Thursday, May 28, 2015

BLO Emerging Artists: Summer Plans!

This week, we caught up with several of BLO's 2014/15 Emerging Artists to find out where their operatic pursuits were taking them this summer. These talented artists will be spread far and wide, across the country and even beyond, performing in some of the world's most distinguished opera houses and festivals. Perhaps an opera road trip is in order!

Heather Gallagher
For those staying close to home, Heather Gallagher, mezzo-soprano, will be showcasing her vocal and dramatic talents to the greater Boston community through two upcoming performances!

First up, she appears in Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti, as part of MetroWest Opera's double-bill, Shattered Dreams, from May 28-31 at All Saints Parish in Brookline (also featuring Michelle Trainor, Emerging Artist alumna). Then, in July, Heather will present a recital with pianist James Myers at Old South Church. Toi, toi, toi, Heather!

Chelsea Basler
Soprano Chelsea Basler, who stole hearts and wowed critics in all four operas at BLO this season, will travel to the picturesque and famed Santa Fe Opera

As a member of its Young Artist Program, Chelsea has a busy summer planned. She will cover the role of Arminda in La Finta Giardiniera, sing in the chorus of The Daughter of the Regiment, and create the role of Sara in the world premiere of Cold Mountain, composed by Pulitzer Prize-winner Jennifer Higdon. Before you head west for the premiere, don't forget to add the  bestselling novel to your summer reading list!

Brad Raymond
Brad Raymond, tenor, is already hard at work as a Young Artist at Glimmerglass Opera Festival in Cooperstown, NY. For three months, Brad will cover mainstage roles, receive musical coaching, attend classes in diction and acting, and participate in master classes with some of opera's leading artists. 

The Glimmerglass season includes The Magic Flute, Macbeth, Candide, Cato in Utica, concerts, and more.  Plus, you can stop by the Baseball Hall of Fame when you visit! 

Rachel Hauge
And last but not least, we have a world traveler: Rachel Hauge, mezzo-soprano, will be spending the summer in Germany! Rachel will perform several roles at Deutsche Oper Berlin, including Linetta in L'Amour des Trois Oranges, Suzuki in Madama Butterfly, and Flora Bervoix in La Traviata, and will also perform the role of 2nd Twin/Boy/Tapestry in the world premiere of The Canterville Ghost at Oper Leipzig.

Viel Glück, Rachel!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

DR. VON LYRIC: A Little Needed Harmony

I was listening recently to Jonas Kaufmann's new and somewhat surprising CD, You Mean the World to Me:

As you can see, he is his usual elegant and sexy self in a collection of popular hits, operetta (Lehár), and film songs from the 1930s. Listening, I was reminded again of the Comedian Harmonists—a group whose cool, witty, and savvy performances I have always loved and whose story continues to intrigue. Learn more at Wikipedia.

Here's a crazed vision of them performing with Josephine Baker (another cultural figure of enduring fascination from the 1920s and '30s, and whose overall career and life summon up fantastically diverse threads of thought and conversation):

A movie about the Comedian Harmonists, made in 1997, in which the actors lip-synced to original recordings:

YouTube is full of these original, unique recordings. Here's another example, of a guitar version:

There have been many contemporary takes on this repertory (and its disturbing echoes of an intensely troubled history). Max Raabe and his Palast Orchester are among the most compelling (and rather eerie) exponents of this "nostalgia." Take a look:

An irresistible finale...

Friday, May 15, 2015

Jon Saxton, BLO Board of Overseers, featured in Haverford Magazine

We were so moved to read this recent reflection by BLO Board of Overseers member, Jon Saxton, published in Haverford Magazine. Jon speaks eloquently to his experiences with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (TFC), which also helped lead him to our organization. In fact, TFC has made an impact on several of our Overseers through the years—Mr. Peter Wender is also a member! Please read on for Jon’s heartfelt article, and help us celebrate the power of music to transform lives at any stage.

Roads Taken and Not Taken:
Jon Saxton '76

Published on: 04/07/15

On the occasion of my 49th Birthday, my wife, Barbara Fox (BMC ’78), surprised me with a gift of two voice lessons with a voice teacher who had posted a simple tear-off notice in our local grocery store. I thought this was a fun present, and totally unexpected. I had never studied music, and had never sung other than in a crowd at birthday parties, or along with the kids on long car trips, or, of course, in the shower. My life was consumed with family, Democratic Party politics, health-care policy, and speechwriting. My musical tastes ran to the music of my younger days—’60s and ’70s rock, as well as music I had discovered at Haverford: Chris Smither, Bruce Springsteen, and the Persuasions… More>>

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

We'll Always Have Paris—BLO's 2015/16 Season

By Richard Dyer

Purchasing a subscription to the 2015/16 Boston Lyric Opera Season is another way to fly off to Paris. Two of the works on the schedule are set in the city of light and lovers. The first, La Bohème, is by an Italian, Giacomo Puccini; the other, The Merry Widow (Die Lustige Witwe) is by an Austro-Hungarian composer, Franz Lehár. The third, Werther, is by Jules Massenet, a composer who lived in Paris. In this opera, he adapted one of the most influential German novels, Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. Goethe’s story is set in a suburb of Frankfurt, but in the spirit of the Season’s theme the stage director, Crystal Manich, and designer, John Conklin, plan to transport Werther to a suburb of Paris and to present it in the visual style of the celebrated French film director, Jean Renoir. So the Season brings three strongly contrasting operas written within a span of 15 years, but linked in many ways by Paris, the city on the Seine. 

