How are we to judge Don Giovanni, the protagonist of Mozart's famous opera? Is he an Enlightenment hero, a symbol of independent thinking and action standing in opposition to church and convention? Or is he a dissolute roué evading responsibility for his actions or, even worse, a murderer and rapist?
One need not answer these questions to enjoy Don Giovanni. Opera is about entertainment and enjoyment. A perfectly wonderful evening can be had at the opera by simply giving oneself to the drama, the music, and the spectacle. At the same time, opera can be about ideas. These ideas can deepen the meaning of an opera and enrich our encounter with it, while thinking about an opera's characters can enrich the moral universe from which we draw our ethical beliefs.
Mozart's opera Don Giovanni, first produced in 1787, is a retelling of the story of Don Juan, the famous seducer of women. The opera begins as Don Giovanni is leaving the bedroom of his latest paramour, Donna Anna. She is clinging to him: "Do not expect me ever to let you escape, unless you kill me." Matters quickly turn sour and an exchange of insults follows: "Traitor!" "Foolish woman!" "Scoundrel!" The racket awakens Donna Anna's father, Il Commendatore (roughly, head of civil authority in town), who with sword drawn charges Don Giovanni. The Don refuses a duel, Dad presses, they fight, and Dad is killed.
After this serious beginning, the opera turns to the comic. Various practical jokes, disguises, frustrated seductions, and pranks follow. In particular, Don Giovanni is pursued by a distraught woman whom he has abandoned, Elvira, who manages to disrupt his seduction of other women. At length, Don Giovanni and his servant, Leporello, escape from their latest imbroglio by jumping over a wall into a cemetery late at night. They are startled to find the grave of Il Commendatore, crowned by his statue. The statue speaks. The superstitious Leporello is scared silly. The Don makes light of Leporello's fear, inviting the statue to dinner. The Don returns home for a sumptuous dinner and, sure enough, the statue shows up. Don Giovanni is given a final chance to repent. He refuses and is sent to Hell.
When I first encountered Don Giovanni 30 years ago, I was struck by the political, social, and philosophical messages in the work. I conceived of Don Giovanni as a hero of the Enlightenment—standing up against the church, against convention, against rigid social class, and against the idea that we should suffer here on Earth to earn a reward in Heaven. The thrilling final scene, in which Don Giovanni shows tremendous courage by standing firm in his beliefs and refusing to submit, is an emblem of heroism.
Was my first impression justified? Did I get it right? Is Don Giovanni a hero, or is he a villain?
I formed my first impression of Don Giovanni reading the libretto and listening to a recording of the music in preparation for seeing a live performance. I was indignant at the staging of the performance, which seemed to depart from the text to paint the Don as a villain. When I prepared a presentation on Don Giovanni for The Atlas Society’s 2003 Summer Seminar, I looked at the project as an opportunity to lay out the facts supporting the conclusion that Don Giovanni was a hero. I wrote a draft of the presentation based on my memories of the facts of the case drawn from performances I had seen. At this point, David Kelley called to inquire how I was doing in preparing my presentation. I replied, "Oh, I have finished writing it. Now all I have to do is the research.
It turned out that there was quite a bit of research to do. Søren Kierkegaard, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, George Bernard Shaw, plus quite a few opera critics have written book-length treatments of the subject. There is something about the work that calls forth an impulse to examine, explain, and analyze the ideas it contains. As might be expected, these commentators found things in the work that I had not initially seen. I also saw additional performances, mostly on video, and was astonished at the range of interpretations that had been given the work, some sensitive and some just plain wrongheaded. I also reread the text carefully, enlisting the assistance of a speaker of Italian to elucidate the key passages. I was shocked to find that I had simply gotten some of the facts wrong. For instance, I had imagined that Don Giovanni had artfully avoided directly lying to women. Not so. I also had many discussions with opera fans. These discussions made it clear that the opera draws forth strong but widely divergent responses.
Well, was he a hero?
At The Atlas Society’s 2002 Summer Seminar, Nathaniel Branden presented a lecture on heroism. In that speech, Branden spoke of the leading figures of two novels, The Fountainhead and Jean-Christophe, who formed his view of heroism. He described each hero as a genius who was radically unconventional and radically independent. Each hero was persecuted by the mediocrities of his time who could not understand or felt threatened by his work, and each persevered against enormous odds.
This description fits Don Giovanni well. He is a genius at his particular calling, radically unconventional, independent, and embattled. In particular, Don Giovanni's steadfast courage and refusal to abandon his beliefs are the center of the inspiring climax of the opera and an artistic celebration of the heroic refusal of church dogma.
