In his 1813 story “Don Juan,” Romantic writer and composer E.T.A. Hoffmann praises Mozart’s Don Giovanni, an operatic reinvention of the tale of the famous womanizer. From his first glimpse of the Don, the narrator of Hoffmann’s story treats the eponymous protagonist as a venerable force: the baritone playing Don Giovanni boasts a “powerful, majestic figure” with a “masculinely beautiful” face that stands out in the provincial town where the performance takes place. “Women, once they have met his gaze,” Hoffman writes, “can no longer part with him, and, spellbound by his uncanny power, must ineluctably achieve their own ruin.” Man and myth mix: the baritone seems to actually become the archetype of Don Giovanni that he imitates, gaining a siren-like ability to seduce and control women.
If Don Giovanni’s status as a “majestic figure” clues us into the singer’s position as a metaphorical ruler, his subjects are also identified: women. A tyrannical king, he towers above the “puny specimens of humanity whose feeble dreams and plans”— Zerlina’s marriage, Donna Anna’s chastity, Donna Elvira’s infatuation—“he hijack[s] solely for the sake of his own pleasure.” In comparison, the harem of women he surrounds himself with are reduced to “factory-produced mannequins,” soulless clones who can only be animated by his ever-shifting presence. Among this “vulgar rabble,” Don Giovanni ascends to near-divinity.
What can the modern reader make of this exaltation of Don Giovanni? Our immediate response is one of disgust; we want to turn away from this egotistical misogynist who rapes and murders. We might even consider it dangerous to appreciate the work for its artistic merits when they are inextricable from the story. In her 2017 essay “Holding Don Giovanni Accountable,” Kristi Brown-Montesano wonders if it’s even possible to “make Don Giovanni worthy of our time.” Others think that work itself can be appreciated, but not the protagonist: in her opinion piece “Don Giovanni: Let’s Call a Rapist a Rapist,” feminist scholar Liane Curtis writes, “Am I saying let’s not perform this opera? No. I am saying, let’s call a rapist a rapist and enjoy this opera’s drama, conflict, adventure, humor, women of strength and beautiful music that ends with an evil man, a criminal (not a hero) dragged by demons into hellfire.”
Portraying the opera as a moral battle between righteous women and an evil man is certainly one way to view it. In his review of the Met’s 2015 performance of the opera, Richard Brody describes Don Giovanni as a “profoundly political and moral vision that’s as much of our time as of Mozart’s own.” Indeed, images of women being violated have long been used as scaffolding for broader political and moral goals: depictions of sexual violence helped the Dutch to unify against the Spanish in their war for independence, and were used by the Allied Powers as additional justification to attack Germany in World War II.
But this view of sexual violence does not lead to greater gender equity. Instead, it forces a violator/violated binary onto depictions of cross-gender interaction, turning women into material goods that must be protected. Nor does it seem like attempts to wrangle cut-and-dry moralistic messages from Don Giovanni actually reflect what the opera is about: Mozart does not give us a simple story of good and evil where moral deserts are dished out evenly—justice may be served to the depraved protagonist, but self-imposed trauma has irrevocably left its mark on supposedly morally pure characters. Zerlina’s marriage has been ruptured by her own infidelity; Donna Anna’s self-imposed alienation from her well-meaning but unhelpful husband shows no signs of abating; Donna Elvira remains mourning the destructive lover she could never let go of. To deny the psychological and aesthetic complexity of the work is to reduce opera to a mere didactic tool, a means to a simple moralistic end.
In her 1979 book Opera, or the Undoing of Women, French philosopher Catherine Clément turns away from a moralistic and binaristic view of the opera, instead reframing Don Giovanni as an exploration of the ways that gendered power oppresses men and women alike. To Clément, Don Giovanni satirizes, rather than epitomizes, masculinity: he is a “phantom of a man, a masquerade… decked out in masculine effect.” Entrapped by his licentious, Freudian desires, Clément’s Don Giovanni lacks any true agency; he is “the prisoner of a machinery” exactly like the hyperfeminized ‘prima donna’ of the operatic tradition.
The answer to Brown-Montesano’s question of the performability of Don Giovanni in the twenty-first century, then, is yes, the opera can live on in a modern audience—if ethics are divorced from aesthetics. We should neither valorize nor villainize the protagonist and supporting characters; instead, we must appreciate each character for their psychological depth and musical evocativeness, applying critical analysis that complexifies, rather than simplifies, the relationships between them.