Spotlight on: DON GIOVANNI

Don Giovanni

Streaming March 19–21, 2021

Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte

The Story

Who’s Who?

The Commendatore is a retired army general.

Donna Anna is the Commendatore’s daughter.

Don Ottavio is Donna Anna’s fiancé.

Don Giovanni is a wealthy sexual predator.

Donna Elvira considers herself Don Giovanni’s wife.

Zerlina, a poor girl, is getting married.

Masetto, her fiancé, is the jealous type.

Leporello is Don Giovanni’s servant.

Where & When?

Technically Seville, in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries; but really Don Giovanni is a myth that takes place at all times and places.

Watch the Trailer

What’s Going On?

The subtitle of this opera tells you just about everything you need to know: Il dissoluto punito (The Dissolute Man Punished). The lead character Don Giovanni, is dissolute (meaning, he does bad things); but he gets punished.

More specifically, the opera chronicles the final 24 hours of this notorious libertine’s wicked life. It begins in the middle of the night, as he is trying to escape from Donna Anna’s bedroom after assaulting her.

Anna’s father, the Commendatore, challenges Don Giovanni to a duel, and Giovanni kills him. Anna forces her fiancé Don Ottavio to swear an oath that he will avenge the murdered Commendatore.

That afternoon, Giovanni is attempting to escape from Donna Elvira, who thinks she’s married to him, when he stumbles upon the wedding of Zerlina and Masetto.

He invites them and their friends to a feast at his palace, that evening, where he attempts to rape Zerlina. Ottavio, Anna, and Elvira, who have joined the party wearing masks, protect her and confront Giovanni; but he manages to give them all the slip.

Giovanni continues playing pranks on people all night long, until he and Leporello happen upon the statue of the Commendatore out in the cemetery. Audaciously Giovanni invites the statue to join him for a very late dinner, and the statue says it will come. At dinner the statue offers Giovanni a last chance to repent. He refuses, and gets dragged down to hell. The other characters rejoice that the dissolute man has been punished, and explain the moral of the story: “He who lives a wicked life dies a wicked death!”

Story Evolution

Mozart’s dramma giocoso

Don Giovanni is an overwhelming, hilarious, disturbing, sacred, profane, dated, timeless bundle of contradictions. There’s a basic contradiction when you try to figure out what kind of an opera it is. In the early eighteenth century, operas tended to be entirely serious (opera seria) or entirely comic (opera buffa). But Mozart revolutionized the art form in his Italian operas of the 1780s; Don Giovanni mixes seria and buffa, comedy and tragedy, into a more psychologically realistic genre called dramma giocoso, “Joking Drama.”

Unlike conventional eighteenth-century opera, real life can’t be neatly divided into comedy and tragedy. The reason Don Giovanni seems so much more TRUE than most operas from this period is that often in this show you won’t be sure whether you’re supposed to laugh or cry. Mozart’s masterpiece shares this feature with most of the world’s greatest theater. Shakespeare, our greatest English dramatist, was similarly wonderful at fusing comedy and tragedy into something we call the grotesque, an aesthetic category meaning weird, funny, scary, sad, all at once.

Also, in the early eighteenth-century singing was the be-all and end-all of opera; you didn’t go to the opera for gripping drama, or psychological explorations of human character, or philosophical meditations on man’s place in the universe. But Don Giovanni reflects all the important issues of a tumultuous time, when Enlightenment ideals of equality and human brotherhood were paving the way for revolutions in the United States and France. Mozart gives us a Don Giovanni who represents this new freedom from the rules and restrictions of the past pushed to its most dangerous extreme. Don Giovanni is interested in all women, not just women of his social class; he has no concern for past or future; he has complete disregard for the voices of his elders and the rules we must follow if we want to live together in any kind of a well-functioning society. His life is both a fantasy and a nightmare.

The Myth of Don Juan

Even though many people have aspired to be Don Juan (and a few have racked up numbers of sexual partners to rival his), he never really existed. He first appeared as a fictional character in a Spanish play printed in 1630, The Prankster of Seville and the Stone Guest by Tirso de Molina (pen name of the monk Gabriel Téllez). Molina was writing during the Golden Age of Spanish drama; but this play is no masterpiece. Much of it is pretty typical of its period: proud Spanish gentlemen defending their sacred honor with drawn swords and bristling mustaches while virtuous damsels swoon. But Molina was the first to introduce into the story of the great seducer the old folktale about the offended dead person who comes back for revenge. Don Juan ensures his damnation by blaspheming; he insults the corpse of a father who died defending his daughter’s honor. Audiences for the last four centuries have delighted in the scene where the statue of the dead man comes to dinner, invites Don Juan to dine with him, and then clasps Don Juan in his grip of death.