No composer can help writing in his native idiom any more than he can help being influenced by the colors and rhythms of his native language, even when he is trying not to. Bizet wrote some of the most vivid “Spanish” music anyone ever composed, but Carmen remains a totally French opera. Puccini loved Paris and set four of his operas there, and in each of them there are touches of local color comparable to the Japanese effects in Madama Butterfly or the Chinese scales in Turandot. There are some French touches in La Bohème, but basically this is Italian music in which small or “unimportant” people feel huge emotions and unleash them in full-throated song.

Original 1896 La bohème poster by Adolfo Hohenstein.
Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Common.
La Bohème is Puccini’s most popular work, and in fact it is currently the most popular opera in the world, surpassing even Verdi’s Aida, which held the record for decades. Since the Metropolitan Opera’s first performance of La Bohème in 1900, the company has given over 1,500 more (the legendary Nellie Melba was the first Met Mimì, and she gratified her audience, which may have been sorely tried by Puccini's "modern" music, by rising from Mimì’s deathbed to sing the Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermoor as an encore, dying yet again).

Puccini’s source was a series of magazine sketches of bohemian life that Henri Murger wrote, beginning in 1845. They didn’t find much of an audience, but later Murger and a collaborator adapted them into a stage play which became internationally popular; still later Murger assembled the sketches into a loose-limbed novel. Murger knew first-hand the world he was writing about because it was his own—he lived in the company of ambitious, spirited, and penniless young artists and musicians, their loves and quarrels, successes and failures, joys and despairs, intense lives and early deaths. The tragic story of Mimì and Rodolfo is only one strand in Murger’s narrative collage, but it captured the imagination of everyone who read it or saw it onstage. Anyone who has ever fallen in love can relate to the story, and hearing Puccini's music brings back all the turbulence and ecstasy of youthful love (Puccini was only 35 years old when he started work on this opera). This is one reason why older singers can still prove convincing in the opera—some readers may remember how affecting Carlo Bergonzi and Pilar Lorengar were on the Met tour here in 1977 when both of them were old enough to be the grandparents of Mimì and Rodolfo—and why other productions of the work have effectively set the story in times and places from 1845 to the AIDS crisis of the 1980s (this was the choice of the Broadway musical Rent, which used a contemporary score by Jonathan Larson to tell the old story again). BLO’s new production by director Rosetta Cucchi, with set designs by John Conklin, will unfold in Paris at the time of the epoch-defining student protests in 1968; the visual style is derived from the “New Wave” films of the same time by Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and others.

The music has been recorded many times over, multiple stagings have made their way onto DVD, and there have been several movies. In 2002, the filmmaker Baz Luhrmann brought his famous 1990 Australian Opera production of La Bohème to Broadway, and one of the sopranos rotating in the role of Mimì was Kelly Kaduce, fresh out of Boston University; now one of America’s leading sopranos, she returns to Boston to recreate Mimì. Jesus Garcia, who was one of the Rodolfos in Luhrmann’s Broadway production, will repeat the role, and local favorite James Maddalena takes on the two character roles of Benoit, the lusty landlord, and Alcindoro, the equally lascivious elderly fop.

Grasset poster for 1893 French premiere of Werther
Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Common.
Jules Massenet was a quintessentially French composer who mostly devoted himself to opera—he produced more than 30 of them, and only two or three have French settings. Most of the others take place in exotic lands and distant cities, except for Werther which unfolds in a small and bourgeois suburb in Germany. In this setting, the only exotic figure is Werther himself, a young poet who lives in his imagination and in his senses, not in the real world. The British novelist Thackeray wrote an amusing poem about this clash—it begins:

WERTHER had a love for Charlotte
Such as words could never utter;
Would you know how first he met her?
She was cutting bread and butter.

It is difficult to imagine the scope of the success of Goethe’s novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, which he published in 1774 at the age of 24. It was translated into many languages and read around the world; it defined a whole generation. The protagonist, who reveals his story and pours out his feelings in a series of impassioned letters, is a notable figure in the history of outsiders, a descendant of Hamlet and an ancestor of James Dean. He is a passionate romantic who falls in love with a woman he cannot have, Charlotte. Her mother has died, so Charlotte is bringing up her younger siblings; also, she is betrothed to another man that she had promised her mother she would marry. This is a situation from which there is no escape—except suicide. Some readers in Goethe’s time, and our own, have committed suicide themselves because their identification with the frustrations and sorrows of Werther became so complete.

