The Physicality of Language

There is an emphasis–dare I say overemphasis?–on the intellectual, cerebral, and cognitive aspects of language today, especially in academia. Camille Paglia has written countless essays on the dominance of postmodern deconstructionism, how we are in a Foucauldian and Derridean era, so to speak. We are unfortunately in a paradigm of a very heady way of approaching ideas and language, and it is important to think beyond this. What of other aspects of language? We have explored the importance of rhyme in my post “Time for Rhyme” on this blog which also appeared in the Macedonian online magazine Blesok. But it is important to go further than rhyme and to think about how language can be physical, auditory, something that invokes movement.

French stage actor and pedagogue Jacques Lecoq did quite a lot with physical movement and mime in his teaching. I was fortunate enough to have the rare opportunity to watch a video of one of his classes, given to me by someone who had studied at his school (from what I understand students are discouraged from revealing too much on video about it). There was one exercise where students from different countries were asked to make a hand gesture related to a certain word. It was interesting to see the diversity of responses as to how language is physicalized, and how different cultures perceive the same words.

The Italian language is so enjoyable because it is so kinesthetic. I’m not only referring to the stereotypical hand gestures that most people imagine when they think of an Italian talking, but also the way in which the inflections and the double consonants and the way vowels are drawn out for emphasis resulting in a very rollicking, physical way of speaking. There is a reason why opera was born in Italy: opera requires the physicalization of language in one’s body. There are a number of physical gestures in Italian that express a certain emotion or thought. It is also important to mention that from region to region, the language varies greatly. Italy is a country full of not only mutually unintelligible accents but dialects. The singsong calls of the Neapolitan vendors at the market (in dialect, or with a Neapolitan accent) are not something that would ever be heard in, for example, Milan, nor would they easily be understood by people of different regions, if even understood at all. This gives a richness to the linguistic culture of “the boot” (as some people lovingly refer to Italy, due to its shape), which is unified through a “standard Italian” accent even though many people still speak dialects at home or within their communities.

I am bilingual in both English (my dominant language by far) and Tamil. The latter is a Dravidian language, completely unrelated to the Indo-European family. Tamil speakers, in my observation, do not always use their hands when they talk, though there are some common gestures and it is certainly a more gesture-heavy language than English. What is noteworthy is that Tamil has quite a lot of onomatopoeia in it. To me, this is a different sense of physicality in language: the actions and motions and sounds of things as well as objects themselves are represented well by the language. For example, the word for firecracker, “pattoss,” is an actual noun that is onomatopoeic. Of course, there is always the much-mocked head nod on the Subcontinent (which I do find hysterically funny). A cousin once told a story of a four head-nod conversation at a train station between him and a vendor on the platform in which both parties completely understood what the other was saying!

We cannot ignore the tonal languages in which meaning is conveyed by tones. This is a very simplistic way of describing the complexity of how pitching one’s voice, the inflections used, and the subtleties of sounds are equally as important to a language as its orthographic and cognitive features. We think of, immediately, Chinese, and there are numerous others such as Thai or Vietnamese and even Swedish. And to go beyond tones, there are families of languages with clicks, such as the Khoisan languages of southern Africa. The language of Xhosa, which is a Bantu language spoken in South Africa, features a high degree of click consonants that can be quite challenging to non-natives. Comedian Russell Peters even has a routine about this that many readers might find funny.

In our digital era where everything is two-dimensional and on a screen, highly physicalized languages are a welcome relief. English is a rich and complex language, but American English in particular can be so literal, efficient, and to-the-point that we need to think about different ways of expressing ourselves, both verbal and nonverbal. Americans need to know more about different types of languages around the world, because when you understand a language, you get to know the people who speak it.