But they encountered this scene in many versions besides Molina’s. Prior to Mozart’s opera, great playwrights like the French Molière, the Italian Goldoni, and the English Shadwell portrayed Don Juan as a real villain, whose unspeakable acts entertained those of us in the audience but whose death we all cheered. Also, there were countless puppet show versions of the Don Juan story performed regularly all over Europe.

Mozart wrote his great opera in a hurry, basing it scene-for-scene on a Don Juan opera which had been written a few years before. But somehow, perhaps in the wake of his overbearing father’s recent death, he sympathized profoundly with the central character, and gave us a Don Juan whom we can love and hate at the same time. Also, Mozart’s psychologically penetrating music paints the secondary characters with greater depth than any previous dramatist had ever achieved. Only in Mozart do we really come to care about Don Juan’s servant Leporello, the anguished Donna Anna and her noble fiancé Don Ottavio, the sassy country girl Zerlina and the obsessive Donna Elvira.

After Mozart, and inspired by his music, Romantic writers like the Germans Hoffmann and Lenau saw Don Juan as a kind of hero, the prototype of what the later German philosopher Nietzsche was to call the übermensch or “over-man”: the man who did not know guilt. Don Juan, to these writers, was continuously in quest of the perfect woman; poor fellow, he could never find her, and had to keep sorting his way through her pale reflections in flawed human women. At the same time (in the early nineteenth century), the great British poet Byron wrote his immense and often hilarious epic poem, Don Juan (pronounced “Jew-un” in Byron, for purposes of rhyme). Before Byron, Don Juan, a man in his late twenties, always wanted every woman he met but didn’t always get them. After Byron, Don Juan is a few years younger, and although he doesn’t always want all the women he meets, they want him. (The 1995 film Don Juan de Marco stars Johnny Depp as Byron’s Don Juan. Joseph Gordon-Leavitt’s 2013 film Don Juan doesn’t have much to do with the myth.)

Don Giovanni in a post-#MeToo era

For many years, the character of Don Giovanni was celebrated as “Mozart’s bad boy”—an evil but charming anti-hero. But today in 2021, society has less tolerance for stories that fail to take sexual assault seriously. The norms that once helped to soften violent themes in an opera like Don Giovanni have been chipped away through #MeToo, and other social justice movements.

“It’s sent me through the roof when I’ve seen Don Giovanni, and they play out that Donna Anna wanted Giovanni to sleep with her, and then cries, ‘rape.’ Particularly in a post-#MeToo world, the idea of having a woman onstage who lies about being sexually or physically abused is not really acceptable any more. Mozart and DaPonte wrote depth and humanity into these characters. What’s at play with Donna Anna is PTSD. It’s fear. It’s not a woman who is lying.”
Brenna Corner, stage director

“The women in the story—especially Anna and Elvira—are more multi-dimensional and have more complex relationships with the other characters, including with the Don. Don Giovanni is a tool through which Lorenzo Da Ponte tells of the challenges and experiences of women from different social classes within that society. Don Giovanni himself is a trope and he continually acts in the expected manner, while the three women (and often Leporello) continually defy our expectations and assumptions. For many years, there existed an unfortunate convention of cutting the epilogue and ending the opera with Don Giovanni’s being dragged to hell. Sadly, this change takes the focus away from the social commentary that is so crucial to the opera, and turns the piece into a much weaker morality play. With the epilogue intact, the story is clear—Don Giovanni is gone and the other characters have the last word.”
Lidiya Yankovskaya, conductor

Composer & Librettist

About the Composer

Johann Chrysostomos Wolfgang Amadeus (also called Theophilus and Gottlieb) Mozart belongs to a special category of artist; he was one of those rare individuals who forever changed the way we think about ourselves and our world. Coming at the climax of the Classical period, with its interest in logic, symmetrical structures, and formal perfection, Mozart’s music prefigures Romanticism in its sensuality, its fragrant delicacy, and its often violent passion. His music is both immediately accessible to the casual listener and, to a great extent, technically within the reach of the novice performer.