Massenet responded to the principles and the pain of his two leading characters with music of profound, self-revealing emotion; this is an opera that sweeps the public into a maelstrom of feeling. The music, of course, is French, although the influence of Wagner in the fluidity of the harmony is obvious. There is also a modern touch: Massenet introduces the saxophone into the orchestration, even though it had not been invented at the time of the story. The Belgian instrument maker Adolphe Saxe had invented the saxophone in Paris in the 1840s and was a colleague of Massenet on the faculty of the Paris Conservatoire. Massenet’s mastery of text setting is a paramount feature of the opera—in this he was like Puccini, investing little phrases with mounting intensity. And, like Puccini, he created great roles that continue to attract major singers—the tenor part of Werther is so irresistible that the great baritone Mattia Battistini wanted to sing it, so Massenet obliged him by rewriting the part for baritone.

BLO’s production features a Company favorite as Charlotte, Sandra Piques Eddy, most recently seen here in Janáček’s Kátya Kabanová, and the BLO debut of the charismatic Canadian tenor, Joseph Kaiser. Although he is still in the first decade of his career, Kaiser has already sung major roles at the Metropolitan and other American companies, as well as in the great theaters of Europe; this will be his first Werther.

Louis Treumann and Mizzi Günther, front page, piano-vocal score, 1906
Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Common.
Nine years after the premiere of La Bohème, Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow had its premiere in Vienna on December 30, 1905 and, like La Bohème, it has been performed all over the world ever since. Puccini, in one of the many intersections within the next Season, saw The Merry Widow and decided to write his own work in the same genre, La Rondine (the first act of which takes place in Paris!).

Lehár’s story, about the attempt of an impoverished Pontevedrian government to keep the fortune of the country’s wealthiest new widow from passing into the pocket of a foreign suitor, comes from a slightly naughty French play by Henri Meilhac that was already 40 years old. (Meilhac is remembered today for the libretto he prepared for Bizet’s Carmen and his collaborations with Jacques Offenbach. In another link among the Season’s composers, Meilhac co-wrote the libretto for Massenet’s most popular opera, Manon, another opera set in part in Paris.) In a curious coincidence, a different play by Meilhac was the source for the only other Viennese operetta to rival The Merry Widow in popularity, Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss, Jr.

We are in a different Paris from that of La Bohème—on the map, the Café Momus in the Latin Quarter where the Bohemians hang out isn’t that far from Maxim’s, on the Rue Royale on the other side of the Seine. But the revelers at Maxim’s have money, or pretend they do, and they come from a frivolous world devoted to the pursuit of both instant pleasure and constant gratification. However, sets of feet in both operas are only three beats away from being ready to waltz—in La Bohème, Musetta sings her famous waltz in the Café Momus, and she might well have flourished in a place like Maxim’s, except that it didn’t open until 1893, when she would have been in her 70s. Maxim’s may not have acquired its legendary and enduring reputation if it had not been for The Merry Widow.

The plot of The Merry Widow is a contrivance, an intricate framework onto which Lehár hung a string of vivacious ensembles and seductive melodies in ¾ time. The operetta has triumphed onstage for more than a century, and there have been television productions and two movies, a great one with Maurice Chevalier wooing Jeanette MacDonald, and a dreadful one with Lana Turner and Fernando Lamas. The Turner movie, however, did inspire the “merry widow” undergarment that is still on sale at Victoria’s Secret and Frederick’s of Hollywood more than 60 years later.

Since the premiere, glamorous sopranos have coveted the role of the merry widow and her haunting song “from her native land,” “Vilja,” which tells the sad and seductive story of a young huntsman who is bewitched by a wood nymph who then deserts him. In recent years, the role has become associated with such late-career divas as Beverly Sills, Joan Sutherland, and Frederica von Stade, who said she couldn’t imagine a nicer way to take leave of the Met than to waltz offstage in the arms of Plácido Domingo. Just this season, Renée Fleming and Deborah Voigt have taken on the role. BLO will break with recent tradition by presenting a widow young enough to be merry—the Metropolitan Opera’s vivacious Susanna Phillips, whose early career brought her twice to the Company, in Mozart’s Don Giovanni and in Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Canadian tenor Roger Honeywell will make his debut as the dashing Count Danilo. Honeywell began his professional career as a stage actor; since he trained his singing voice and made his operatic debut at the age of 34, he has successfully performed some of the most demanding roles in the operatic repertory as well as a few parts in operetta. The production, again designed by Conklin, promises lots of sparkle and spectacle while suggesting the fragility of this artificial world that would soon be swept away by World War I.