In/On Character

One phrase or oft-repeated concept that a writer might see on agents’ websites is that they are looking for character-driven fiction or strong characters. We might comment on someone we know who has a lot of quirks and a colorful personality as “a real character.” Children (both old and young!) love fantasy and mythological novels and media such as Harry Potter or The Game of Thrones because they delight in the archetypes and gods and goddesses and wizards and mythical figures that we do not see today in our very prosaic, pragmatic world. Someone might dismiss a novel as boring because of flat characters, or find a Hollywood blockbuster dull because the characters are nothing unique. In the opera world, we have to play a character and draw upon a number of conventions, as well as what the music indicates. Actors have to create a character without the tool of music, generate an entire human being who is separate from oneself, but that still draws upon him or herself. An icebreaker question at parties or literary events might often be, “Who is your favorite character from a book or movie?”

Why are we obsessed with characters, and take them so seriously? Why do some people hate a novel because the protagonist is “not nice” or unlikable? Why is there a whole industry of costumes and paraphernalia for us to purchase to dress up in for Halloween or other events? Why do some irrational fans detest an actor or actress personally, when he/she is merely playing a role? Why do virtually all religious traditions have sacred stories With characters of great religious figures that we refer to even thousands of years later? What does all of this mean?

Character gives us a starting point, someone to identify with and therefore we can launch the narrative. Many literary theorists would say that characters drive plot, or that plot really is just characters and what happens to them. We become attached to a character and go on a journey with them. I think roundness of character relates a lot to specificity. Nobody is one-dimensional, and what endears us to people is their quirks and various facets. How do they react in different situations? Because no two people will react in the same way to the same stimulus.

On the page, someone who is unique will grip our attention rather than “someone we have heard of before.” In highly plot-driven fiction, there is the danger of characters being flat, because they are there to serve the story’s (and therefore, the author’s) mission. Conversely, in literary fiction, plots can lag because nothing really happens, but we get a sense of real, rounded people. The best writers accomplish both. This is not an easy task, because creating complex characters is in itself an art, and then creating a strong narrative arc is also a challenge. In my work on literary retellings in the last semester of my MFA program at Warren Wilson, I found that the most successful retellings drew upon characters and themes from the original Urtext, so to speak, but fleshed them out or were able to take on a new life of their own in the retelling. John Updike and Jean Rhys were both successful in this regard with their novels Gertrude and Claudius and Wide Sargasso Sea, respectively.

In opera, as an emerging professional soprano, I am learning the importance of committing to character. This is a greater challenge than it is in straight acting, for we have the additional layer of music. To create the music ourselves, from our body, takes a tremendous amount of technical mastery and attention. The integration of character and music takes time. The majority of opera performed today, the arias we learn, are from much earlier historic times and from Europe. Therefore as American singers, we have arguably extra work with imagination and understanding the literary conceptions from earlier times. And, just as in straight acting, we are often playing or inhabiting characters that are very different from ourselves, And we must make that leap to completely immerse herself in character and lose all self-consciousness, which is the enemy of creating character in performance.

Literature and acting are two of our oldest creative impulses as human beings. We observe and we re-create. We like to tell stories, and any individual who jumps out at us as unique makes for an interesting character. We also like to observe and have the innate faculty of seeing and reflecting. As long as there are human beings, as long as we are social beings who interact with each other, there will be the phenomenon of character. And we wouldn’t want it any other way.

La Bohème: The Opera about “Nothing”

A friend complained that she profoundly disliked the opera La Bohème. Her criticism of Puccini’s hugely popular masterpiece is that the opera drags on, that it takes too long for Mimi to die, and that all of the operas she dislikes happen to be written by Puccini. These might sound like invalid criticisms, comments made by hurried, uncultured Americans who always want to “get somewhere” or something to happen. Lest one assume she is a complete cultural ignoramus, my friend is actually very knowledgeable about opera and the fine arts, and holds memberships to New York art museums though she lives in the Midwest. I was offended in jest, as I am currently learning the role of Musetta, which is as delightful as it is challenging, and will later learn the role of Mimi.

