Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Holding Don Giovanni Accountable

By Kristi Brown-Montesano
Now am I allowed to say rapist.” — Rose McGowan tweet, 10 Oct. 2017

No one took Rose McGowan’s claims seriously. Now everyone is listening. ”— Headline in the Los Angeles Times, 13 Oct. 2017

At the end of summer 2016, just before the fall semester started, I received a commission from the Bilbao Opera to write a program note on the women of Don Giovanni. The requested subject was not a surprise. I finished my dissertation on the female characters of Don Giovanni and Die Zauberflöte in 1997; ten years later, in 2007, my book came out, expanding the coverage to Le nozze di Figaro and Così fan tutte. While I subsequently stepped away from Mozart studies, I have never tired of coming back to these characters who still have a lot to say to us.

My editor at Bilbao, Willem de Waal, took a rather gutsy stance: he encouraged me to illuminate readers about ethical criticism and to address seriously the elements of sexual assault and coercion that are central to the Don Juan stories and Don Giovanni in particular. Contemporary relevance was obvious. Willem mentioned the recent arrest of Spanish porn-film producer “Torbe” who was charged with selling child pornography, abusing female minors, and sex trafficking; there were separate accusations of forcing girls to have sex with famous footballers. Here in the US, Bill Cosby has been ordered to stand trial, charged with three felony counts of aggravated indecent assault against women. A mistrial followed when the jury deadlocked. A few weeks after I submitted my piece to Bilbao, the Access Hollywood tapes of Donald Trump surfaced: “You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. This girl—beautiful, young, flirty—I met her on the street; I came up to her, took her hand; she tried to escape…

(A parte: Oh, wait: that last bit was the Don, not The Donald.)<1>

Let me backtrack. About 25 years ago, I read The Operas of Mozart (Oxford, 1977) by William Mann, one-time principal music critic of The Times of London. The book had been listed on the Metropolitan Opera’s recommended reading for Don Giovanni in 1991, the bicentennial of Mozart’s death and the same year I decided to do a dissertation on Mozart opera. Covering the complete stage works, Mann offers historical background and lightly analytical descriptions of the musical numbers, all seemingly aimed—much like Mozart’s music—to engage both the opera connoisseur and newbie amateur. His prose is eloquent, his humor mostly English, clever and dry. But in the middle of his discussion of Don Giovanni, Mann suddenly goes into the red zone, excoriating Donna Anna, the first woman character we meet in the opera and the only one who consistently denounces Don Giovanni:

Anna is an upper-class Spanish lady who has etiquette where her feelings and brains should reside. Duty and honour are her watchword. Towards all her fellow-creatures she presents a coldly correct personality. If she loves her father it is because the Bible told her so. Her censorious anger against others is a juvenile trait. All men, to her, are beasts, and it would be beneficial to her personal growing-up if she had been pleasantly raped by Don Juan.
Pleasantly raped by Don Juan. I have never forgotten these words or stopped objecting to what they represent: deceptive and toxic misogyny masked as authoritative criticism. Mann’s oxymoronic formula relies on one of the oldest and most pernicious excuses for rape: she really wanted/needed it. And while his wording might be the most egregious, Mann’s basic position is widely echoed in the critical reception of Don Giovanni, which skews heavily in favor of the libertine aristocrat, recalling what Sunday Times book critic Raymond Mortimer wrote about James Bond in 1963: What every man would like to be, and what every woman would like between her sheets<2> . Commentators and directors have idealized Mozart’s willful, seductive, and violent protagonist, crediting him with virtues (unflagging bravery, triumphant self-determination, revolutionary resistance to oppressive societal power, and sensual idealism) that are, at best, only equivocally suggested in the original libretto.

The female characters, in turn, are judged largely in terms of charm and receptiveness to the Don’s don’t-say-no sexual advances. Resistance to him is understood as a flaw—or a lie. In the words of Kierkegaard’s fictional Mr. A, “a foolish girl it would be who would not choose to be unhappy for the sake of having once been happy with Don Juan.” Fast forward 170 years later and you find conductor James Conlon rhapsodizing that all three female characters have experienced a sexual metamorphosis, compliments of Don Giovanni: “their erotic impulses awakened, magnified and irrevocably changed by their encounter with this mythical seducer.”<3>

Yes, Don Giovanni comes from a different time. But this is a poor  excuse for partitioning opera/art from contemporary ethical values,  forever justifying behavior that—in any age—is predatory and exploitive. Does the work benefit from this protection? Do we?
The original libretto repeatedly points to abuse of power and sexual trespass, beginning with this exchange between master and servant:

Bravo! Two pretty deeds!
Force the daughter, then murdered the father!

He asked for it: his own fault.

And Donna Anna, what did she ask for?

Shut up, and stop annoying me. Come with me,
unless you’re asking for something, too.

Leporello tellingly uses the word sforzare to characterize Don Giovanni’s treatment of Donna Anna, corroborating the young woman’s own statement: “He came up on me silently and tried to embrace me; I tried to break free, he held on even more tightly; I screamed; no one came. He held a hand over my mouth to silence me, and gripped me so tightly with the other hand, I thought I was beaten.” Two other incidences of what we would categorize as sexual assault make Donna Anna’s testimony more compelling: Zerlina shrieking for help at Don Giovanni’s ball after he drags her to an antechamber, and the libertine’s own account of physical intimacy with a woman using false pretenses (she mistakes him for her boyfriend, Leporello). The woman starts yelling when she recognizes her mistake, and the nobleman has to escape over a wall. 

Erotic impulses awakened, my ass.

This season, like all seasons, Don Giovanni is being staged in cities all over the world—cities in which dead-serious conversations about sexual assault are also taking place. Here in the US, the bravura rage arias sung by Rose McGowan and other victims who would not be silenced finally unmasked the scellerato Harvey Weinstein. Like Donna Anna, the original “assalitrice d’assalita,” McGowan is outspoken and resolute. If she doesn’t conform to public expectations of a victim, this should not make her accusation less forceful, her willingness to go public less courageous, her pain less profound. We should know better.<4>

So what do we do with Don Giovanni now that the work’s headliner brand of masculinity is finally facing the heat of full-coverage public denunciation in the real world? We could chuck the whole thing, of course, but I’d like to think there are more creative ways to deal with the challenge of canonic opera’s pervasive misogyny. As a staged art form, opera offers a unique opportunity to engage thoughtfully with the racial, class, and sexual politics that old operas dramatize for new audiences. Along these lines, Adrienne Rich offers a pointedly feminist perspective, addressed to women for the deliverance of women:

“Re-vision—the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction—is for [women] more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival. Until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves. And this drive to self-knowledge, for woman, is more than a search for identity: it is part of her refusal of the self-destructiveness of male-dominated society.”

“Let us rescue the innocent!” exclaim Donna Anna, Donna Elvira, and Don Ottavio at the end of Act 1, rushing to defend the honor of a common girl, a country bumpkin, a “no one” in their class-conscious world. Soon the whole crowd will confront il dissoluto revealed. No one buys his cover story, the attempt to shift the blame to Leporello. Aristocrats and peasants alike join in condemnation: “Tremble, scoundrel, the whole world will know of your black, horrendous misdeeds, of your cruel arrogance.”

This is the moment that the women of Don Giovanni have been waiting for: the seducer-predator unmasked, judged, and found guilty. Too bad the work couldn’t just end with this scene, the three sopranos united in musical line and dramatic purpose. (How often does that happen in canonic opera?) Instead, tradition dictates that Don Giovanni meet his match in the form of a supernatural patriarch, complete with hellfire and terrific scoring.

In real-life sexual assault cases, of course, there are no vindicating Stone Guests—just a rocky judicial process that stirs to life only when victims are brave enough to tell their story and take the stand. Likewise there are no “mythical seducers” who “pleasantly rape,” only men who won’t take no for an answer<5> . Powerful, educated, creative men like Matt Lauer, John Lasseter, Mark Halperin, Charlie Rose. Like Don Giovanni.

Many of the acclaimed men who are now facing serious consequences for sexual harassment and assault have long operated in a culture that preferred to look the other way, not least because corporate employers and board members saw these men as too big to fail. Their brand was more important than the rights of alleged victims. The classical music world is no less implicated in this gentleman’s agreement. There have long been rumors and “open secrets” around conductors and applied teachers, who are often gatekeepers to major career opportunities. And few such secrets have been more open than those around James Levine, operating at the very heart of opera culture in this country. The self-interested and institutional protections around these men are finally--finally--toppling under the broad societal pressure for serious investigation.

Don Giovanni falls into a parallel category: an art product whose aesthetic value and guaranteed box-office receipts have deflected critical charges against the main character. My program note for Bilbao drew a hard line: the only way to make Don Giovanni worthy of our time, if indeed that is possible at all, is to listen more closely to the women. And if we really care about opera’s continued relevance, then everyone who loves the art form—directors, conductors, singers, critics, educators, audiences—must acknowledge the connection between what we applaud on stage and what we permit in the workplace, school, home. Because Donna Elvira could tell you, the “Catalogue Aria” is not so funny when your name, or the name of someone you love, is on the list.


<1>On 28 November 2017, the New York Times reported that Donald Trump is now denying the authenticity of these tapes, allegedly suggesting that the voice in the tape was not his. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/28/us/politics/trump-access-hollywood-tape.html
<2>Often misattributed to Raymond Chandler. http://jamesbondmemes.blogspot.com/2012/07/what-raymond-chandler-didnt-say.html
<4>And yet this just in: the presiding judge in the recent “wolf pack” rape trial in Spain decided to allow evidence about the alleged victim’s personal life and character into court, but barred the prosecutor from presenting texted conversations between the accused which apparently made plans to rape women.


Chair of the music-history faculty at the Colburn Conservatory of Music in Los Angeles, Kristi Brown-Montesano received her Ph.D. in musicology from UC Berkeley, combining her strong interest in both musical performance and scholarly research.
Her book The Women of Mozart’s Operas (University of California Press, 2007) offers a detailed study of the female characters in the Da Ponte operas and The Magic Flute. Dr. Brown-Montesano has presented and published essays on music in contemporary film, opera, trends in marketing classical music, and musical culture in late 19th-century England.
In 2014-15, she was honored to participate in the UCLA Musicology Department’s Distinguished Lecture Series. An active “public musicologist,” she has been engaged by numerous organizations in Los Angeles, including the LA Opera (“Opera for Educators”), the Opera League of Los Angeles, the Mason House Concerts, and the Colburn Orchestra. She is especially thrilled to join the LA Phil’s “Upbeat Live” faculty this concert season.


  1. Thank you for this thoughtful take. Operas (and sometimes, sadly, those who enjoy them) are often steeped in sexist or racist traditions, and the Mozart/Da Ponte operas in particular have always been hard for me to take. The only productions of them I've really managed to enjoy in terms of narrative are those that take the bull by the horns and grapple with the problematic aspects of the texts head on.

    Sadly, few do this, and many even go in the wrong direction, dripping down the terrible "Maybe Donna Anna was asking for it" drain. That sort of interpretation is horrifying for me to watch as a man; as a woman I can only imagine it would be unbearable.

  2. Thank you for this piece. It is worth noting that two or three seasons ago, Martha Nussbaum's program essay for the Lyric Opera of Chicago production of Don Giovanni argued that Anna, Elvira, and Zerlina were the true protagonists of the opera. And Peter Sellars' production of Le Nozze di Figaro from the 1980s, which set Le Nozze di Figaro in - of all places - the Trump Tower, seems astonishingly prescient in hindsight.

  3. As far as I can tell, the "Donna Anna needed to be ravished by Don Juan in order to be awakened to her full existence and potential" line of interpretation descends from E.T.A. Hoffmann's 1813 short story "Don Juan, or, An Episode in the Life of a Traveling Music-Enthusiast."

  4. It seems worth while to point out that Don Giovanni does receive a suitable punishment: he is condemned to hell.

    1. Hi Bryan, what does any of this have to do with sexual assault in the 21st century? She mentions that there are no "vindicating Stone Guests" in real life assault cases. One of the main points of this essay is that we can't relate Giovanni to modern sexual assault because it is laden with canonical misogyny and flaw. Have a lovely evening.