Each of these operas is one that audiences take home with them, and each leaves lifelong impressions. They certainly have in mine. My first Bohème was on May 13, 1953, with the Met tour in Oklahoma City; I was 11 and I cried my heart out, and if I am at a good performance, I still will. My first Merry Widow was at the Kenley Players in Warren, Ohio in 1961, when the popular television comedienne Edie Adams appeared as the widow, astonishing the audience with her legitimate singing voice (she had studied at Juilliard). The effect was as startling as Lady Gaga’s performance of excerpts from The Sound of Music at the Academy Awards this year. Who knew? My first Werther was at the Opéra-Comique in Paris when I was 19, not far from Werther’s age. I was so overwhelmed, I went to every other performance that season—Alain Vanzo and Albert Lance alternated as Werther, Solange Michel and Rita Gorr as Charlotte. The soundtrack for my student year in Paris—Momus rather than Maxim’s—was written in part by Puccini, Massenet, and Lehár. I have known each of these works by heart for more than 50 years: There are some operas you can’t remember, but these are operas you can’t forget.

RICHARD DYER is a distinguished writer and lecturer. He wrote about music for The Boston Globe for over 30 years, serving as chief music critic for most of that time. He has twice won the Deems Taylor/ASCAP Award for Distinguished Music Criticism.

Notes from BLO Artistic Advisor John Conklin on Glass's In the Penal Colony, BLO 's 2015/16 Opera Annex

In the world of contemporary opera, Philip Glass is one of the rare composers to have built a highly acclaimed and ongoing body of work ... and all with an impressive variety of style and subject matter.

His opera Satyagraha was a triumph at the Metropolitan Opera, and one of BLO ’s greatest successes was Akhnaten in 2000.

I worked with Philip (and director JoAnne Akalitis) on the world premiere (2000) of his one-act piece based on the well-known and dramatically disturbing short story by Kafka. I soon realized that this was a very powerful, tense, and concentrated composition (composed for two singers and a string quintet) neatly (almost inevitably) fusing the obsessive forward-driving energy of Glass with the subtle yet unstoppable theatricality of Kafka’s vision.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Ethics of Don Giovanni

By Magda Romanska, Ph.D., BLO Dramaturg

Don Giovanni (Duncan Rock) and the Commendatore (Steven Humes)
Photo © T. Charles Erickson for BLO.
Don Giovanni premiered in 1787, eleven years after the start of the American Revolution and two years before the French Revolution. This was the twilight of the Enlightenment, an era that officially ended in the 1780s. Although many versions of Don Giovanni’s story were performed across Europe (in dramatic, operatic, and ballet forms), Mozart’s retelling of the story has held a particular attraction for a broad range of commentators, including the playwright George Bernard Shaw and the philosophers Søren Kierkegaard, Albert Camus, and Slavoj Žižek. The unrepentant figure of Giovanni as created by Mozart fit well within the era’s own ethical discourse: on the role and weight of individual choices, the questioning of Christian values, and the very existence of God himself.

In his 2011 article, “Divine Justice: The Hidden Story of Don Giovanni, Mozart’s Jewish Opera,” David P. Goldman argues that Giovanni’s character as created by Tirso de Molina (1630, The Trickster of Seville), is an implicit critique of the limits of Christian morality that is based on the principles of love and conscience. Goldman writes:

The trouble, Tirso demonstrates, is that a society that depends on conscience has no defense against a sociopath who has none. Don Juan is a predator inside the Christian world with no natural enemies. Juan enjoys murdering the male relatives of his female victims almost as much he enjoys seducing the women. To the extent that we can speak of Juan’s descendants in today’s fiction, they are not so much lovers but serial killers.

De Molina’s world was full of sociopathic men in power, including Spain’s King Philip IV, who staged a coup against the legitimate heir to the Spanish throne. And thus, Goldman notes, by portraying one of such men without conscience, de Molina was trying to posit a legitimate moral and social question: how to recognize them and how to deal with them and, most of all, whether it is even possible to deal with them (outside of the supernatural forces of divine justice). Goldman’s point is well taken, and it has been a subject of inquiry by many modern philosophers. Is Giovanni’s life motto of satisfying his own needs and desires above all an exegesis on psychopathic mentality, or is it merely an Enlightenment-era glorification of the individual vis-à-vis the constraints of a narrow-minded and bigoted society? What is Giovanni’s ethical position, and can we even call him an ethical subject?

In his 19th-century treatise, “The Immediate Erotic Stages or the Musical Erotic,” found in his 1843 book Either/Or, the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813–55) argues that Mozart’s Giovanni represents sexuality and eroticism, which are the opposites of Christian morality. Giovanni also represents absolute immorality and the absolute triumph of desire. Kierkegaard writes: “In Don Giovanni, however, desire is absolutely qualified as desire. . . . In this stage, therefore, desire is absolutely genuine, victorious, triumphant, irresistible, and demonic” (84–85). However, the Don is also the center of the story. “Giovanni’s passion ‘resonates in and supports . . . Elvira’s wrath, Anna’s hate, Ottavio’s pomposity, Zerlina’s anxiety, Masetto’s indignation, Leporello’s confusion’” (Kierkegaard 119).