One could argue that we all have an artist we dislike in a particular genre. I doubt I will ever sit through an entire opera by Wagner, despite being an opera singer. But Wagner’s music is absolutely stunning in small doses. I find the overtures to Rienzi and Tannhäuser (one of my marooned-on-a-desert-island picks) and the Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin (tear-inducing when heard live by the Mariinsky Orchestra) to be heartbreakingly gorgeous. I have also joked that I refuse to see Puccini’s Turandot on moral grounds, that the opera is a sort of play-the-black-keys-on-the piano-and-it’s “Chinese” kind of Orientalism at its worst. But I do think it worthwhile to examine La Bohème in detail, to see if there is validity in my friend’s criticism of the opera.

La Bohème, essentially, is “an opera about nothing,” to borrow the analogy from the description of the hugely popular television show “Seinfeld.” The show focused on minutiae, where each episode was not about something grand or dramatic, but something small and silly, where the pleasure in watching came simply from being in the moment and enjoying the pleasure of watching, from funny lines or absurd situations or characters’ quirks. There is something to be said about this characteristic in all genres of artwork, where the realization of the work of art and its details, the way it reproduces reality or conjures the particular emotional feeling of the moment, is what makes it noteworthy. Impressionist paintings, for example, evoke a mood, as do 19th-century symphonic tone poems or a film like the stunning “Wings of Desire” (“Der Himmel Über Berlin”) by Wim Wenders, which is poetry on screen.

The main plotline to La Bohème is relatively simple—-a young dying woman, Mimì, falls in love with poor poet Rodolfo, who lives with his painter friend Marcello, and they are friends with other starving artists. Their relationship goes through ups and downs, as does the painter’s relationship with the coquettish Musetta. In the end, Mimì dies. All relatively straightforward, and not so much to stretch out into 4 acts. On this point, I would agree: La Bohème is too long; Act III could be condensed into Act IV. The opera could work in two acts, actually. The first could accelerate the meeting of Mimì and Rodolfo, then involve a set change into the café. At this peak of happiness, we could then see it all go downhill: Mimì seeks Marcello out to tell him of her unhappiness with Rodolfo, and then, after a set change, she dies. But even in condensing the opera into two acts, we are still ignoring a structural problem: too much of the action of here happens offstage. In this, the criticism that nothing happens in La Bohème may be well justified.

In Act I, the plot is set into action. We see Rodolfo writing and Marcello painting. We see their struggles as artists, we feel their suffering due to the lack of heat and food. And then most importantly, we see Mimì introduced onto the scene. We see her faint, we get to know her sickness. And then we see her falling in love with Rodolfo, and vice versa. In other words, Act I is active, because we are engaged with the events shown onstage.

Act II is less active, but we can forgive it because of one key reason—Musetta. She is one of opera’s greatest female characters, a free-spirited, vain, flirtatious, independent woman who will do as she pleases. She is one of the rare characters who does not suffer a tragic end, nor is she punished for enjoying her sexuality. Though we do not get much of the backstory of Marcello and Musetta’s, we get enough: theirs is an eternally on-off relationship that is generally taken lightly, in contrast to the deep, intimate, emotionally tortured relationship of Rodolfo and Mimì. We enjoy Musetta’s attention-seeking antics she uses to seduce Marcello, and her showcase aria, “Quando m’en vo” is arguably one of the most beautiful arias in all of opera. Act II is all about pleasure, pleasure in romance, pleasure in eating, pleasure in being surrounded by townsfolk. Though not super active, there is still visible action that drives the plot forward. Musetta is reunited with Marcello, and Rodolfo and Mimì are deeply in love forever.

Act III is where the opera becomes more passive. This fact is probably the most passive of all the 4 acts. Mimì has gone to seek Rodolfo at a tavern during winter. She reveals to Marcello what she has suffered from Rodolfo’s jealousy. Then, Rodolfo tells Marcello that he can’t bear it that Mimì is dying. The couple meets, and agrees to stay together until spring. While this is all fine and well, it is only because the music is so beautiful that the audience remains engaged. So much of the action has happened offstage–we have not gotten to see the downfall of their relationship, the arguments, the jealousies, Mimì’s slow decline. The contrast of a fight between Marcello and Musetta serves for comic relief: if Act II was a love moment, Act III is a hate moment in the roller coaster of their relationship. These two characters are not critical to the plot in the way Rodolfo and Mimì are. Time is stretched out in this act; it moves even more slowly than real-time.

