I flipped on the radio last week just in time to hear a performance of the “Catalog Aria” from Don Giovanni. You know it – it’s a very popular aria, beloved of young baritones, in which Leporello counts up all the women who his boss, the Don, has seduced during his career as a serial sexual abuser and rapist.
Does the following clip show something that’s entertaining?
Anyone who has thought about Don Giovanni for more than a minute knows that it has all to do with sexual exploitation and rape. Sure, the Don can be charming to Zerlina when he is trying to get her into bed. Fundamentally the guy is an asshole or worse. But as I listened to the “Catalog Aria” on the radio that day, a new association suddenly came to my mind, which has all to do with Bill Cosby, who has been accused of drugging and raping multiple women. If we find Cosby’s alleged crimes repugnant, why are we still going to performances of Don Giovanni?
And how would it work if, in one of the resetting of operas that are so popular today, the characters in ‘The Cosby Show’ took roles in an updated casting of Don Giovanni? If Theo Huxtable, the son in the cast, played the part of Leporello and sang the “Catalog Aria,” how would that make us feel? And when the Commendatore arrives to drag the rapist down to hell, would that mean that it had been alright for us to spend three hours watching the drama? If the bad guy suffered bad consequences, does that get us off the hook?
Recently, London performances of Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio, which is set in a harem where sex slaves are kept, gained attention because it depicted episodes of sexual abuse. The same could be done, probably has, for Rossini’s Italiana in Algeri, which also takes place in a harem. Does trying to inject “realistic” elements into those comic operas make it permissible to watch them, or does doing so only cause internal, mannerist frictions that make the whole deal confusing and artistically invalid?
Not too long ago, many people objected to the unkind depiction of women in Mozart’s Così fan Tutte. I have heard, though I cannot confirm it, that after that opera was written, audiences found it so objectionable that less unkind librettos were written to fit atop the music. But with our new sensibilities today – and I am not talking about political correctness – maybe it really is time to put Don Giovanni on the shelf for a while, or even for good.