In his book, Love Declared, Denis de Rougemont also describes Giovanni as demonic:

When he strides on stage, glittering in silk and gold, yhe heroic seducer at his proudest, we are tempted to see in him only the natural fire of desire, a kind of vehement and somehow innocent animality. But Nature has never produced anything like this. We sense there is something demonic about him, almost a polemic of defiant wickedness. . . . In the intoxication of anarchy he thrives on, this grand seigneur never forgets his rank. His natural mood is scorn; nothing is further from his nature. Consider how he treats women: incapable of possessing them, he first violates them morally in order to subjugate the animal part of their being; and no sooner has he taken than he rejects them, as if he sought the fact of the crime rather than the gratifications of pleasure. A perpetual polemicist, he happens to be completely determined by the good and the just—against them. If the laws of morality did not exist, he would invent them in order to violate them. Which is what suggests to us the spiritual nature of his secret, so carefully masked by the pretext of his instinct. On the summits of the mind in revolt, we shall see Nietzsche renew this mortal challenge a hundred years later. (101–2)

For de Rougemont, Giovanni embodies “an absolute moral nihilism” (115). But Giovanni thrives not so much on desire but on transgression; he is driven not by the satisfaction derived from action but from the breaking of a taboo.

In 1903, the British playwright George Bernard Shaw published a satirical play, Man and Superman, an adaptation of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, with some Mephistophelian themes borrowed from the German Romantic poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust (based on Christopher Marlowe’s play, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus). Shaw’s four-act play opened at The Royal Court Theatre in London on May 23, 1905. The third act, called Don Juan in Hell, is often performed separately, and it consists of a philosophical discussion between Don Juan and the Devil, with Doña Ana and the Statue of Don Gonzalo, Ana’s father, watching. The debate revolves around “the advantages of Hell (art, beauty, love, pleasure) and Heaven (rational discourse and promulgation of the Life Force). The Devil, of course, defends those hedonistic amenities, whereas Juan, a true Shavian, wants none of them and heads for a thinker’s Heaven. Don Gonzalo, who had become the Statue, and Doña Ana, the Lady par excellence, make their own idiosyncratic contributions to the great debate” (Simon). “The earth,” Juan tells Ana (as the Devil listens), “is a nursery in which men and women play at being heroes and heroines, saints and sinners” in “a fool’s paradise.”

The title of Shaw’s play comes from the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical concept of the “Übermensch” (“Superman”). In his 1883 book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche proposes the idea of the Übermensch as the ultimate goal for humanity. The Übermensch exists beyond Christian morality, and beyond good and evil. He devises his own moral code; however, he also owns up to all of his ethical choices and transgressions. He regrets none of them, living his life without fear, even if it were caught in the loop of “eternal recurrence.” That is, even if his life were to repeat over and over into eternity, the Superman would not alter any of his decisions. By owning up to his moral code and being willing to die for it, Giovanni can be thought of as Nietzsche’s prototypical Superman.

Like Shaw, modern thinkers have also been considering Giovanni through the prism of Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch, most famously the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, who argues that Giovanni’s refusal to repent is what actually makes him an ethical subject. At the end, Žižek (1989) argues,

[Giovanni] is confronted with the following choice: if he confesses his sins, he can still achieve salvation; if he persists, he will be damned for ever. From the viewpoint of the pleasure principle, the proper thing to do would be to renounce his past, but he does not, he persists in his Evil, although he knows that by persisting he will be damned for ever. Paradoxically, with his final choice of Evil, he acquires the status of an ethical hero—that is, of someone who is guided by fundamental principles “beyond the pleasure principle” and not just by the search for pleasure or material gain. (Sublime Object, 27)

If he seeks only pleasure and the avoidance of responsibility, the natural thing for Giovanni, so it seems, would be to repent (or at least pretend to) in order to avoid death and eternal damnation. Yet he disregards Leporello’s pleading, declaring that he’s not a coward (“Ho fermo il cor in petto, non ho timor, verrò!” / “My heart is firm in my chest, I have no fear, I will!”). Such an ending seems oxymoronic, as Žižek points out:

Don Giovanni persists in his libertine attitude at the very moment when he knows very well that what awaits him is only the gallows . . . That is to say, from the standpoint of pathological pleasures, the thing to do would be to accomplish the formal act of penitence: Don Giovanni knows that death is close, so that by atoning for his deeds he stands to lose nothing, only to gain (ie: to save himself from posthumous torments), . . . yet “on principle” he chooses to persist in his defiant stance of the libertine. How can one avoid experiencing Don Giovanni’s unyielding “No!” to the statue . . . as the model of an intransigent ethical attitude, notwithstanding its “evil” content? (Tarrying, 96)

The ultimate paradox of Don Giovanni thus might be: the man who pursues only pleasure sentences himself to death (beyond the pleasure principle), to justify his pursuit of pleasure. Repentance (or faux repentance) would seem to be more consistent with his life’s philosophy, yet it would also undermine this philosophy and thereby unravel his entire identity.

