Baby, Don Giovanni’s Outside
Updated: Aug 7
It’s Christmas, and time for arguments about whether Baby, It’s Cold Outside is something an enlightened culture ought to listen to.
To summarise for those who haven’t encountered the discussion before: it’s a song in which (traditionally) a man insists a woman stays at his house, on account of the temperature. She offers a range of reasons why she doesn’t want to, such as the anxiety and likely adverse inferences of her family. As she starts to relent, she asks “what’s in this drink?”
On one hand, in a modern cultural context, it’s pretty clearly a song about a man pressuring a woman to have intercourse, to the point where she is even concerned about his having drugged her drink.
In the original cultural context, however, “what’s in this drink?” was a stock line, used by someone doing something they shouldn’t do as a justification, usually as a punchline, and shield from social criticism. Which is not to say that it doesn’t take place in a wider context of a culture of sexual harassment.
Which brings us to Don Giovanni, iconic opera of [historic sexual attitudes] meet [present day performance], and that’s before we get into the difference between the reception of the Italian version (seen as a light entertainment) and the German version (seen as a Romantic hero defying his society).
Both works were originally seen (broadly) as light works about socially taboo relationships, but directly translated into the modern age, are (broadly) exemplars of bad behaviour. A straightforward presentation of Don Giovanni in our modern culture is an opera that is about a monster; he's frankly monstrous in many other contexts too.
Interpretations change. This is good. If you doubt that, ask yourself whether you mind that current productions of Macbeth de-emphasise the stuff about how great James I is.
Yet equally, understanding the original context of a work can offer ideas about why it is structured the way that it is, and how else one might try to interpret it.
We might decide that it is best to just not do a work.
Or to enjoy the older version, with an understanding that we enjoy it with a sense of what is wrong with it.
We might rewrite it (this is especially possible in translations, though struggles against the underlying dramaturgy of the piece).
Or we can work out how to present the values necessary for the original piece to work.
Going back to Macbeth, I have seen few interpretative choices work worse than making the witches agents of some mundane power, such as bureaucrats or soldiers. The play calls out for them to be beyond Macbeth’s understanding, and writhes away from making them within ours. I’m sure it’s possible, but I’ve yet to be persuaded by it.
In Don Giovanni, can we make Don Giovanni the endearingly charming agent of liberation he was first seen as? When I directed Don Jo!, a highly reworked (and satisfying) version, Don Giovanni was very unpleasant, his dark charisma verging towards a sociopathic lack of regard for others. Above all, Donna Anna’s description of his activity to Don Ottavio, emphasising that she did not invite him in, contextualised Don Giovanni as a sexually abusive character, because we believe survivors. This is a fairly standard element of modern interpretations.
Were we to try and change that to something more akin to the original, we’d need:
1. A context of strict (state-religious?) rules around sexual and romantic behaviour.
2. A Don Giovanni who is sympathetic and charming.
3. A reason for Donna Anna to misrepresent her relationship with Don Giovanni to Don Ottavio.
Let us try to build that interpretation, and make it work for our times.
The first rule I’m bringing in is this: this is not a period production, even though that could satisfy 1.
Frankly, even my understanding of the Catholic church in the context of the Austrian Enlightenment is fuzzy, and that was my dissertation subject. So I assume it wouldn’t read to an audience, beyond ‘Ye Olde Worlde Thinge’.
But perhaps one could choose another highly religious, restrictive, and conservative society. That might be in our own time [insert place of your choice here]. We live in times when that might land.
However, I am not a usually massive fan of the jeans production.
This is not because I dismiss them - their originator, Peter Sellars, used them marvellously. It’s because they normally look like they were chosen for budget reasons, and rarely think through all the implications of each line of the opera in their new time-setting in the way that Sellars did when he did such productions.
So I would much rather construct an imagined world that supports such a society. One that has the signifiers of highly religious, restrictive, and conservative society, in such a way that it supports what we need in the text.
In such a context, Don Giovanni has something to sympathetically rebel against. Someone who is striving to live the life they want, despite restrictions (I suspect that such a reading becomes stronger the more overtly ‘taboo’ this Don Giovanni is, such as by being LGBTQ+ in some applicable way). His seduction is not what we see in now - social pressure from a powerful man - but an invitation to be free from those social restraints.
Not, I emphasise, someone who is uncritically a hero. He still lies, manipulates, and murders, but in a context where the rules he is breaking are those of a less sympathetic culture. The Commendatore symbolises a bad system of law; his judgement in Act 3 is that of a system perhaps worth defying to the end.
Finally, we would need a reason that Anna might misrepresent events to Don Ottavio - since I hope we can all grant that if Don Giovanni is (at best) an attempted sexual harasser, we fail to meet the requirements of 2.
I’d tentatively advance an answer: that it cannot lie in Donna Anna, but in Don Ottavio.
Don Ottavio has an aria that was added for the Vienna version, Dalla Sua Pace (‘if she has peace’), which makes him a charming tenor, solely concerned with the wellbeing of his partner. Yet at the end, Anna makes it very clear that she wants time away from him.
Why? Because throughout, Don Ottavio has not (other than in his beautiful aria) been a model of an open, accepting person, but an antithesis to Don Giovanni’s philosophy of freedom.
His first attempt to reassure Donna Anna is to promise her that he will be both husband and father to her; a dual embodiment of the patriarchal society whose rules she has perhaps broken. He follows her in swearing revenge/justice for her father’s murder, but it’s not his immediate inclination. Nor does he initially believe Anna when she says she recognises Don Giovanni’s voice on their next meeting. He’s decent, not good.
In short: yes, he’s a tenor, but I suspect there’s absolutely a way to play him that he’s not someone Anna would necessarily trust to treat her well after admitting that Don Giovanni was charming, and seemed to sincerely love her (this certainly seems to be Giovanni’s belief).
That is to say: “what’s in this drink?”
It changes the production, especially Anna and Ottavio’s relationship, turning it into something more unpleasant, for this is the price of making Don Giovanni a rebel with a cause, with something sincere to offer. But that’s something Don Giovanni can hold.
It might not work. You’d have to go through the opera, line by line, and that’s not something I have time for right now.
And I’d never suggest that this is the only ‘right’ reading of Don Giovanni. Only fools would do that, and there are others that are more intuitive, require less thinking around questions of ethics and representation, or find other colours that are more interesting.
Or are among the half-dozen other productions of Don Giovanni that I can think of off the cuff, from “Don Giovanni is a total bastard and everyone should hate him” to “Don Giovanni has explicit magic over others, and is being eaten up by his own power” to “the focus is actually on Elvira/Anna/Zerlina, and their view of what happens” to “what if it is a comedy, because Ottavio and Masetto are both fools getting their just deserts?” to “But With Lions, because opera deserves what Disney did to Hamlet.”
But I hope that, via Baby, It’s Cold Outside, this shows some sense of how I might try to unite analysis of original context to contemporary interpretations to build a production.