When I think of iconic lesbian songs, many tunes come to mind. I (yes, even I) think of Melissa Etheridge, of the Indigo girls, and of k.d. lang. I think about pretty much every Händel opera ever written, I think of Cherubino’s second aria, I think of the entire Rosenkavalier and I think of “Lulu, mein Engel”.
And I think of “Lakmé”.
The opera by otherwise mostly forgotten French composer Léo Delibes features the widely known duet for two female voices that is generally referred to as the “Flower Duet”. (actual name: Viens, Mallika, les liens en fleurs… / Sous le dôme épais)
Under a dome of white jasmine
With the roses entwined together
On a river bank covered with flowers laughing in the morning
Gently floating on it’s charming risings
On the river’s current
On the shining waves
One hand reaches
Reaches for the bank
Where the spring sleeps and
The birds, the birds sing.
Under a dome of white jasmine
Ah! calling us
Why, of all duets, did this become a lesbian signature tune?
The opera itself is rather straight in setting, being one of the late examples of grand opera exotism that coincided with the romantic fantasies projected onto the colonies. With a libretto by Edmond Gondinet und Philippe Gille, based on a novel by Pierre Loti (Rarahu ou Le Mariage de Loti, 1880), “Lakmé” was first performed April 14th 1883 in Paris. The story – a soldier goes to India, falls in love with the daughter of a fanatic priest and in the end goes home to marry his fiancée while the Indian girl dies – sounds familiar to everyone who’s ever heard “Madama Butterfly” (interestingly enough, Puccini’s Butterfly is based on another novel by the same Pierre Loti, Madame Chrysanthème of 1887).
The duet itself is sung by the tragic heroine, Lakmé, and her attendant/servant Mallika, who have gone to the river to take a bath. This sets the scene for the two of them being observed by a group of colonialist tourists. It could be argued that the two “uncivilized” women are poised as the “other” both for the colonialist gaze and the male gaze, when the soldier (and Lakmé’s future love interest) Gérard stumbles upon the scene and catches sight of Lakmé and Mallika, observing them unseen.
The scene of two women framed by a male gaze mirrors the implied lesbian fantasy that straight porn often draws from. It is, as a topos, already detailed in Ovid’ s Metamorphoses, when the bath of Diana and her nymphs (most notably the lesbian-associated Kallisto) is secretly observed by the hunter Actaeon. — There’s a reason this scene became the most popular Diana subject in painting! (full story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book III; 138-172)
Whether the framing gaze helped the Flower Duet to fame would be idle speculation. The duet’s poetic, slightly suggestive text, however, (flowing waters, plucking flowers, and the “nous appellent ensemble” – “calling us together”) and its cyclic musical structure of repetitive cascades of small thirds without any greater harmonic development (an aural David Hamilton aesthetic of sorts) further substantiate the fantasy image.
Perhaps the late raise to lesbian fame is an accidentally subversive reappropriation to an active female gaze without objectifying reframing. Or did we simply substitute the gaze of the male observer by a female one…?
Its pleasant and easily consumable tones have turned the Flower Duet into a favorite candidate for cover songs and for the use in commercials (British Airways, anyone?). A full translation and a curious list of cover versions and ads can be found at wikipedia (yes, the duet has its own page).
Here are a few versions to get started, both on the duet and its state as a lesbian favorite.
The only two audio versions available when I grew up were the Sutherland recording, and this one (with thanks to YouTube user MOLLYSANDER), featuring Mady Mesplé and Danielle Millett. I still remember it fondly (including the cover photo of Mesplé in a sari of sorts.)
An mezzo-focused version, with the Mallika of Bernadett Wiedmann downright eclipsing the Lakmé of Erika Miklosa, would be this 2006 live concert recording from the Bela Bartok National Concert Hall in Budapest, Hungary (thanks to YouTube user franzhun)
One of the most widely known cover versions (to a point where people mistake it for the original) is Yanni’s “Aria” (with thanks to YouTube user helpinghand123). You can find another arrangement of the same version here, posted by YouTube user mirch 11.
Another popular choice is the mainstream-compatible recording of the original duet by Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and Helen Jenkins. Interestingly enough, it is used in the following sample as soundtrack to a lesbian love scene (characters Niki and Helen from the British prison drama, “Bad Girls”) – (thanks to YouTube user jeansneakers).
A similar case is this clip (posted by YouTube user felidae 27), that illustrates the duet with clips from the lesbian-themed movie “Fire” by Indian director Deepa Mehta.
A direct use (not fan-appropriated) within a lesbian-themed context happened with another pop cover by a singer called Jahna in Showtime’s popular series “The L Word”, Season 3. Supposed to portray an evening at L.A. opera, this scene has characters Bette and Alice not just listening to the music (beware of mildly explicit content). While I think they could have used the original Delibes if they try to show an actual night at the opera, it proves nonetheless that the equation “flower duet=something lesbian” still flourishes. (thanks to YouTube user lovelyspanisheyes)
The all-time classic connection between the Flower Duet and a lesbian context is, however, the seduction sequence from Tony Scott’s 1983 vampire thriller, “The Hunger”. Catherine Deneuve plays the piano for Susan Sarandon – do you delibes to resist? (with thanks to YouTube user jasminengg)
…if you’d like to watch the complete scene – you know what I mean – please confirm whether you are of the required age and have some garlic at hand before you go watch it here (thanks to YouTube user syd708 ).
But even with all the versions at hand, I still stick to my old Mady Mesplé (or the newer recording with Natalie Dessay and Patricia Petibon) with its sari cover, Delibes tunes and the mere hint of possibility. Subtext, after all, is the best of fantasies.