I asked our Women on the Verge artists, Elizabeth McDonald, Kathryn Tremills and Emily Martin, all professional performing and teaching concert artists in the operatic field, to talk about singing and teaching operatic roles associated with characters like Don Giovanni (Don Juan) and others whose exploitive and often violent behavior towards women is no longer tolerated in progressive societies. Here is what they had to say:
Don Giovanni in the #meToo Era
Women on the Verge: Elizabeth McDonald, Kathryn Tremills, Emily Martin https://www.womenontheverge.ca/
In the current climate of conversation, discussion, accusation, and healing over our collective abusers as women, the hashtag #meToo has come to represent the years and years that women have spent suffering in silence over abuse from a misogynic world. With so many people coming forward with stories of abuse, it is essential as classical musicians, especially as singers to take a careful and fresh look at the repertoire by which we have been trained. The story of Don Juan, in particular, Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, needs to be questioned and considered as to its appropriateness and effectiveness.
In the opera, Don Giovanni is a womanizer, as is vividly illustrated by his manservant, Leporello’s aria “Madamina, il catalogo è questo” ( aka The Catalogue Aria). In this aria, Leporello describes in great detail the thousands of women that Don Giovanni has slept with in multiple countries throughout Europe. In it, he states that the Don seduces all women of every station, hair colour, body type specifying tall and short, fat, thin, old and very young and generalizes why each “type” is appealing to him. This bragging of sexual conquest is meant to serve as a warning to Donna Elvira (who has already been seduced by the Don) to just stay away from him, but he’s really just trying to get rid of her because the Don can’t be bothered with her anymore. She is interrupting his further conquests and becoming a nuisance to him. Leporello advises her that her intentions of making Giovanni an honest man will do no good, while at the same time supporting and perpetuating the belief in and the culture of “boys will be boys.” There is no attempt by Leporello to stop him, but instead, he stands by and protects his boss. The habit and culture of turning a blind eye is prevalent throughout the opera.
At a recent conference entitled Opera’s Changing Worlds: Education and Artist Training Summit coordinated by Opera.ca, a not-for-profit organization that supports opera companies in Canada, the topic Gender Equity in Opera was brought to the table for discussion. As only 31% of the directors and conductors working in opera these past two seasons are women (Opera America), the conversation was about how to find equity both in the management and production of opera AND onstage in how we present women. One possible solution to throw out the misogynistic stories like Don Giovanni in favour of topics that reflect the current social, economic and political culture was tabled, but the reality of this is not practical nor is it economically feasible.
An additional problem with this solution is that it deals with the uncomfortable subject matter through elimination. The negative reaction to “politically incorrect” characters and stories in opera, such as Don Giovanni leading to the refusal to produce a performance of these types of pieces or updating the production because of the belief is eliminating the opportunity for education, awareness, and conversation. For knowledge and awareness to be cultivated currently in our society, we need to have the conversation and recognize what is truly wrong with a story. We need to recognize that the topics in these traditional operas - gender politics, abuse of power, and inequality - are the same issues humans have dealt with for generations. What if we looked at these operas as a chance to shine a light on these topics and initiate the conversation or a chance to delve into the reaction of the victims and how it might be different than what has always been “traditionally” done? Rather than diverting attention away from the social conflicts by repeating the traditional narrative or refusing to repeat the story that has always been done, we have a chance to bring feminism and truth into these repeated stories and start a meaningful conversation. Furthermore, Don Giovanni as a reflection of a cultural moment in time can be produced with a more nuanced representation. Placing the story in context through staging, program notes, community roundtable discussions, pre-performance talks, and general open dialogue can highlight both the misogyny and the feminism.
As teachers of young men and women in the university setting, choosing repertoire is always based on the needs of the singer for their development both technically and dramatically. Don Giovanni is a technically demanding show for every singer on stage. The ability to sing this music beautifully, accurately and with sensitivity is a significant part of the lesson. The content is always part of the conversation, and ultimately, we look to provide our students with the tools to make musical, artistic, and personal choices about how they approach their characters, how they choose their repertoire, and ultimately, how they present their life thesis to the world. This current generation of university students is outspoken in its moral and ethical choices and in our collective experience, they are demanding change. The world of opera and the misogyny present both on the stage and behind the curtain is being challenged, and we will be better for it.
Women on the Verge Trio
Emily Martin, Elizabeth McDonald, Kathryn Tremills
September 25, 2018