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.

 

More on ImproTech Paris-New York

Just a heads up: Han-earl Park has collected his live tweets from the ImproTech conference and gigs at freedom, machine subjectivity and pseudo-science: twitter transcript – io 0.0.1 beta++ and he will be following up with a longer post soon. There’s some consideration of historical context, politics of performance, as well as comments and questions about the techniques, performance styles on display, and on the presented papers themselves (e.g. George Lewis on imbuing machines with “integral subjectivity”). It’s certainly worth keeping an eye out for the follow up blog post.

ImproTech Paris/New York 2012 at the Roulette

My blog has been a tad quiet recently. This was not entirely by choice, but I can’t go in to the reasons here. Anyway, I’m resurrecting it with a post that I wrote on 17 May. I haven’t gone through and edited my original text. What I’d want to spell out more clearly, were I to rewrite this, is that the problems I’m struggling with are in part (perhaps largely) to do with the conventional way of understanding the dynamics between performers and composers. In many cases, performers playing works written for them have lengthy conversations with the composers, and in fact make a substantial input into the piece. This can be recognised by composer, performer, and programme writer, or the piece can be performed and written about in a conventional way. Some of the performances I discuss below staged their creative work in a way that highlighted the collaboration and did away with the customary hierarchy of composer over performer. Others did not. And in the two performances that did not, there were very specific intersections of gender and race.

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Last night, I went to hear ImproTech Paris/New York 2012: Improvisation & Technology at the Roulette. It was a gig bringing together musicians from three institutions: IRCAM in Paris, New York University and Columbia University. The gig prompted lively conversation afterwards over a late night diner meal. (I could just have been hungry—it was almost midnight—but I swear the eggplant rollatini I had at the diner was the best diner food I’ve ever had.)

So, who played what? The line up was:

 

  1. Raphael Imbert: OMax at Lomax – Nine Spirit Company : Raphael Imbert, sax, Simon Sieger piano & trombone, Benjamin Lévy, Omax interaction, Thomas Weirich, Guitar
  2. Robert Rowe : Cigar Smoke (2004) for clarinet and interactive music system – Esther Lamneck, clarinette
  3. Steve Lehman, sax, live electronics, Mari Kimura, violin, live electronics, Vijay Iyer, Piano, Improvisation
  4. Jean-Baptiste Barrière : Crossing the Blind Forest (2011) for flute, live electronics and live video – Margaret Lancaster, flute
  5. Roscoe Mitchell, Saxophone, David Wessel, touch controller & computer , Improvisation
  6. Georges Bloch : Duck Laughs (world premiere) for percussions, preceded by Canaries by Elliot Carter – Laurent Mariusse, percussions, Georges Bloch, OMax interaction
  7. Bernard Lubat, piano, Gerard Assayag, OMax interaction, Improvisation
  8. George Lewis : Interactive Trio (2007) for trombone, two pianos and interactive music system – George Lewis, trombone, Geri Allen, piano
  9. Steve Coleman, saxophone, Gilbert Nouno, live electronics, Improvisation

(Source: ImproTech Paris / NYC 2012 Schedule)

 

I guess it was not a complete surprise to have so few women in the gig, although it was disappointing, particularly since public funding (from the French Agence Nationale de la Recherche) went into the event; there were also private institutional sponsors.

What I want to think through here is not so much the gender imbalance of the gig in terms of numbers, but rather the ways in which gender and race appeared to intersect in some of these performances. I have more questions than I do answers. (Isn’t that always the way?) And I am sure there are other, perhaps more positive, ways to read this. I hope there are, because what I have come up with isn’t exactly heart warming and affirming.