Act IV is also rather passive until Mimì arrives on the scene. We have found out that she took up with a viscount after leaving Rodolfo, but has dragged herself, with the help of Musetta, to Rodolfo’s apartment to die. Again, too much has happened offstage that we want to know about–how did they survive the parting? What was Mimi’s relationship with this viscount? Did Rodolfo see any other women in the meantime? How has Mimì’s arrived at death’s door? Has she tried to save her life? Meanwhile, Musetta’s character arc shows her as less selfish than she was before. She has gone with Marcello to sell her earrings to buy Mimi a muff, and makes a sincere prayer to the Virgin Mary to save Mimi, an angel, considering herself unworthy of pardon. Her death scene is indeed touching, the group of friends surrounding her with their warmth and love. But again, one could argue that this act is stretched out longer than necessary, without much going on.

In sum, then, the problem with La Bohème is pacing and the portrayal of time. One must remember that the opera is based on a book, Scènes de la vie de bohème (scenes from a bohemian life), and therein lies the problem: the libretto is based on scenes. Any time a group of stories is woven together into a film or a longer work, such as an opera (and opera might be considered the equivalent of a novel), there is the danger of the longer work being fragmented. Longer works need structure and plot development. These two literary devices are the backbone or skeleton for a film or opera. Two people, Giacosa and Illica, also wrote the libretto and this may also be another source of the problem. Many films that seem unclear, messy, or fragmented have multiple writers, and it is rare when they can find unity in their vision.

This said, I still find La Bohème to be one of the most beautiful and engaging operas ever written. Puccini’s music carries the story even when it is weak, the language of the libretto is simply gorgeous and poetic, and the characters are as relevant today as they were over 100 years ago. They are rounded and complex, real and flawed. Proof of La Bohème’s popularity and relevance can be seen in Jonathan Larson’s 1996 musical, Rent. I personally happen to find the musical a somewhat vulgar copy of the opera, though I am always a fan of any modern work that draws on classics, such as the brilliant films that comprised 2005’s “ShakespeaRe-told”. There is no question that La Bohème will continue to be a classic for decades if not centuries to come.

What Makes for “Good” Opera?

Today I will address something more specific than what the title indicates: that is, what makes a piece of operatic music well written and easy to sing? For the layperson—-even for me, pre-opera studies—-opera seems to be a magical art form in which the music flows and the words convey. That is true, when opera is at its best! But there are certainly plenty of works that are not well written and a nightmare to sing. For now, let’s take a closer look: consider this the Layperson’s Guide to Opera.

Asking which is more important, the words or the music, is rather like asking which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Richard Strauss addresses this dilemma quite cleverly in his symbolic opera Capriccio, in which the heroine Madeleine is torn between her two lovers, a composer and a poet. Very often, a libretto was written on commission or by a particular writer, often based on a famous work of literature, and the composer set the music to it. In the case of liturgical music, such as Mozart’s Requiem (a work so beautiful it’s enough to make anyone want to convert to Catholicism upon death), the text has already existed in Latin and each composer takes his or her stab at it. From the singer’s point of view, it’s a sort of buy one, get a dozen free situation, for you learn just one text and then learn the music particular to each piece! But in all seriousness, liturgical music has shaped the foundations of Western classical music, though it no longer remains at the forefront of how we perceive music in the West. There were indeed composers who wrote the music first and had a librettist add words to the melodies. And finally, there were the rare few who wrote both the words and the libretto, such as Richard Wagner or Hector Berlioz, a feat of considerable genius.

