It’s hard to think about anything other than politics these days, but sometimes it helps to think about something completely innocuous.
For what it’s worth, I’m going to talk about Mozart operas. There are reasons to do that.
First of all, the four big Mozart operas (Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Cosi Fan Tutte, Magic Flute) represent an incredible level of artistic achievement. They are part of everyone’s cultural patrimony, and anyone who hasn’t had the experience is missing out. (This version of the Marriage of Figaro is free on YouTube, and this DVD is both good and cheap.)
Next is the fact that opera is an unusual discipline in that different composers have had such different ideas about it, that the results are simply not the same thing. Opera goes way back as a formalized way to combine music and drama, but the modern notion of a fully-formed musical drama was created by Mozart with the Marriage of Figaro in 1786. The nineteenth century took that form and ran with it, but in quite a different direction. While Mozart operas are about people, the nineteenth century went mythic. With Wagner and even Verdi the characters and spectacle become larger than life. In that sense the four big Mozart operas represent an unsurpassed peak of form.
Those four big operas are about—respectively—rape, murder, love, and religion. That covers a lot of territory, but there are certain common threads. The primary one that I want to talk about here is the presentation of the woman’s point of view. The reason to do this is that generations of male opera producers have frequently lost track of this thread, to the detriment of their productions. It is an odd fact of the opera business that the fixation on spectacle is such that people don’t seem to look for common threads. So there can be whole traditions of wrong-headedness!
We’ll start with the Marriage of Figaro. Why is a “marriage” opera about rape? Because the plot turns on the so-called “droit de seigneur”, the right of a noble master to get a first night with any female subject who gets married. That’s one good definition of rape, and the opera is concerned with the efforts of master’s wife and the coming bride to avoid it. For this opera it’s their game and the several men in the picture mostly just get in the way. There’s no way to misinterpret this one. There’s even a minor aria (Act 4 Scene 4) on unequal justice in male-female relations.
However things already get confused with the second opera Don Giovanni. Don Giovanni is Don Juan, a brave and powerful nobleman who accepts no constraints on his behavior and is infinitely successful in seductions of women. In the opera he kills the father of one of them and is eventually dragged down to Hell as a result.
Opera productions and criticism tend to focus on the power and heroic amorality of the title role, and you can argue that position by noting the contrasting weakness of the other male characters. But that’s ignoring most of the opera. What’s remarkable about this retelling of the Don Juan story is that it spends much more time with the women than the men.
The Don Juan character is here with all his personal strengths, but at the same time this is also a retelling of the Marriage of Figaro story (exchanging the “droit du seigneur” for power- and class-based seduction), and it’s the women in this opera who have to pick up the pieces. To see Mozart’s intent you just have to follow the music. The women are the ones onstage trying with difficulty to live in the world that the male characters have created. The power relationships are made clear in both words and music for the seduction scenes. And all of the women have stature; Donna Elvira’s second aria is a particularly remarkable example. She starts as a comic character, and grows until she gets a kind of credo aria. Don Giovanni may be dragged down to hell for murder, but the women have to go on.
It is wrong to view this opera as Don Giovanni’s story exclusively. Despite many productions and much music criticism to the contrary, the women’s stories are equally important. As examples of the opposite, I’ve seen productions where all three female characters were undercut: It was not Mozart’s idea that Donna Anna was merely another conquest making a fuss, or that Zerlina was a slut, or that Donna Elvira was flat out ridiculous. There’s a Metropolitan Opera DVD version where the women’s second arias are treated as about their men! We’ve had centuries of eager male egos producing the opera they wanted instead of the opera as it is. I’ve read many comments that the point of Don Giovanni is how boring the world is without him. Sound familiar?
Things get even more complicated with the next opera, Cosi Fan Tutte. The core of the story is a joke, possibly from an event that really happened. Two men swear to an older cynic that their girlfriends will be loyal forever, and he bets them he can break them down. He sends the men off to an imaginary war and then has them return disguised to woo each other’s girlfriend. At the end the women succumb, the men unmask, and the cynic proclaims his triumph. It’s a very dark joke, since the 18th century consequences for the women would be disastrous and the manipulated wooing of the women involves increasingly horrifying violations of ethics and trust. Unsurprisingly the story is difficult to end, and you can find half a dozen variations of the ending on Amazon.
However for Mozart’s intent one again only needs to follow the music. In that there is no question. The women are much more carefully drawn and sympathetic than the men—who are only fitfully in the spotlight. With the elaborate violations of trust the opera turns the joke upside down—the primary betrayal is of the women by the men. Such stories are not unique—there’s a lengthy Cosi Fan Tutte story in Don Quixote for example with even more dire consequences. What is unusual here, though, is presenting the story from the women’s point of view. In a manner analogous to what happens in Don Giovanni, Mozart made his opera out of the consequences to the women.
Nonetheless many productions buy the joke. A recent Boston Lyric Opera production, for example, was most interested in which possible lovers the girlfriends would choose! By contrast the most coherent production I’ve even seen was done by the New England Conservatory a few years ago. The action took place on a resort set named for the cynic: “Hotel Don Alfonso”. The women did what no one in the eighteenth century could even imagine—get up and leave Hotel Don Alfonzo. That’s the reason the story was so difficult to end.
Finally there is Mozart’s last opera “The Magic Flute”. The plot here is complicated and functions as a kind of initiation story for a society modeled on the 18th century Masonic movement. Mozart was a Mason and believed in its goal of a rationally-ordered enlightenment society. However, there were no women Masons, so the Masonic movement itself doesn’t fit with what we’ve been talking about.
However the opera both is and isn’t Masonic. There are plenty of statements of Enlightenment goals. And the libretto has quite a lot of organizational mumbo-jumbo, including comments from speakers about “being a man” and not listening to “jabbering women.” But when you follow the music, the mumbo-jumbo gets parodied, and by far the strongest character is a woman (Pamina). The initial male lead is almost forgotten in the second act and has to be guided through his trials by her. We’re even told at the end that she should be among the ruling elite. It’s hard to find much else in the 18th century to match that. Mozart couldn’t change the Masons but he did change his opera.
It seems that the Masons weren’t too happy about that. There is a trio late in the second act (where Sarastro drags Tamino away from Pamina and off to war) which makes no sense in its current context. The only place where it does make sense is near the beginning of the act, where it sets up the rest of the act as Pamina’s story. Many current productions actually do the opera that way. It’s clear something happened, and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Mozart’s plan for the female lead went beyond what the Masons could take, so they toned it down at the last minute.
What does all of this come down to? Mozart was certainly not producing feminist propaganda, but he was very systematic about respecting the feminine roles in his operas. And it is fundamentally wrong not to recognize that consistent thread. Mozart went to great pains to make you respect his women and understand their problems.
We can only speculate why. Mozart had lived his life from childhood on the wrong side of the ruling nobility’s class divide, which may or may not have to do with sensitivity to the position of women. Further the opera world was different—women were of prime importance, and he was satisfying the sopranos who were his stars. Finally we know that Mozart was influenced by the rediscovery of Shakespeare (in translation) during his time in Vienna, and that was certainly art that respected its characters.
Perhaps none of that is relevant. But the thread of concern for women’s issues is undeniable and should be recognized in any conscientious theatrical performance.