Student panel discusses prejudice in opera, voice department

By Hannah Kinzer

On Sunday, Nov. 8, members of the Musicology (MUCO) 453 course Opera and Betrayal led a presentation and discussion on the opera “Don Giovanni.” The event, sponsored by the Student Alliance Against Sexual Harassment and Assault (SAASHA), addressed issues of sexual harassment and assault brought up in the opera. The event was open to members of the community, and was held in Harper Hall from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m.

The opera “Don Giovanni” has music composed by Mozart and an Italian libretto (script) by Lorenzo Da Ponte. It has two acts, and was first performed on Oct. 29, 1787 in Prague, Bohemia. The story follows the infamous exploits of the nobleman Don Giovanni. Giovanni attempts to rape and seduce numerous women throughout the play with the help of his servant, Leporello. His exploits cause the death of the commendatore, and provoke several characters to seek revenge. The opera ends after a statue of the commendatore pulls Giovanni into hell.

Associate Professor of Music Julie McQuinn teaches the musicology course Opera and Betrayal, which facilitated the event. According to the 2015-2016 Lawrence University Course Catalog, the course “examine[s] different modes of betrayal (for example, at the plot, music, or production level) within opera from the 17th century to the present and explore[s] possible meanings conveyed by operas relative to specific societal contexts and ideals, past and present.”

McQuinn said, “The idea [for the panel] arose as a result of student engagement with two performances of Mozart’s opera and with articles that we read about the opera, […] class discussions, thinking in writing and formal papers. Many of the students were affected deeply by this opera […] especially by the resonances with issues and ideologies related to sexual harassment and assault.” Senior Margaret McNeal said of the class, “We felt as a class that these issues are hugely significant and deserve a safe space for discussion.” Panel members included McNeal as well as senior Jon Hanrahan, senior Deme Helwig, senior Jenna Kuchar and senior Josh Eidem.

The presentation started with Eidem and Hellwig, accompanied by Hanrahan, performing the duet “Là ci darem la mano.” In the opera, the piece is sung as Don Giovanni coaxes the recently married Zerlina to accompany him to his castle.

Next, panel members spoke about exposing the violent sexual undercurrents of the opera. They challenged the audience to question the classic work, presenting the libretto and music of the opera with the context of Lawrence University’s sexual misconduct policy. They commented that while the libretto shows many instances of sexual misconduct, the music does not reflect the severity of these violations.

Additionally, Kuchar suggested transparent staging techniques, more critical character notes in playbills and pre-performance lectures as ways that could help the audience become aware of such undertones. Eidem questioned how social expectations regarding male behavior, deviation from heterogeneous sexuality and mental health relate to judgment of Don Giovanni’s actions. McNeal examined the effect of the male gaze—the idea of works being created to please a heterosexual male audience—on the depictions of characters in the opera.

The discussion generated strong responses. Hanrahan said, “Our event brought to light a lot of ugliness, but a lot of beautiful possibility, too.” He went on to explain, “Some members of our audience asked probing, heartfelt questions. Some brought their own personal experiences, whether as opera professionals or survivors of sexual assault or just as students at this school.” However, he said, “We received a surprising amount of pushback […] Why is it so hard to acknowledge that the music we love can convey dangerous, destructive ideals?” He went on to say, “I was disappointed that students and faculty alike are still somewhat resistant to our critical readings of canonized works, and I was frankly shocked by the stark, upsetting means some attendees used to resist our thoughts.”

McNeal commented, “I am disgusted by attempts from those with privilege—particularly men who refuse to acknowledge their privilege—to deny the very existence of a dieresis and to assert the status quo as the natural and rational order of things.” She also said, “By and large, attendees were wonderful listeners who contributed interesting perspectives to the conversation. It’s just a shame that these perspectives were not given the full attention they deserve in a more nuanced conversation.”

Reflecting on topics brought up in the discussion Hanrahan said, “I want to talk about racism in our most ‘cherished’ music and performances. I want to destroy the idea that Mozart and others should remain on pedestals. I want to talk about how this opera would have ended if a woman composed it.” McNeal responded, “I would love to continue a conversation about how works and composers become pedestalized in the first place, and how the appointment of ‘Great Masters’ is a direct bi-product of the patriarchy. I would like to discuss what it means to be a woman in music, particularly as a classical singer.”

The event dealt with challenging questions and issues. McQuinn said, “I hope that [the event] encourages more discussion, more listening, more thinking, more action.”

“We shouldn’t shy away from these issues! They affect us on a daily basis,” urged McNeal. She went on to say, “Art does not exist in a vacuum—art reflects these very issues and is a by-product of them. By saying, ‘It’s just theater! It’s just a product of its time!’ and mounting performances that do not engage with the opera critically, we create an excusable space in which these manifestations of abuse and inequality can be stripped so completely of their weight that we can treat this content as entertainment and comedy.”