But let us look a little more deeply at the words and music. Very often, the words are written in rhyme or a particular rhythmic scheme. Rhyme dates back from our earliest cultures as a way of helping people remember long passages of words, our inheritance from our oral traditions. Advanced Italian classes teach the students how to examine the rhyme and count syllables and word stresses in a verse or poem—-in other words, in an aria. The prosody or rhythm of the words varies from language to language. For example, French tends to lean heavily on the 2nd or last syllable, whereas English leans heavily on the 1st syllable. Italian’s double consonants and musical inflections make for sonorous waves and pauses in the language. The precision of the German language is shown through its word stresses and nuanced vowels. A good composer will respect these unique features of the languages. Are the long notes appropriately placed on the longer syllables? Is a high pitch to be sung on an easier or open vowel such as “ah” rather than an umlauted o?

As for the music, there is more variance here, for different voices are able to handle different vocal demands. For example, my voice is a lyric soprano, and I am best able to handle long, smooth vocal lines that move up one step at a time, rather than by leaps. However, there are other voices that can handle leaps and staccato, even shrieks, for whom the long smooth vocal lines would be torture. But I would argue that the best-loved arias are the ones that tend to be written with smoother lines and with memorable melodies—-something “hummable” that has a simple melody, often repeats itself, and perhaps features a few embellishments here or there or a cadenza (a solo, unaccompanied moment, sort of like what one hears in a jazz combo when each musician takes his/her turn to show off). Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” for soprano would be one good example of this, or “Nessun dorma” (made famous by Pavarotti during his tenure with The 3 Tenors). A good composer builds momentum and a climax into the piece, engaging the listener and making him or her want to keep listening to hear what’s coming. Beautiful melodies are often found in opera choruses as well: those who know the unofficial Italian anthem of Verdi’s “Va, pensiero” might very well tell you it is one of the most gorgeous melodies ever written. A beautiful operatic melody will permeate your heart and soul, until it must come out of your mouth at random moments, such as while washing dishes or driving in the car.

But even when the words and music match beautifully, when the melody respects the natural inflections and rhythms of the words, there is yet another layer of nuance that only the best vocal composers can create. It is a layer of subtlety in which each character’s part is completely unique and suited to that character alone. We might think of the dark vocal lines and erupting passions of Carmen, contrasted with the pure, long lines of Micaela, her counterpart. There is the chatty nature of Leporello contrasted with Don Giovanni’s bombastic boasts; and within Don Giovanni himself, one hears a wide range of emotions: the caressing seduction of “Deh vieni alla finestra” to his dismissive recitatives to Donna Elvira to his unwieldy defiance of the Commendatore up till his last earthly moments. There is Musetta’s coquettish waltz, with its pauses and giggles as she revels in her good looks and ability to charm men. The best composers, like Mozart, have this skill and genius for reflecting a character’s moods through his or her vocal lines.

This is nothing new and it still continues today in the best modern operas as well as in popular music. Why did millions of fans want to hear Robert Plant in his Zeppelin days? He brought a moaning, aching sound to blues-inspired hard rock songs that made you feel what he was feeling. The Godfather of Soul, James Brown, infused his hits with a sense of energy that pulsated from his dance steps and erupted into his voice. Even today, singer-songwriter Bjork brings primal howls to her songs that are very often related to nature or romantic passion.

So it is not just a brilliant composer who integrates words and music, but also a talented performer who can interpret those compositions and bring them to life for the listener.

Is There Any American Classical Music?

In summer 2011, I had the privilege of attending a master class in voice at the Mozarteum music academy in Salzburg, Austria.  I was immersed in a different language, a different culture, and, more specifically, a different musical culture.  I had gone with a certain set of expectations as to what I would learn; little did I know that those expectations would be completely thwarted and that my perspectives shifted.