There is more to being a hero than extraordinary persistence in pursuit of a goal. As Branden explained, if persistence were the sole criterion, Hitler and Stalin would qualify. The goal being sought must be noble. Before we declare Don Giovanni a hero, we will need to examine his dark side.
A fundamental objection comes from the church. If you are a devout Catholic, this is obvious, since sex outside of marriage is a mortal sin. The Don's seductions result in the eternal damnation of hundreds of innocent souls. If you are not a believer, this objection evaporates. Nobody is going to Hell for enjoying sex since there is no Hell. Given the nature of Navigator readership, I will simply give the Don a pass on this objection.
Another objection is that Don Giovanni is a murderer, an accusation that is repeated throughout the opera. This strikes me as a false accusation. To begin with, killing someone in a duel is not murder. Furthermore, Don Giovanni refused to fight Donna Anna's father. I take the sense of the Don's words of refusal to be a mixture of something like this:
"Sir, I draw your attention to the fact that our code of honor forbids a young man to fight an older man."
"Damn, this is going to look bad on my résumé."
"I am superior to you, and it is beneath my dignity to fight you."
The Don's refusal takes his actions out of the arena of murder. This does not leave the Don blameless. He is superior and provoking, and he should have known that his arrogance would draw the proud Commendatore into a fight.
I can't help but note that Il Commendatore is not exactly earning the "civil servant of the year" award by his actions. As head of civil authority, he is in the justice business. His professional standards call on him to investigate accusations of crime. This means getting a clear description of the crime, being on the lookout for inconsistencies in the story, identifying suspects, investigating the facts, and providing an opportunity for the accused to present his side of the story before an impartial panel. Il Commendatore does none of this, simply proposing to execute Don Giovanni on the spot.
I can only conclude that the Don is innocent of the charge. It's true that he could have made a more gracious exit, perhaps saying, "I do not want to twice injure your family tonight," but Don Giovanni is no murderer.
Another objection is that Don Giovanni is a rapist. Donna Anna explicitly makes this accusation in Act 1, Scene 3. Let's look at the evidence. In the opening of the opera, Donna Anna becomes angry with Don Giovanni and begins calling him names. What epithet does she choose: "rapist," "criminal," "violator"? No. She calls him a "betrayer," suggesting that she was unhappy with him for leaving her. In the beginning of the scene, before it becomes apparent to her that he may abandon her, she is clinging to him and says, "Do not expect me ever to let you escape, unless you kill me." I take this to mean that she is taken with him sexually and wants to cling to him. The speech is ambiguous and could be interpreted as, "I am holding on to you until the police arrive," but I think not. It is the word "ever" that is the tip-off. "You will not ever leave me" is the sort of thing that would be said by a clinging lover, not someone making a citizen's arrest.
In terms of the drama of the opera, the most compelling evidence comes in Donna Anna's explanation to her wimpy boyfriend, Don Ottavio. Don Ottavio is depicted as weak, submissive, dutiful, easily manipulated, morally rigid, and a bit slow on the uptake. After the passage of much time, it has finally occurred to him to ask, "Hey, what exactly was that guy doing in your bedroom?" There follows a dramatic account by Donna Anna of how Don Giovanni snuck into her bedroom late at night, how she mistook him for Don Ottavio, how a struggle ensued, and how Donna Anna broke free. Whoa! Time out. Donna Anna mistook the two men, thinking at first that Don Ottavio was sneaking into her room? To paraphrase music historian Robert Greenberg, the character of Don Ottavio as presented in the opera is no more capable of sneaking around in his jammies to make kissie-kissie with Donna Anna than he is of evading an oncoming linebacker blitz to throw a winning touchdown. Donna Anna's story is an obvious fabrication, and the audience is meant to easily spot the inconsistency. Again, innocent of the charge.
We now come to some objections that cannot be so easily turned aside.
Don Giovanni is deeply narcissistic and cares not at all about the women he encounters
A telling objection is that Don Giovanni abuses women. This is going to be hard to explain away. If you think of the story in a 21st-century setting, a defense is possible. In an age when we value equality for women, when a woman can live a life financially independent of a man, and when contraceptives are available, it is easy to imagine the Don's sexual partners as responsible, willing, and knowing participants, whose later complaints about mistreatment constitute a kind of unfair whining. Furthermore, their complaints pretty much consist of being upset about not having the exclusive franchise on the Don. It is far more difficult to make this case for the 18th century. The consequences of pregnancy outside of marriage were often catastrophic. Furthermore, it is likely that many of the Don's women were naïve and believing. Don Giovanni is deeply narcissistic and cares not at all about the women he encounters. The idea of child support is completely out of the question. The Don's first words in the opera are: "You don't know who I am." Aside from having psychological significance, these words inform us about his modus operandi: never disclose your identity, so as to evade personal responsibility. Here the verdict is guilty as charged—Don Giovanni's narcissism and irresponsibility are reprehensible.