In his book, Mozart and the Enlightenment: Truth, Virtue and Beauty in Mozart’s Operas, Nicholas Till makes a similar point:

With his desperate, defiant denial he becomes a triumphant yea-sayer, prepared to plead his values of individual freedom at the bar of heaven itself. In this moment, as the scene is written by Mozart, it is almost impossible not to identify with Don Giovanni and adopt him as some sort of existential rebel: a rebel whom Camus was to describe as, “A man who says no: but whose refusal does not imply a renunciation,” and who prefers “the risk of death to a denial of the rights that he defends.” (226)

This paradox of Don Giovanni’s final choice is what has captivated philosophers. On one hand, we can’t help but condemn the Don, as does the Commendatore; on the other, we also can’t help but appreciate his final stand and his bravado. In this final act of refusal, Giovanni transforms from a villain to a tragic hero whose fall is brought about by nothing but his own tragic flaws.


  • de Rougemont, Denis. Love Declared: Essays on the Myths of Love. New York: Pantheon, 1963.

  • Kierkegaard, Søren. “The Immediate Erotic Stages or the Musical Erotic.” In Kierkegaard’s Writings, III, Part I: Either/Or, Part I, ed. and trans. with introd. and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987.

  • Till, Nicholas. Mozart and the Enlightenment: Truth, Virtue and Beauty in Mozart’s Operas. New York: Norton, 1992.

  • Žižek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso, 1989.

  • ———. Tarrying with the NegativeKant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993.

Friday, May 8, 2015

DR. VON LYRIC: A Serenade to, for, and by Don Giovanni

The Don has been charming audiences (and perhaps causing slight anxiety) over the past weeks at the Shubert Theatre. One of his many seductive strategies is his lovely serenade at the beginning of Act 2. It is not completely without guile or deception or some inherent badness (nothing the Don does, is) - he is after all pretending to be his servant, has just played a cruel trick on the vulnerable Elvira, and is soon to ruthlessly beat up the innocent Masetto - but for the moment he's all sexy melody.

"Ecco ridente" from THE BARBER OF SEVILLE (Rossini)
Another serenade - perhaps more inherently sincere - although interestingly the singer (Count Almaviva) is pretending to be the student Lindoro much as Giovanni is disguising his own aristocratic station by pretending to be his servant Leporello.

The "Siciliana" from CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA (Mascagni)
Yet another lovely serenade... but which has deadly repercussions. Turiddu sings to his mistress Lola. Perhaps a somewhat foolish public act which seems to brazenly announce to all (including Lola's husband) what is going on - and leads to a violent Sicilian conclusion.

From FAUST (Gounod)
A nasty mocking serenade by Mephistopheles to the vulnerable Marguerite who has been seduced (and soon will be abandoned) by the reckless Faust.

"Serenade" from SCHWANENGESANG (Schubert)
Perhaps the most familiar of non-operatic serenades performed (exploited?) by The Three Tenors.

Harlekin's serenade from ARIADNE AUF NAXOS (Richard Strauss)
A more traditional serenade... à la Watteau. 

Susanna's 4th Act serenade from THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO (Mozart)
One of Mozart' s most beautiful arias and one of his most subtle dramatic conceits.  Figaro, Susanna's very recent husband, is hidden and is consumed with raging jealousy when he overhears what he thinks is a passionate love song directed at the lecherous Count Almaviva by his wife. Susanna knows that Figaro is there listening and as she slyly seems to ostensibly address the Count, she pours out her deep love for her new husband... the orchestral sounds of plucked strings seem to echo the throbbing heartbeats of her deeply loving (and faithful) heart.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Don Giovanni: The Law of the Father

By Magda Romanska, Ph.D., BLO Dramaturg

Don Juan and the Statue of the Commander
in a painting by Alexandre-Évariste Fragonard,
ca. 1830–35
(Musée des Beaux-Arts de Strasbourg
One of the most compelling characters of Mozart’s Don Giovanni is the figure of the Commendatore, Donna Anna’s murdered father, who returns from the dead to avenge himself and his daughter. In the 18th century, Mozart’s portrayal of the Commendatore carried two important semiotic frameworks. First, as the father figure, the Commendatore symbolized patriarchal power as expressed though political and sacred authority. Second, returning to life as a “Stone Man,” the Commendatore also embodied a dominant myth of the era, that of the living statue that straddled the world of the living and the world of the dead.

