The Opera Reflections: Honor, Violence, and Cultural Norms in Modern Society

This is the second article in a series that examines mental health themes in opera. Special thanks to the Lyric Opera of Chicago for inviting me to the 2018-2019 season to examine the mental health themes in opera, and to Roger Pines, Lyric’s dramaturg, for his insightful knowledge about all things opera. 

Opera is known for portraying difficult subject matter like suicide, violence, and honor. Lidiya Yankovskaya, the only female music director of a major American opera company and music director of Chicago Opera Theater, believes that opera has the raw emotional power to expose audiences to serious issues while allowing them to grapple with the issues on their own terms. She explains that “all of these difficult subjects are part of humanity … . They have existed throughout our history and never have disappeared. There are worse times and better times for certain things, but they do not disappear. They are part of—for better or worse—what it means to be human and something we … are constantly grappling with and constantly trying to overcome.”

Opera can bring people together through art to help them gain an understanding of different cultural traditions that might otherwise seem difficult to understand. In this edition of Opera Reflections, we will use examples from the stage and from scholars to explore different ways people understand and uphold honor.

“Honor can be viewed in a more personal way, as a sign of respect or an individual’s sense of integrity. Yet, it can also be a moral duty to the greater community or family that denotes a sense of requirement.”

The concept of honor can be both an individual distinction and a reflection of cultural tradition. While one person may consider honor to be outdated and irrelevant in modern life, another may feel the daily pressure to preserve their family’s reputation. Ask a few people for their definition of honor and you will get a myriad of answers. Honor can be viewed in a more personal way, as a sign of respect or an individual’s sense of integrity. Yet, it can also be a moral duty to the greater community or family that denotes a sense of requirement. As we continue to reflect on these universal and powerful themes in opera, honor takes center stage in most operatic themes. Most traditional operas justify death as an acceptable way to restore family honor. Consider Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, one of the most widely recognized operas, where Butterfly chooses death by suicide to preserve honor and provide opportunity for her son. Although the story was written in 1904, the essential elements of tradition, patriarchy, and aggression are still relevant today. The multicultural relevance requires mental health professionals to examine the definitions, roots, and obligations associated with honor so that people receive culturally competent counseling.

Although honor could appear to be a vestige from the 19th century when a man was allowed to kill his wife for disloyalty (Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci), this cultural norm (PDF, 111 KB) still plays a prominent role in some Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and Far Eastern communities. Honor killings and honor violence are instruments of social control decided by and carried out by the family patriarchy when family members, usually women, are disobedient in order to restore their collective honor. In some cases, when women seek out an education, accept a job, or talk with men outside the family, they are susceptible to punishment. The greater the cultural distance and social standing of the person to whom the women have transgressed, the more severe the retribution. The family becomes a type of honor community where male bravery is rewarded alongside female submissiveness. For example, Lyric Opera of Chicago’s dramaturg, Roger Pines, pointed out in Janacek’s Jenufia, the lead character is disfigured by a man who is in love with her but slices her cheek in a jealous rage.

From a multicultural perspective (PDF, 344 KB), it is important to consider relational dynamics when people struggle with interpersonal issues in counseling. Researchers suggest that honor violence is being reported more than ever which leads to a marked increase in prosecutions. Counselors can ask how much agency the person has within the family structure before assuming their independence.

“People who live within honor communities or abide by honor traditions may be socially anxious and more likely to use aggression as a socially acceptable response. Within honor communities, perceived respect can be vital to a person’s self-image.”

Researchers have illuminated the role of choice and shame related to honor violence within patriarchal authority. For example, some women in India are acting on their own behalf as social agents when choosing death by suicide as a result of persistent violence, honor threats, and restrictive customs and, therefore, should not be considered victims. Thinking back to Madama Butterfly, some believe Butterfly chose death by suicide as her only culturally appropriate option because women have limited personal freedoms within honor communities. Their ways of being in the world are dictated by the men in their family and by their culture’s social customs. Researchers pointed out that these women are so emotionally restricted that they exhibit competitive suffering (PDF 111 KB) in times of sorrow. Perhaps their only way to release some of the heavy emotional burden they carry daily is to express their suffering in these times of crisis when the feelings are endorsed by their family and their community. Examples of this cited in an Indiana University Press publication include women wailing loudly at a funeral or in response to a traumatic event, an act that is both culturally appropriate and emotionally cathartic. The author of the piece, Celeste (2018), suggested that wailing provides a “liberatory and activist act” for African American women that conveys their grief, anger and disappointment. Consider how this powerful emotional expression might appear in session with people who struggle with injustice.

People who live within honor communities or abide by honor traditions may be socially anxious and more likely to use aggression as a socially acceptable response. Within honor communities, perceived respect can be vital to a person’s self-image.

Strong responses to perceived insults are also possibilities for those with higher concerns with honor. Researchers found that honor cultures also reflect gendered responses to threats. Typically, men reacted aggressively to perceived threats within the context of broader cultural norms, whereas women reacted to threats based on their individual anxiety.

Although honor appears to be a strong factor in certain communities, some researchers suggest honor may be a more universal way to define social interactions and gender roles, and recognize our place within the larger society. When counselors understand the roots of social anxiety and the possible ties to beliefs about honor, they can provide more culturally appropriate interventions.

Since honor is a subjective concept and is driven by cultural traditions, it is valuable to examine the multicultural differences regarding honor from a geographic perspective. The importance of honor in daily life can be conceptualized along a spectrum from low to high honor. Researchers suggest there are more low honor cultures in Western Europe and the Northern United States, and more high honor cultures in areas like the Southern United States, Middle East, Mediterranean, and North Africa. While geographic considerations have been considered in research studies, it is important to recognize that multicultural honor communities are not restricted by their location. Furthermore, researchers found that honor was linked to high self-esteem when an individual focused on being a person with integrity, but honor was linked to low self-esteem when an individual was protecting their family’s honor or image. The more the person focused on their family’s honor, the less personal control they experienced. Similarly, community honor was found to be more important in collectivist communities and less important in communities that regard the individual. With strong group conformity, individual values such as personal enjoyment are abandoned in favor of benevolence.

“Shame humiliates whereas honor empowers. In this case, honor can be viewed as a moral imperative for some cultures.”

Beyond targeting aggression toward retaining gender inequalities in their own group, honor cultures are quick to retaliate to real or perceived threats to their community. The balance of real or perceived power is an important element to consider in communities where honor and manhood are foundational constructs. Studies have shown that people feel shame when they don’t act in alignment with their honor and that creates embarrassment. Shame humiliates whereas honor empowers. In this case, honor can be viewed as a moral imperative for some cultures. Mental health professionals must understand people’s worldview, the impact on the counseling relationship, and their own biased assumptions or misperceptions to provide the type of clinical support people need.

The concept of honor requires personal and cultural exploration. The way a person defines honor will be influenced by and in turn influence their sense of morality, culture, and relationships. More broadly, the way people embody honor relates to their interactions with the greater community. In addition to the struggle of gender inequality within honor cultures, patriarchal authoritarianism persecutes people in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual + (LGBTQIA+) community. Honor killings have been reported because of the group’s judgments on homosexuality. Although the honor violence described thus far has focused on severe sanctions for individual behaviors, we consider that there is a spectrum of this violence across the globe in many forms and degrees. Perhaps that is why honor persists as a popular theme, not only in opera, but in media overall. As a result of this exploration, reflections on the influence of cultural convictions and implications of the power imbalance in low honor and high honor communities can provide deeper personal meaning for us all.

Citation for this content: Northwestern University’s online Master of Arts in Counseling program.