Another objection is that Don Giovanni is dishonest, that he makes false promises of marriage. It is possible to construct a defense of the Don on this score. Exaggeration and flattery are expected in courtship. If a man says, "If you leave me I will die," it doesn't mean that you should rush out to buy life insurance on him before you dump him. This defense works well in an 18th-century setting, where flowery language was the expected norm. Even Don Ottavio uses exaggerated language, addressing Donna Anna as "my life." The problem with this defense is that while it works well if you imagine the Don's lovers to be sophisticated, it is clear that he does nothing to prequalify candidates. As is made apparent in Leporello's catalogue aria, a comic summation of Don Giovanni's assiduously maintained listing of his 2,065 conquests, many of the Don's women were young and would have been naïve and gullible. At the end of the day, the Don fails on this score. He is dishonest.
We must also consider the Don's sexual pathology. It is unfair and unproductive to psychologize about the Don. To quote Bernard Williams from "Don Giovanni as an Idea": "Don Giovanni is Don Juan, but he does not have to bear the weight of all of the significance that mythical figure has come to express. Still less does Giovanni have to be pursued, as if by another Elvira, with every interpretation that has been given of Don Juanism as a psychological category: that it expresses latent homosexuality, for instance, or hatred of women, or a need for reassurance." The contemporary point of view holds that it is perfectly acceptable for people to have different sexual preferences, including a preference for casual sex. Still, we can't look away from the fact that the Don is missing out completely on the kind of intimacy and connection that is the greatest gift of sexuality. The opera shows Don Giovanni as distant and disconnected. Over the years, much has been made of the fact that of all the major characters in the opera, only Don Giovanni has no self-reflective aria. The implicit message is that he does not feel deeply. Critics moralize that Don Giovanni does not go to Hell—he is in Hell. This strikes me as pushing the point too far. In part, the Don is a simple archetype of desire and the life force. We can enjoy him for his joy of living and his love of the appetitive in life. And yet, there are moments in the opera when we can feel a touch of sadness and even loneliness in the Don.
What does the music tell us about the question of whether the Don is a hero or a villain? To begin with, it is obvious that Mozart wants us to like and enjoy the Don. He is shown as strong, confident, happy, free of superstition, and his own man. He is unapologetic about his love of life and women. He is who he is. And of course, the Don gets great music. Mozart provides Don Giovanni with an aria that explicitly embraces his philosophy of enjoying life: the famous champagne aria, "Finch' han dal vino." Here the music is quick, lively, and celebratory. I must say, however, that I find in this music a hint of sadness. There is a sense of "he doth protest too much" that leaves open thoughts of Don Giovanni's psychological challenges and his distance from human contact. I do not know whether Mozart intended this response, but I have a slight impulse to squirm with discomfort at this point in the opera.
To me, the music that best defines the Don is the opening bars of the finale. The Don is going to finish off his rather eventful day with a nice dinner. The point of dinner is enjoyment. Here we see the Don as the archetype of the life force and the embodiment of the appetitive in life. The music is swelling, sprightly, and supremely joyous.
Mozart also tells us who Don Giovanni is by telling us who he is not, that is, by providing foils or what philosophical types would call "contrast objects." The first contrast object is Leporello, Don Giovanni's servant, who is cowardly, whining, dependent, and superstitious. For the opera's opening aria, in which Leporello complains about his boss, Mozart provides music that almost stomps along, conveying lower-class crudeness and capturing the feelings of resentment expressed in the written text. Later in the opera, Mozart heightens our perception of Don Giovanni's courage by showing Leporello as cowardly. The music given Leporello in the finale when the statue arrives for dinner is quick, insistent, reactive, and seemingly uncontrolled, suggesting fear so strong that Leporello can't get a grip on himself.
The second contrast object is Don Ottavio, Donna Anna's wimpy boyfriend, who is cautious, conventional, boring, and at the same time eager to exploit her distress. Above all, we readily imagine that Don Ottavio would be hopeless in bed. These contrasts are quite clear in the music. Once when I was watching a performance, at several points I found myself checking my watch, thinking about what I was going to do the next day and generally being bored. Then it struck me: all of these moments were during Don Ottavio's arias. Mozart designed it this way. You are supposed to be bored.
