recommends contemporary literature like “Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture,” by Roxanne Gay, for those interested in learning more about rape culture and how to change it.
“I certainly hope the audience comes away with compassion for victims of rape and sexual violence,” she says. “But, I also hope the audience comes away angered by corrupt powerful men who abuse their powers in this way towards women.”