Unlike Don Giovanni, who represents sexualized masculinity, the Father is a symbol of authority attained through the confluence of political, religious, and state power. Describing the Commendatore, scholar Irving Singer argues that at the end of Don Giovanni, although the libertine dies, he dies at the hands of an elder male. Thus, at the close of the opera,

[T]he institution of male dominance continues unabated. For Don Giovanni dies not at the hands of women—as in the Orpheus myth—but through a metaphysical agency that represents another kind of masculine domination. The Statue destroys Don Giovanni as a way of denying that supremacy can be attained through mere sexuality. The Commendatore, Ottavio and even Masetto dominate by means of a social authority that Don Giovanni constantly rejects. For them it is political strength that provides the foundation of their dominance over women: they are warriors, they run the state, they assert their prerogatives as fathers and husbands. (28–29)

Like in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in Mozart’s Don Giovanni the Father comes back from the dead to exact his rightful revenge. As in Hamlet, the Commendatore is a symbol of secular state power and of divine law. Writing about Hamlet’s father, the French philosopher Jacques Derrida notes that the Father stands for God; he is described as an omnipotent being who “holds man in his gaze and in his hand,” arousing what Christian scholars refer to as “Mysterium tremendum et fascinaus,” the mystery before which man trembles and is fascinated. The Ghost—the Father—is an “apparition of a spectre” who “makes the law, who delivers the injunction” and from whom “everything begins.” “The anticipation is at once impatient, anxious, and fascinated: this, the thing (‘this thing’) will end up coming” (Specters 7, 4). In Don Giovanni, the Father also stands in for God, and he represents, as scholar Nicholas Till points out, “the importance of belief in God’s avenging powers for the very security of society itself” (223).

In both Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the shadow of a powerful, otherworldly, supernatural father figure looms over the drama, as it looms over the patriarchal order that they inspire. In both stories, the final word of the Father is the standpoint upon which all ethical considerations subsequently depend. The Fathers’ paternal authority is the source of truth; they are, as philosopher Slavoj Žižek put it, “the obscene, uncanny, shadowy double of the Law of the Father”—“the father who knows” (158–59). In both stories, the Fathers embody the unalienable law of the symbolic order, “the Law of the Father . . . the fundamental law of our social system” (Braidotti 82). In Hamlet, the Ghost represents the nation as Fatherland, and the patriarchy as the foundation of society, nation, and ethics: “State, Emperor, Nation, Fatherland, and so on” (Derrida, Specters 142). In Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the figure of the Commendatore represents the restoration of the social order threatened by Don Giovanni’s unbridled and transgressive sexuality (unable to resist his charisma, Don Giovanni’s women undermine the established view of femininity as fundamentally lacking sexual agency and desire). In both stories, the symbolic Law of the Father who is the source of moral truth prevails over all other worldly values and considerations.

The second aspect of the Commendatore that was significant for Mozart’s contemporaries was the fact that the Father returns to life as a living statue. In the 18th century, the Greek myth of Pygmalion, a sculptor who falls in love with a sculpture of a woman he has created, which comes alive, appeared in many artistic representations. Ovid’s myth of the living artwork inspired many artists and writers of the era, such as the German art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the German poets Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock and Friedrich von Schiller. During Mozart’s lifetime alone, no fewer than 50 Pygmalion operas, ballets, melodramas, and pantomimes appeared on the European performing arts scene. Most famous was Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony, with its finale, “The Creatures of Prometheus,” about Prometheus and a group of his clay statues.

The scholar Jonathan Miller argues that the myth of the living statue has religious origins and that it held powerful sway over the 18th-century imagination:

When Leporello addresses the statue of the Commendatore in the cemetery and the marble figure responds, Mozart and da Ponte were bringing into play a contemporary public perception of the ambivalent nature of sculpture. The statue, although stone, has the form and volume of a living man and appears to inhabit the same space as the spectator. This notion of a sculpture so deceptively realistic that it appeared to come alive was already established in the classical myth of Pygmalion and underlies the many medieval accounts of miracles in which statues of the Virgin and saints speaks or gesture to the devout observer; by the eighteenth century the idea has become a commonplace of critical discourse concerning sculpture. (62)

In the 18th century, one of the most poignant aspects of the living sculpture was its ambivalent status: neither living nor dead, the walking statue evoked an aura of ambiguity, thus placing spectators in a liminal space between the two worlds. The popularity of tomb sculptures also contributed to the feeling that they represented a transition into the otherworldly dimension. By making the Commendatore return to life under the guise of the living sculpture, Da Ponte was thus incorporating an important theatrical convention that at the same time carried philosophical and religious subtexts.

The Enlightenment era was also fascinated with the automaton, L’homme machine, which “embodied the mechanistic theory of human nature” (Rumph 45). The Stone Man was thus also a symbol of man’s desire to build a living object: “As aesthetic symbol, the animated statue allowed artists to explore the membrane between reality and representation, nature and artifice” (ibid.). The figure of the Commendatore in Mozart’s Don Giovanni was thus rich in meaning, symbolizing at once the authority of the patriarchal father figure, the spiritual transition into the other world, and the Enlightenment’s fascination with science and engineering.