To place this discussion in historic context: Mozart wrote at the time of the Enlightenment ferment. The opera premiered in 1787. This was eleven years after the American Revolution and two years before the French Revolution. As depicted and rather exaggerated in the film Amadeus, Mozart was a bit of a hell-raiser, who had a very active "teenage self." Prior to Don Giovanni, he composed The Marriage of Figaro based on the Beaumarchais play that Napoleon famously called "the revolution in action." The Marriage of Figaro poked fun at the nobility and celebrated common folk. Some commentators conjecture that Figaro so angered Mozart's patrons at Vienna that he was forced to produce his next opera, Don Giovanni, in Prague, a town that long held a reputation of encouraging the rebellious spirit. Thus, Mozart was very much a man of his time, reflecting in his art the controversies of his day and standing on the side of the new Enlightenment ideals of reason and the individual and against rank, convention, superstition, and church.
The text of Don Giovanni is quite direct on some of these points and contains an explicitly political text, a musical passage containing the refrain "Viva la Libertà." When the opera was presented in Italy, the refrain was so upsetting to the authorities that it was changed to "Viva la Società." In Mozart's day, sexual promiscuity was widespread at all levels of society. Reading contemporary accounts, it almost seems universal. Enlightenment thinking—with its rejection of rigid church strictures, celebration of the natural, and rejection of the mind-body dichotomy—was used by libertines throughout Europe, a sort of Playboy Philosophy of its day. Additionally, at this time Linnaeus introduced the biological classification system, and people started thinking, "Let's see: animal, mammal, primate...hey, I am just like those other animals." Furthermore, the voyages of exploration turned up reports from Tahiti of sexual openness accompanied by societal harmony. Think of Mozart's time as the 1970s in America mixed with a dash of Margaret Mead.
Is Don Giovanni a hero? He is not. His behavior is so flawed by narcissism, irresponsibility, and dishonesty that he simply fails to qualify. If the opera were principally about the political and social issues of the time, as I first perceived it, then we could designate the Don a hero. It is, however, principally about human relationships, and on this score the Don fails. He has many admirable traits, but he also does evil: He lies, he injures others, he evades responsibility, and he does so remorselessly.
In short, I got it wrong. My initial response to the work was in error. But it was an interesting error. Of course, the elements to which I responded were there—the text supporting liberty and attacking the church, the celebration of life and of the appetitive. The other elements were there as well—the Don's dishonesty, narcissism, and irresponsibility. My error was not letting in the richness of the work.
Don Giovanni is a morally ambivalent figure. Even at the political level he is ambivalent—representing Enlightenment ideals but at the same time embarrassing us with irresponsible behavior, rather like the druggie caucus of the Libertarian Party that believes in freedom defined as the freedom to not experience the consequences of one's behavior. Objectivists are accustomed to Ayn Rand 's characters, who are completely clear and pure—either a representation of pure good or pure evil. Wickedly unappreciative readers sometimes criticize Rand 's characters as being flat or unbelievable. In Don Giovanni we find none of that. The Don has good points and bad. We can admire and even envy him for his good points without embracing his bad ones. Don Giovanni's moral ambivalence lends energy to the opera. If the Don is a pure villain, then the opera becomes a story of his capture and punishment. If the Don is a pure hero, then the opera becomes a John Wayne remake: We bond with the hero and then he dies for the cause. It is the tension between the Don's attractive self-assurance and zest for life on the one hand and his narcissistic irresponsibility on the other hand that is the essence of the opera. This deep subject can be debated endlessly after a performance.
The Don is an operatic archetype representing the appetitive life force, and he is an emblem of liberty and independence of thought. There is much to like about him and much to learn from him. At the same time, he is dangerous and does harm. What are we to make of this conflict? Is the embrace of the appetitive in life dangerous, and if so, in what way? What are we to make of the way that women respond to the Don and, more generally, how women respond to rascals, seducers, and merely self-assured men? What forms of societal control, if any, should be applied to sexual passion so as to guard against the dangers represented by Don Giovanni? Does an attractive person have a duty to protect others against their feelings? What do we find appealing about Don Giovanni and what repulses us?
The opera offers us a rich encounter with these questions, inviting us to think deeply and, more importantly, to feel deeply about the issues of man-woman relations, the appetitive in life, the value of independence, and the value of sensitivity to others. It has rightly earned an enduring place in the Western canon for its treatment of these issues.
Of course, at the end of the day Don Giovanni is just an opera. It is there to be enjoyed as music and drama. The story doesn't have to be completely coherent (by the way, how did that tomb get built in sixteen hours?) and doesn't have to be philosophically perfect. At the same time, being attentive to the broader questions touched on by the work can allow us to draw more from the work and enhance our experience of it. It certainly has done that for me.
This article was originally published in the May 2004 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.