To add a bit to my post on Don Giovanni, I’ve been unable to put the opera down – due both to the gorgeous music and my unresolved feelings about a plot so heavy with archaic sexism, and what it means to perform it today. A friend asked me once “Why perform old operas at all, especially if they have such problematic content?”, which I didn’t have an answer for, but equally and oppositely struck me as not the solution. Responding to a comment thread in another blog, I was able to articulate some of my feelings in both directions: why it is important to be critical of sexist or racist content when staging a historic work, but why it is also vital to perform these works and how they have so much to give us.
I first was introduced to Mozart operas by The Magic Flute, which while I love a fantastical story filled with magic and allegory, left me feeling sorry for the Evil Quee…I mean Queen of the Night and thinking “wow this is SO sexist!” Two years later I finally see The Marriage of Figaro and find it full of resistance (against class and patriarchal structures), much to my delight. Differing attitudes are totally there in the context of the time, and contemporary audiences can’t just be lazy and use “product of it’s time” as a blanket excuse not to be critical.
I think simultaneously, the modern construct of artistic genius and veneration of the cannon clouds the way contemporary audiences perceive historical works. When operas were written for patrons or to fill a theatre with the flashy story of the moment composers and librettists were writing to the dominant cultural climate, and the stories don’t always make sense out of temporal (or geographical) context. Don Giovanni is a prime example (I am totally obsessed with it – I love the music so much, and find myself returning to it again and again despite it seeming like the opposite of everything I believe, plot-wise), as it’s a reaction to things that were actually happening at the time, allowing an audience to indulge in both voyeurism and moral superiority while giving them a peek into what people like Casanova and The Marquis de Sade were doing while they were running around trying to turn being an aristocratic a**hole into a philosophy. Taking it out of context of the rise of Libertinism and perform it a post-sexual-revolution world where people have access to reproductive control and feminism makes the plot even more alien. I think there’s so much about class in Don G that get’s ignored by contemporary “historical” performances. One of the main points – that libertinism really only works for rich dudes who have the money to get away with anything – could really be intentionalized in contemporary performances as a point that is still relevant (as we are all so unfortunately familiar with in recent US politics). My major objection is that the marketing of modern historical performances still banks on this romanticizing of the idea of “seduction” when the plot begins with an attempted rape and a murder, and rolls all of this up into highly euphemistic language instead of acknowledging it as dark and complex. That tricking women into sex is considered “seduction” today is a huge problem with doing conventional this-is-the-way-we’ve-always-done-it productions with no analysis.
There’s this perception out there that “historical” performances as somehow being more “authentic” or “what the composer would have wanted” but people forget that we view historical performances through our contemporary lenses – and that any performance or marketing choice brings contemporary assumptions (often sexist, etc. in their own right). There are other ways of getting to the truth (and potentially other truths to be brought to light if the composer/librettist did a good job of turning a flashy story into a meditation on human nature).
I think there’s a way to use these pieces to deepen our understanding of the period in which they were created, not discarding the work because of the sexism, and not glossing over the sexism because of the work. Live presentations of historical works are like living artefacts that both allow us to understand the past and hold a mirror up to the present to show the work that still needs to be done.