The Don Juan legend, penned originally in Spain in the 17th century, always ends with the libertine paying a spiritual price for his sexual rampages and playfully rude ways: He’s doomed to eternity in hell. And in the opera, Don Giovanni faces the same fate.
At his worst, Don Giovanni has always been portrayed as a character that shows us our brutal but true selves — how badly we lust, how much we trick others to get what we want, how we sweet-talk those we desire. At best, Don Giovanni is the character we love to hate and hate to love, the epitome of the phrase “boys will be boys.”
But Isaac Selya, artistic director and conductor of Queen City Opera’s fully staged performances of Don Giovanni Friday and Sunday at the Arts Center at Dunham Theater, summarizes the plot differently.
“The opera deals with a rich young nobleman who uses his money and influence to manipulate and take advantage of women,” Selya says. Holding a doctorate of musical arts with specialization in orchestral conducting from the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music — his lecture-recital was “Fingi la Voce Mia: Mozart’s Baritone Roles as Depictions of Lechery” — Selya talks about the characters of Don Giovanni as old friends that he knows, unfortunately, all too well.
“The opera’s been around for a long time and the music is popular,” he says. “After reading through, it became very clear to me that the original intention of the authors was that this is not a hero. This guy is not seducing women with his charm. He may be nice, he may be good-looking, but it is clear he is using status, money and the threat of force. After all, at the end he’s dragged down to hell.”
Queen City Opera, founded in 2012 to provide professional opportunities for emerging talent, advertises the opera online as, “A dark comedy about a sleazy young nobleman who receives a supernatural punishment for committing rape and murder. Featuring the best music ever.”
Introducing the word “rape” to the plot of Don Giovanni is a bombshell when compared to how the opera has often been presented. “If you market an opera as the sexy young guy seducing sexy young women, that sells tickets — but it does a disservice,” Selya says. “If you strip away the marketing and traditions and look at what the opera is about, you see the violence.”
When Queen City Opera first considered putting on Don Giovanni this season, it took into consideration the current cultural climate of the United States. “We knew how we presented this opera in this culture would be very important,” Selya says. “What rich men can do and say about women is front and center in politics right now.”
It was this thought that led Queen City Opera to pair with the education departments of Planned Parenthood Southwest Ohio and Jewish Family Services to make its presentation a teaching opportunity. An hour before Friday’s 8 p.m. performance, as well as an hour before Sunday’s 3 p.m. show, agency representatives will present discussions about consent and sexual assault, preparing operagoers to notice red flags and non-consensual situations in the opera.
With the help of a health educator, Queen City Opera has already lead advance workshops titled “Seduction? Or Rape?” These included explanations of what constitutes consent, followed by excerpts of Don Giovanni performed by the cast. After the excerpts, viewers were asked if what had happened was consensual or not.
“We had a fascinating discussion with people that weren’t your regular opera-going crowds,” Selya says. “They got really into the opera in a way people frequently don’t.
“Don Giovanni has universal truths. It’s sad that they’re still relevant, but you can still parse it with our modern viewpoint.”
DON GIOVANNI will be performed 8 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Sunday at Arts Center at Dunham Theater in Price Hill. Pre-concert discussions are an hour earlier. Tickets: giovanni.brownpapertickets.com or 1-800-838-3006. More info: queencityopera.com.