Mozart’s unusual childhood has become the stuff of legends. The composer was born in 1756 and taught himself to play violin and piano by the age of 5. His father Leopold a musician eking out a living in the small town of Salzburg (in provincial Austria), recognized his son’s gifts early on and trained him in music. Leopold took his family on tour all across Europe when Mozart was between the ages of 6 and 10. The young prodigy delighted the nobility of Austria, Germany, France, and England by playing the keyboard blindfolded, sight-reading perfectly, and demonstrating his ability to memorize a piece of music upon hearing it once.

As a teenager, Mozart continued his travels. With his father, and then with his mother, he toured Italy, Germany, and France, hoping to find a job in a big city with a booming music business. He especially wanted a chance to write for the theater, and traveled to several cities following commissions for operas. Perhaps because of his age, perhaps because of his immature personality, he was unable to get a permanent job. He returned to Salzburg from this second round of tours a cynical teenager: unemployed, impatient, and altogether unhappy with his prospects.

Mozart moved to Vienna in 1781, angering his father by insulting his father’s employer, the Archbishop of Salzburg, and by marrying against Leopold’s wishes. The rift between father and son grew wider and wider as the years went on and Mozart became more successful; Papa Mozart seemingly never forgave his son for growing up and starting a new life independent of the man who gave him life, taught him music, and showed him off before the crowned heads of Europe.

The decade Mozart spent in Vienna was his most successful, both financially and artistically. But after Leopold died in 1787, Mozart’s fortunes (which up to that time had been mostly favorable) took a downward turn. He ran into debt and lost many of his patrons. He was turning things around and on his way back to financial stability in 1791, when he died of rheumatic fever.

Despite his early death, Mozart left us with an enormous amount of music: 41 symphonies, 27 piano concerti, vast amounts of chamber music, and four of the greatest operas ever written—Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte, and Die Zauberflöte. His ability to write gracefully for every instrument then in use, and to write operas in a variety of languages and dramatic forms, makes him a unique phenomenon among even the greatest composers.


For a fun introduction to Mozart’s world and music, check out the terrific movie Amadeus, which swept the Oscars in 1984. Amadeus began life as a drama by British playwright Peter Shaffer, who also adapted his play into a screenplay. The film was directed by Milos Forman, and British conductor Neville Marriner and his Academy of St Martin in the Fields contributed one of the greatest film scores of all time.

Although Amadeus is a work of fiction, it is firmly grounded in history. The movie features a great sequence at an early performance of Don Giovanni, filmed in Prague, the city where Don Giovanni was first performed.

Lorenzo da Ponte

The man who wrote the words to Don Giovanni was lived a life that would make a great opera plot all by itself. Successively banished from his native Italy, Austria, and finally England, Da Ponte, who eventually settled in America, embodied so many contradictions it is hard to believe he was only one person: both Jew and Catholic, both playboy and family man, Da Ponte was a friend of emperors and a wagon-driver among pioneers, a benevolent teacher and a villainous intriguer, a mediocre poet and one of the most important opera librettists who ever lived. Although his fame rests entirely on the three great operas he created with Mozart—Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte—Da Ponte’s tireless efforts to introduce Americans to European art paved the way for much American high culture of this century.

The Mozart/Da Ponte Collaboration

Mozart first collaborated with Da Ponte two years prior to Don Giovanni, on Le nozze di Figaro. If you know Figaro, it may strike you that its libretto is far superior to that of Don Giovanni. There are three explanations for this: first, since Figaro represented Mozart’s first collaboration with Da Ponte (as well as his first big artistic risk), the composer really did take far greater pains to edit and revise—and to force his librettist to edit and revise. For both artists, Don Giovanni was a much sloppier job, intended to be a quick money-maker. (According to his unreliable memoirs, Da Ponte had made a bet with Emperor Josef II that he couldn’t write three opera libretti by a certain deadline; and thus he wrote Don Giovanni and two libretti for other composers over the course of several all-nighters.) Second, Figaro is based on a truly magnificent play, while the immediate source for Don Giovanni—another opera on the same story which had come out the year before—was truly junk. Da Ponte stole the situations from this earlier opera but wrote new and much better poetry for them. Third, the overall dramatic structure of the opera was skewed when the opera was finally performed in Vienna, several months after the first performances in Prague. Prague had a better Ottavio, although Vienna had a better Elvira, so Mozart wrote new arias for the new singers. But he didn’t simply replace old arias with new ones, and the tradition nowadays is to perform all of them. This way we get to hear more of Mozart’s great music, even though it tends to make the drama a little strange.