  • Braidotti, Rosi. Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.
  • Derrida, Jacques. The Gift of Death. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
  • ———. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. New York: Routledge, 1994.
  • Miller, Jonathan. Don Giovanni: Myths of Seduction and Betrayal. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.
  • Rumph, Stephen. Mozart and Enlightenment Semiotics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.
  • Singer, Irving. Mozart and Beethoven: The Concept of Love in Their Operas. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010.
  • Till, Nicholas. Mozart and the Enlightenment: Truth, Virtue and Beauty in Mozart’s Operas. New York: Norton, 1992.
  • Žižek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso, 1989.


Don Giovanni and the Equestrian Statue, by Charles S. Ricketts, 1905 (U.K. Government Art Collection)

Don Giovanni Dragged into Hell, by Pietro Bini, 1796

Scene from "Don Giovanni" by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (litho), German School, Bridgeman Art Library

Monday, May 4, 2015

BLO's Version of Mozart's Don Giovanni

By Magda Romanska, Ph.D., Boston Lyric Opera Dramaturg

During preparations for the Prague premiere of Don Giovanni in October of 1787, Mozart was, as ever, heavily involved with all aspects of the production, from the music and the staging to writing the libretto. In fact, he continued writing and rewriting until the opening and even after. The second production, in Vienna, which opened in May of 1788, included many changes in the libretto and score. First, Mozart added two new arias; second, but more importantly, he made a number of cuts in the Finale, eliminating repetitive lines by the Commendatore and Don Giovanni and cutting the final epilogue, in which the couples discuss their post- Don Giovanni plans for the future. Thus, the Viennese version ended with the grand scene of condemnation—Don Giovanni disappearing into the pit of fire, carried away by demons. Mozart believed such an ending was more powerful because it culminated with the terrifying vision of Hell and condemnation, leaving the audience in a state of awe and horror. As Don Giovanni’s story concluded, there was no need to bring back the couples for the epilogue.

In BLO’s version, we are honoring Mozart’s revisions of the opera by cutting the final epilogue and tightening the libretto for more intense dramatic effect. Thanks to these cuts, we are able to execute the classic (and neo-classical) vision of the opera’s dramatic structure, ascribing to the Greek rule of the three unities: time, space, and action. Our version of the opera takes place within 24 hours, in Don Giovanni’s home, following all of the characters in one continuous swoop, part cinéma verité and part ensemble piece. Our Don Giovanni is a man of means, and his house parties, as claustrophobic as they can get, serve as a way for high society to interact, entertain, and destroy each other. With his wealth and charisma, the Don wields the power of the house master, moving his guests, both men and women, like chess pieces on the board. This fishbowl setting emphasizes the divide between the public world of social and moral rules that govern men and women’s sexuality and the private world of bedrooms, where official boundaries are tested and transgressed. Dramatically, the opera follows Thomas Hobbes’ vision of the boudoir as a battlefield, with man (the rake, the libertine) pursuing woman (the fortress of virtue and temptation) until she’s conquered.

By tightening the libretto (as Mozart intended with his Vienna revisions) and staging the opera within the neo-classical model of the three unities (as was customary in Mozart’s Age of Enlightenment), we are able to solve a number of structural problems, while heightening the dramatic tensions and emotional impact of the opera. And by focusing on the ensemble, we create a world of power and sexuality that is as alluring and seductive as it is dangerous and destructive.

Kevin Burdette (left) as Leporello and Duncan Rock as the Don in the BLO production.
Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Friday, May 1, 2015

DR. VON LYRIC: The Don goes to Hell via Hollywood

George Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman was first performed in 1905, but omitted the third act of this already lengthy play. The third act is a very Shavian digression (in essence, a separate play) set in Hell and featuring a witty, ironic, and bitingly perceptive philosophical debate on war, love, politics, gender, sex, and everything else under the sun... The participants are Don Juan, Doña Ana, the Commander (her father), and (getting all the best lines, as usual) the Devil himself. Now often performed as a separate evening, it achieved its most well-known incarnation in 1952, when a glamorous quartet of actors (including a very suave Charles Boyer) toured in a staged reading. Here is an extended excerpt. Listen to it all (it's quite compelling) if you have time, but at least check out the opening, which features the unmistakable and irresistible eloquence and sly wit of Charles Laughton:

Now, we turn to three representations of Don Juan in film, incarnated by three actors who seemingly carried more than a bit of Giovanni DNA in their make-up... simultaneous delight in and abuse of both women and alcohol, careening careers devoted to personal extravagance and defiant, anarchistic gestures, and a certain feeling of inevitable decay and dissolution.

Here's John Barrymore in a 1926 "silent" film, although it was in fact the first Hollywood film to use synchronized sound effects and music (played by the New York Philharmonic), but with no dialogue. It has been claimed that it has the most kisses in film history--127 of them!

Douglas Fairbanks in 1934... an aging Don Juan. It was Fairbanks' last film:

Errol Flynn in 1948:

A modern take... a delusional Johnny Depp, who believes he's Don Juan, is undergoing therapy with his psychiatrist, Marlon Brando, who himself is gradually drawn into Depp's fantasy world: