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Feminist to the Core Goes to the Opera: Sexual Violence Onstage in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Don Giovanni

November 15, 2016

by Leah Werier, Art History, PhD ’18 and 2016-2017 Graduate Fellow

On October 24th, a large lecture hall in Butler Library was overflowing with eager spectators attending the first “Feminist to the Core” program of the 2016-2017 academic year.  Faculty and students as far away as Ireland and El Salvador joined the program via live stream. “Feminist to the Core Goes to the Opera” featured distinguished faculty Micaela Baranello (McPherson/Eveillard Postdoctoral Fellow, Smith College), Bonnie Gordon (Associate Professor of Music, University of Virginia) and Elaine Sisman (Anne Parsons Bender Professor of Music, Columbia University).  Organized by the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality (IRWGS), Feminist to the Core is intended, according to IRWGS Associate Director Laura Ciolkowski, “to spark feminist conversation and rigorous debate about Core texts and to transform the critical conversations within the classroom.” In last week’s program, produced in collaboration with the Department of Music, speakers addressed the question of sexual violence onstage in Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, the opera that this semester’s Music Humanities students will attend as part of their Core requirement.

            Professor Micaela Baranello focused her attention on operatic staging practices, where “idea and practice collide,” as a means of linking the past and the present. She reminded us that no production has “neutral staging” and argued that staging has the power to “create, destroy, or renovate the promesse du bonheur.”  Baranello argued that, in so far as the bodies of women figure prominently on stage, Don Giovanni puts women’s suffering on display, in spite of the fact that women are rarely granted a voice or agency.

            Professor Bonnie Gordon linked Mozart’s 18th century opera to the contemporary moment, specifically what she described as the “wretched presidential election.” Gordon discussed the contemporary resonances for teaching Don Giovanni and for thinking about sexual violence onstage.  How might one think about Don Giovanni’s violations against women? Gordon argued that opera gives one the tools to understand rape culture. For example, in her view, the aria Batti Batti (beat me, beat me) is “more about rape culture than rape in some ways.” Gordon explained, rape culture blames its victims and propagate the belief that if women are careful enough they can “avoid rape.”  A spectator of the opera can be swept away by the gorgeousness of the melodies. However, a closer analysis necessarily leads to critique. The parallel between the “Two Dons” -- Don Giovanni, and Donald Trump – can be found in the entitlements that “allow groping, touching and choosing not to vote at all.”

            Finally, Professor Elaine Sisman argued that the character of Don Giovanni is evil.  She pointed out that he wears a mask, a sign of carnival, when he tricks Donna Anna into sleeping with him so that Donna Anna believes that he is her betrothed. Later, an impassioned Donna Anna sings the aria Or Sai chi l’onore (you know for sure) Sisman called attention to how this opera draws on specific temporal modes: in this instance it is narrative time, the time of storytelling. Sisman explains that in Don Giovanni time can also be understood as the mythic time of the opera: here, a single day in the life of Don Giovanni. Using this version of mythic time, Sisman drew a connection between the opera and Dante’s InfernoThere is no question that Don Giovanni is evil, Sisman explains -- it is clear “that the opera condemns him from beginning to end -- but we could question which circle of Dante’s hell he would have been sentenced to.

Mark your calendars for upcoming Feminist to the Core programs, featuring Professor Jack Halberstam on Sigmund Freud (April 27) and Professor Bernard Harcourt on Nietzsche (April 14).