The Music of Don Giovanni

Mozart is considered not only one of the greatest composers of all time, but also one of the greatest opera composers of all time. What’s the difference? The trick with opera is, the purpose of the music is to tell the story. It’s not enough for the music to be beautiful or exciting or impressive or touching. Opera music gives us information about the characters, their relationships, what they’re saying to each other, how they feel about each other. All the psychological and political and even philosophical nuances of the drama live in an opera’s music.

Listen to the Music

Mozart was a master of musical characterization. As you listen to Don Giovanni, pay attention to all the musical tricks he uses to tell us what his characters are like and how they’re different from one another. Compare, for example, Don Giovanni’s upper-class couple, Donna Anna and Don Ottavio, with its lower-class couple, Zerlina and Masetto. We first meet Zerlina and Masetto on their wedding day, and Mozart introduces them with a jolly little duet, bubbling over with simple joy and affection, in a quick 6/8 time (the rhythm of a lively peasant dance). But later in that scene we’ll hear arias from both Donna Anna and Don Ottavio; their relationship is under so much stress, there’s no way they could sing a duet. Mozart characterizes them, musically, as living in different worlds. Anna’s aria, “Or sai chi l’onore,” is a forceful march, full of angry high notes, demanding heroic action from Ottavio. But he responds with the extraordinarily tender “Dalla sua pace,” achingly slow, quiet, and gentle—not at all what his fiancée wants him to be. Little wonder that Zerlina and Masetto are still a couple, at the opera’s conclusion, while Anna and Ottavio choose to take a little time.

Master and servant, Don Giovanni and Leporello have similar vocal ranges; but Mozart’s music shows what opposites they are. In the first moments of the opera, even before Don Giovanni comes onstage, Leporello is grumbling about a servant’s lot in life. Listen for the ‘noble’ musical sweep of the third line he sings, meaning “I wish I were a great nobleman!” Such a contrast to the ho-hum mundanity of his first two lines. Why is this man doomed forever to a supporting, subsidiary role? Leporello obviously knows all about ‘playing the gentleman.’ The way he obsessively catalogs and chronicles Don Giovanni’s adventures, he probably knows more about them than Giovanni does himself. Certainly Giovanni could never sing the ‘Catalog’ aria the way Leporello does. Giovanni can focus his voice into a seductive velvety smoothness when singing “La ci darem” to Zerlina or “Deh, vieni” to Elvira’s maid. But he could neither focus his mind to do the work of maintaining the catalog, nor command the variety of vocal color demanded by such a complex and wide-ranging aria.

Mozart’s music for Donna Elvira reflects the way operas were assembled in the eighteenth century—and the way the concept of this character shifted. When Don Giovanni premiered in Prague, Elvira’s big aria was “Ah, chi mi dice mai,” sung upon her entrance—a parody of a ‘rage aria,’ a familiar form in those days, with exaggerated vocal leaps and fierce high notes. (What makes it a parody, instead of a straightforward rage aria? She’s really pissed off! Yes, but Don Giovanni and Leporello interrupt her aria twice, with silly lines that undercut the seriousness of the situation. In the eighteenth century no opera character would dream of interrupting another’s big aria. Mozart and Da Ponte wrote this interruption into the score; so they’re the ones not taking Elvira seriously, making her aria a parody.) But the soprano who sang Elvira at the next performance, back home in Vienna, demanded a more substantial dramatic aria. She was a big star and a major draw, so Mozart and Da Ponte wrote for her Elvira’s Act Two aria, “Mi tradì.” What a fascinating aria, psychologically. This piece is technically a ‘rondo,’ a song which keeps returning to the same refrain—in this case, Elvira’s anguished line about “He betrayed me and made me miserable!” Musically she works her way through that obsession until, by the aria’s conclusion, she can finally detach from her wounded ego and think of Giovanni with a more altruistic, selfless love.

But beyond all the brilliantly observed details of musical characterizations in the arias, listen for how Mozart writes ensembles in Don Giovanni. There’s nothing quite like an operatic ensemble in any other art form. Mozart was the first composer who really explored and exploited the potential of ensembles. More than anything, that’s why Mozart is considered the father of modern opera.

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