Numbers 2 and 4 were a pair, in a way. In each, a white woman performed a woodwind instrument in front of several music stands. They appeared to be compositions rather than improvisations, although there could well have been moments of improvisation built in.  The electronic wizardry happened off stage: those performers (the composers?) were not visible. In each case, the women were the only performers on the stage. And they staged a particular kind of femininity. The notes they played were written by someone else (perhaps the music stand ‘stands in’ for the composer). There is doubtless a degree of agency in how they interpreted the scores, but in effect they were using their bodies and instruments to sound someone else’s compositional voice. (To my knowledge, there isn’t yet an adequate theoretical model to account for a performer’s input into a specially-written composition and/or a performance. Convention dictates that, even if the performers had substantial input, the concert programme identifies only ‘the’ composer.) And in each case, that person had written some kind of algorithm (I think) to take that sound and respond to it, sometimes with a kind of echo and reverb, sometimes with some more complicated process that produced contrasts rather than repeats. At some points, especially at busy, climactic moments, it became hard, even impossible, to distinguish the sounds coming from the clarinet or the flute from the processed responses, in effect merging the human and the digital into one. A kind of transcendental loss of the self, perhaps? But only of the female performing self: the composer self was controlling almost everything anyway, and already disembodied, invisible but audible. In #4, the embodied performer/disembodied composer had a different spin, in that the performer was also source material for live video, her face and upper body and flute appearing superimposed on to nature walks, including a close up of a tree trunk, and the whole subject to further processing, blurring so that just as the sounds melded human and digital, the images melded human and nature. And in this, I think gender is significant again: in Western societies, women are often considered to be closer to nature than men.

I found it very hard not to see these performances as reinforcing a particular set of binary oppositions, that woman = body, man = mind; woman = reproducer, man = creator; woman = nature, man = culture (or perhaps science, or perhaps technology; all of those work). The woman is visible, and yet is not always audible, often indistinct, with blurred boundaries.

The performer ostensibly generated the sounds, but they were composed by someone else: this is a kind of ventriloquism. The disembodied, invisible composer occupies the performer, in a way, which could sound kind of cool in terms of cross-dressing/trans-of-some-kind, except the performer’s self is subordinate to, subsumed/overwhelmed by the composer’s: it is an occupation. The electronics were reactive to ‘her’ stimulus. The electronic performer reacts to his sounds coming from her embodied instrumental presence. But these electronic systems did not appear to be interactive systems, despite the descriptions, since it seemed that the women were playing already notated music from which they could not deviate. They could not respond to what they were hearing. And nor could the algorithms deal with visual cues in the way that a live performer would. In one particularly memorable moment, almost at the end of the flute piece, the flautist made the most assertive gesture of finality, punctuating the end with her body, her head movements, only to have this ignored as the electronic sounds continued on, as if the performer and the physical stimuli she produced were utterly irrelevant. The performer finished and was flushed with the effort and the intensity; the disembodied performer kept going.

This is in contrast to the two ensemble improvisations with women, in which women had their own creative voices. Mari Kimura (#3) triggered her own live electronics, as did another member of the trio. All three improvised, interacted; all three were on the stage. Geri Allen improvised with George Lewis on trombone and an improvisatory system of Lewis’s devising which played the second piano. This seemed to actually interact—to respond to Allen and Lewis, and they in turn responded to it, just as an all-human ensemble works. No sign of a one-way relationship with the electronics. But it is possible my ears missed something. And in each case, all performer-improvisor-composers were on stage. Indeed, that was true of, I think. every piece in the concert save numbers 2 and 4.

I find myself wondering if it is any coincidence that the pieces in which the performer-on-stage is at times indistinguishable from the disembodied-performer-off-stage, where only the instrumental performer has a body but in effect has no voice, and the little she does is easily con-fused with the digital/electronic manipulation…. Was it a coincidence that those performers were white women, or appeared to be? Is this a kind of good girl white femininity being staged here?

What a contrast, too, with the Roscoe Mitchell/David Wessel duo. Both on stage, both embodied and apparently enjoying it, both improvising, and both interacting with each other: two way communication. (And I had no idea it is possible to circular breathe on the flute.)