I had expected to absorb the great Austro-Germanic tradition, to be steeped in the city of Mozart, because after all, we in the United States do not have a Mozart.  Nor do we have such deep roots in classical music. The general public in Europe and Austria is arguably more interested in classical music than the American general public.  People might know the words to an opera aria even in a language not their own, or be willing to create radical opera productions because they have seen enough traditional ones to crave something new. Also, classical music in America is plagued with financial difficulties that music in Europe does not generally endure, given that their governments actively fund the arts.  Therefore, the volume and scope of classical music offerings is much greater and lavish than what one can find here in the United States, with the exception of New York city and a couple of other places. Traditionally, royalty and courts have supported classical music, even fostered its development.  So naturally, I assumed that the depth, history, and prominence of classical music in a country like Austria automatically trumped our fledgling American tradition.  After all, when you see Mozart on a chocolate wrapper, you’ve got to assume that these people care!  But my logic was proven only partially correct. After my experience at Salzburg, I came to understand that Austria does indeed have a rich tradition, but I recognized that we also have a distinct musical culture of our own.

Perhaps as Americans we have a complex that our classical music tradition isn’t “good enough” when we compare ourselves to Europeans.  We do not have as long or deep of non-popular or art music in our culture.  And rather than being something that is just a part of our background, classical music here is often an elite phenomenon that is enjoyed by people living more urban areas and/or who are more affluent.  But what is so uniquely American is that the ethnic diversity that is the hallmark of our country is reflected in our classical music. We have deep Italian roots, especially in opera, reaching back to colonial times and including genius librettist Lorenzo da Ponte (think Don Giovanni or Cosi’ Fan Tutte), who was the first professor of Italian at Columbia University; rich, German (choral) traditions so prominently found in the Midwest and Great Lakes regions that are imparted to children in schools from the time they are very young; African-American spirituals and blues traditions that have filtered into our sensibility through compositions and also through the performers, who are often known for their passion, elegance, depth of feeling, and (pardon the horrible cliche’) “soul”; refugee Jews who brought with them their rigorous training in technique, deep knowledge and scholarship, and emotion when they escaped various pogroms or wars and settled into various conservatories, universities, musical ensembles, solo careers, or even Hollywood film studios; and in more recent decades, the influx of Asian musicians who bring incredible discipline to their craft and an unparalleled enthusiasm for excellence, not to mention brilliant artistry (Sarah Chang, anyone?).  Various artists of classical musics from around the world have also inspired the American tradition when they have come here and collaborated with our performers and composers.  And of course, we cannot neglect our good old “Yankee ingenuity” with innovative individuals that have created unique forms and styles of their own.  We have Leonard Bernstein, Philip Glass, and renowned women like Joan Tower and Meredith Monk, to name but a few.

These are, of course, but broadly painted generalizations of our various cultural strands, and I am indeed neglecting numerous others who have contributed to our classical music melting pot.  But the point remains:  America is indeed a powerhouse in terms of classical music.  Certainly in such a huge country there is a wide range of training for aspiring musicians, some of it downright shoddy.  But there is also plenty of world-class education too, preparing the future virtuosos and good, decent, working musicians of tomorrow.  American conservatories and music departments are full of international students and professors—-if this is not a sign of our musical prowess, I don’t know what is.  Our diversity has made our classical music heritage something remarkable, drawing on the strengths of various cultures.

I am now a wiser musician who can certainly appreciate a Mozart, or a Sibelius (visiting his home outside Helsinki and even being allowed to play his piano was a most heartwarming experience!)  But I have learned my lesson through experience, learned how wonderful a classical music tradition we have here in the United States.  And the exciting thing is, it’s only going to grow even more.  It really does take stepping away from your own country in order to appreciate it.

