The opera begins as Don Giovanni is leaving the bedroom of his latest paramour, Donna Anna. " The racket awakens Donna Anna's father, Il Commendatore (roughly, head of civil authority in town), who with sword drawn charges Don Giovanni.
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! The Don refuses a duel, Dad presses, they fight, and Dad is killed.
She is the author of The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music; The Quest for Voice: Music, Politics, and the Limits of Philosophy, and Elective Affinities: Musical Essays on the History of Aesthetic Theory.
Daniel Herwitz is the Mary Fair Croushore Professor of Humanities and director of the Institute for the Humanities at the University of Michigan.
I was shocked to find that I had simply gotten some of the facts wrong. These discussions made it clear that the opera draws forth strong but widely divergent responses. At The Atlas Society’s 2002 Summer Seminar, Nathaniel Branden presented a lecture on heroism.
For instance, I had imagined that Don Giovanni had artfully avoided directly lying to women. In that speech, Branden spoke of the leading figures of two novels, The Fountainhead and Jean-Christophe, who formed his view of heroism.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.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. The Don makes light of Leporello's fear, inviting the statue to dinner. When I first encountered Don Giovanni 30 years ago, I was struck by the political, social, and philosophical messages in the work. 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.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.They are startled to find the grave of Il Commendatore, crowned by his statue. The Don returns home for a sumptuous dinner and, sure enough, the statue shows up. 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. I was indignant at the staging of the performance, which seemed to depart from the text to paint the Don as a villain.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. 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.Through a close and careful analysis of Don Giovanni's literary and philosophical reception and its many appropriations, rewritings, and retellings, these contributors treat the opera as a vantage point from which theory and philosophy can reconsider romanticism's central themes.As lively and passionate as the opera itself, these essays continue the spirited debate over the meaning and character of Don Giovanni and its powerful legacy.