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The Question of "Morality" in Musical Drama

By FRANK BEHRENS
ART TIMES Jan/Feb 2003

A local personality wrote a letter to the Editor some time ago praising a local production of "Camelot," which is the usual thing that happens after your friends put on a show of dubious or genuine value and everything about it and everyone in it was "just wonderful." However, the writer then went on to condemn a production of "Fledermaus" that had taken place several years earlier because it (in her view) celebrated adultery.

Come again?

The last I heard, the plot of "Camelot" concerns the adulterous love between Lancelot and Guenevere and how it brought down first the Table Round and then the kingdom. And the last time I looked, the plot of "Fledermaus" involves the UNsuccessful attempt of a tenor to seduce a middle class wife (Act I) and her husband’s UNsuccessful attempt to seduce her while she is disguised as a Hungarian (Act II). In short, "Fledermaus" celebrates the triumph of middle class morality while "Camelot," not explicitly approving of the affair, certainly makes us sympathize with the lovers.

So which of the two plays is the more "moral"? Without getting into deep philosophical water, let us agree for now to define "moral" in the weakest sense that most people would accept as necessary if not sufficient: doing no harm unto others under all but extraordinary circumstances. Now let us see what harm an opera can do. (And I would very much appreciate any opinions pro or con on what could be a touchy subject.)

What is one to make of the Mozart opera based on the career of the great amoral Don Giovanni? We first meet him fleeing from an outraged Dona Anna, just after an attempt at her honor (but to what extent he succeeded is left perfectly ambiguous throughout the work). He then kills her father, albeit reluctantly, in a duel; and when next seen, he runs awkwardly into Dona Elvira, whom he has indeed seduced recently and who is out to "tear out his heart." The Don beats a hasty retreat, leaving his servant Leporello to explain to Elvira, "Well, that’s the way he is" — an excuse that makes me physically ill whenever I hear it applied to egomaniacs who choose to live by their own rules.

His next seduction, that of the peasant girl Zerlina, is just about to succeed, when Dona Elvira makes a quick entrance and puts an end to that. When he has Zerlina alone again in a dark garden, her fiancé pops out of a bush and puts an end to that. When he maneuvers Zerlina off stage during a ball, her screams bring all concerned to her rescue, and that puts an end to that.

Act II sees him safe and sound, ready to seduce a maid; but the sudden appearance of Zerlina’s fiancé puts an end to the last attempted seduction in the opera. No wonder the librettist Da Ponte makes Don Giovanni exclaim in the middle of Act I, "It seems the Devil is amusing himself today by opposing the progress of my pleasures. Everything is going wrong." You see? No harm is really done (if you ignore his murdering the father at the start of the play).

So is this opera harmful? You might argue thus: IF we do find ourselves sympathizing with Don Giovanni, THEN we are only recognizing similar desires in ourselves. But WE can suppress them, whereas HE cannot. THEREFORE his failure is to be applauded, however much we might enjoy his trying. Do we feel that way about the cardboard characters in "Camelot"?

It seems that Da Ponte has created such a strong personality that we can still admire him all the while we disapprove of his intentions and methods. Is "Paradise Lost" immoral because Satan is such an impressive character? Is "Richard III" immoral because the main character spends most of the play thoroughly enjoying wiping out most of his family? Perhaps we had best look to our definitions before any real arguments can be offered.

I suppose that Mozart’s audiences, like many audiences today, demanded high morality on stage but wanted to be titillated along the way. You see, we have no idea of how the original baritone played the role. All those mythological and Freudian interpretations of the characters came much later. Don Giovanni as the Corn God, Don Giovanni as the Libido, Don Giovanni as Prometheus. As with any strong fictional being, interpretations of this character changes over the years to suit the world-outlooks of the country and times of the evolving audiences.

Finally, we must also consider the very knotty question of the emotional associations each of us brings to a work of art. But that is a point that deserves its own essay some time in the future.

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