Don Giovanni: The Ultimate Opera

Mozart’s masterpiece about the famed libertine of Seville still remains one of the most beloved operas even today. Certainly, one must give equal credit to the brilliant librettist Lorenzo da Ponte whose choice of language, pacing, and structure make the opera a seamless work that flows with nary a glitch. It is possible to put forth the idea that Don Giovanni was da Ponte’s way of publicly flogging himself or atoning for his lifetime of misdeeds and romantic transgressions, for da Ponte’s own life was as colorful and scandalous as, if not more so than, the title character’s. The opera is exciting and engrossing because it is simply over-the-top: blood, lust, vengeance, love, seduction, violence, murder, infidelity, passion, celebration, abundance, humor, class struggles, suspicion, betrayal, and even a ghost in statue form are all packed into roughly 3 1/2 hours. This is the very essence of opera; it is and must be something out of the ordinary, something unreal and larger-than-life. It helps us transcend the experience of our mundane daily lives—-paying the bills, cooking the pasta, making a logical case for something at the office. Don Giovanni is unmistakably Italian in its aesthetic and character. It is carnal, sensual, expressive, passionate, robust, beautiful, lyrical—-and Catholic. It does not ask why or try to make rationalizations in the Anglo-Saxon manner; it puts the viewer right into the heart of the story, entwined with each character’s motives and vengeant objectives, with a pervasive yet delicious sense of sin and immorality. We know from the beginning that what Don Giovanni is doing is absolutely wrong, but it is precisely the fact that he does not get caught until the very end that makes the story so enticing: we delight in his unabashed lack of repentance and consequences. The superlative, magnificent finale serves as our justification for watching, for if he were not caught and sent to hell, we would somehow not be satisfied deep within. Ultimately, If Americans do not appreciate or “get” Don Giovanni, it is because He Who Does Not Understand Italy Cannot Understand Don Giovanni.

Also interesting to explore about Don Giovanni is the question of interpretation, for the opera lends itself to a variety of nuances of characterization, stagings, etc. Fundamentally, of course, there must be the idea of Don Giovanni paying the price for all of his sins with women and murder, of being punished for his large living and excesses (the Salzburg Festival’s 2011 appalling production of the opera was an example of what not to do, the very perversion of the opera). One must also observe the careful ideas put forth by the remarkable and precise text, for da Ponte was a master of the Italian language (he was the first professor of Italian at Columbia University, having moved to New York from Europe!) But there are a number of choices that can be made. Is Donna Anna truly raped at the beginning? Was she indeed enamored of the nobleman? How much or little will Donna Anna be attracted to Don Ottavio, and would she truly choose him if he had not been her shoulder to cry on after her father’s murder? What are Donna Elvira’s motives for going after Don Giovanni—-simply his broken promise to marry her, her lack of other male prospects, or a pregnancy? How old is she? Is she a relatively young woman who is furious at herself for having lost her virginity to Don Giovanni? Or is she older, aware that time is running out for her to make a suitable marriage? How envious a sidekick is Leporello of his master’s sexual conquests? Is Zerlina a natural flirt, or is she simply caving into the momentary seductions of the Don who is exercising his droit de seigneur? What setting other than the conventional plaza and balconies in Seville can also work? New Orleans (as was used by the University of Michigan School of Music’s recent production)? Italy? Venice (as in the visually beautiful Joseph Losey film)? Or a minimalist staging, for the characterizations and music are so strong that they can carry the opera by themselves? Is the entire opera set in the last day of Don Giovanni’s life, or is it a culmination of the events presented in the opera that leads him to burn in hell at the end?

Thus it is obvious that the opera also requires a brilliant director who can shape a production that emphasizes the necessary elements of the story and yet conveys something unique of its own. And each of the performers must be masters not only of technique (Mozart is notoriously difficult to sing, for it is so pure and reveals the naked voice), but also of interpretation, creating three-dimensional characters so as not to reduce the opera to a mere Commedia dell’Arte. This is not to say that opera does not draw upon certain tropes from that tradition or Southern European literature. The Zerlina character of the earthily sensual, shrewd peasant or lower-class woman has been seen from La Serva Padrona all the way to Sophia Loren films. But a good opera singer must make the audience feel that his or her character is a flesh and blood human being who has a raison d’être similar to that of individuals through time. Mozart has carefully delineated each character through his choice of music and key signatures (think of the rapidly shifting keys to represent Donna Elvira’s moods in “Mi Tradi’ quell’alma ingrata”). The integration between the composer and librettist in this opera is simply stunning.

Don Giovanni has already been popular for centuries, and undoubtedly will be popular for many more. Mozart and da Ponte were certainly a match made in heaven—-not hell!