Processing Don Giovanni

The programme booklet for Opera Theatre Company's Don Giovanni

The programme booklet for Opera Theatre Company’s Don Giovanni

 

 

Mozart’s Don Giovanni seems to be everywhere this season: I know of three productions that happened around the same time (in Ireland: Opera Theatre Company; in England: the ENO; and in New York at the Metropolitan Opera). Most likely, it’s everywhere every year, since it’s a mainstay of opera repertoire. Perhaps all that is different is that I saw it this year when Opera Theatre Company brought their new production (with libretto by Roddy Doyle) to Cork Opera House.

The opera is about, as the ENO puts it, alpha male identity. (They even offered an all-male workshop to explore alpha masculinity: Being a Don.) Don Giovanni commits sexual assault, rape, and murder, and uses his status and charming manner to get away with it for most of the opera. As Bonnie Gordon puts it, the ‘parallels between the two Dons [the titular character and a certain presidential candidate] are too obvious to state.’ A statue drags the operatic Don to hell at the end; the other one appears is getting away with it. (In fact, it might be one of the elements of his campaign that made him successful.)

I’m still processing the version I saw in Cork—particularly the disturbing audience reactions that might have been encouraged by the librettist’s word choices. Other elements of that production seem to be part of a phenomenon that Micaela Baranello noted: a proliferation of ‘depictions of sexual violence against women’. Baranello observes:

As any “Game of Thrones” fan knows, the horrors of rape apparently cannot be conveyed without its suspiciously frequent and detailed depiction. The problem with many of these scenes is that they generalize and make abstract an acutely painful and personal experience by co-opting individual trauma for symbolic currency. The sacrificial onstage woman, usually an actress or lady of the chorus rather than a principal character, is rarely given an identity and is discarded as soon as her illustrative role is complete.

This happened at least once in the OTC production. At least. While Don Giovanni’s assaults took place off stage (as far as I remember), after Zerlina and Masetto’s wedding celebrations had moved to Don Giovanni’s place, there was a staging of a sexual assault by a man chorus member of a woman chorus member; they were both supposed to be drunk.

The audience laughter made me uncomfortable right from the opening scene. In this staging, Donna Anna sang from halfway up a rolling platform ladder while Don Giovanni straddled (and yes, I am using that word on purpose) a pommel horse. There was no physical contact, but Donna Anna’s words were fending off an attack. The first laugh came when Don Giovanni called Donna Anna a slapper. I suppose it was not what one expects to hear in that environment. The audience laughed again in scene three as Donna Anna told Don Ottavio of Don Giovanni’s attempted rape. Did they understand what was happening? Was it the incongruity of the language that prompted laughter? And … does it matter what the librettist’s intention was? My colleague and opera buddy Dr Jillian Rogers and I discussed this during the interval and concluded that, whether Roddy Doyle intended it or not, his word choices prompted behaviour that encouraged members of the audience to ally themselves with dominant cultural values that subordinate and dismiss women. The laughter appeared to be against the woman. For a surprisingly and disturbingly large percentage of the audience, Donna Anna’s experience of assault was funny.

The audience laughter reminded me of the 2009 incident in Tralee when an assault survivor sat in a public gallery, supported by a Garda and a friend, and watched as fifty people, mostly men, from her community lined up to shake the hand of her convicted rapist before his sentencing.

A large number of the giggles in the opera house were women’s voices. I was surprised at that, but I shouldn’t have been. In truth, there is a long history of women supporting patriarchy. In fact, that is what appears to have happened in the US election. Somehow, 53% of white women voters supported the candidate who bragged about assaulting women. They considered protecting white privilege more important than misogyny.

Those interested in hearing more about what feminist musicologists make of Don Giovanni (including Gordon and Baranello) will want to watch the panel discussion that Prof. Ellie Hisama organized at Columbia University as part of the Institute for Research on Women, Gender & Sexuality’s series Feminist to the Core. Prof. Hisama kindly arranged for the panel discussion to be live-streamed and recorded.

 

Hisama, Gordon and Baranello also spoke on these issues at the joint meeting of the American Musicological Society and the Society for Music Theory in a panel chaired by Suzanne Cusick on Sexual Violence On Stage: How Musicologists Promote Resistance in the Twenty-First Century. Richard Will and Monica Hershberger joined them. Paula Higgins is working on this topic; you can read her abstract for a spoken talk.