Brow Beat

Can Mozart Survive #MeToo?

Mozart’s operas seem to glorify the behavior of bad men. But listen closely.

It's an illustration of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Getty Images Plus

As a violinist, I’m used to fielding questions like Brahms or Beethoven? or But what do you do for money? Recently, though, a new question has emerged, and it could have major implications for the future of the industry: Mozart—#MeToo or #NotMeToo?

The controversy stems from Mozart’s operas, some of which feature storylines that echo—or foretell—recent headlines pertaining to instances of sexual assault and harassment both within and outside the world of classical. Don Giovanni is perhaps the most obvious example, with an eponymous antihero who runs around violating everything with a pulse until he’s ultimately dragged into hell. But there are others, too, among them The Marriage of Figaro, in which Count Almaviva spends three and a half acts plotting to exercise his droit du seigneur (or “right of the lord”) over the maid Susanna on her wedding night—only to repent halfway through the finale. Both Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro have, as of late, received a spate of modern, social media–based stagings designed to highlight their relevance. Champions of these works see them as progressive. But many critics feel that they glorify the repugnant behavior and patriarchal values they depict—and question their place in the repertoire.

So, did Mozart, born 263 years ago this weekend, play for Team #MeToo, or was he yet another bigoted patriarch who deserves to be swept up in the Great Reckoning? Luckily, this is a question that’s more easily answered than “Brahms or Beethoven” (which feels to me a bit like “husband or baby”) and inquiries regarding my personal finances (which I usually ignore, since it’s hard to talk when you’re hyperventilating). Mozart embedded a series of hidden codes in his operas—codes that make his position very clear.

Of course, the word “codes” is a slight dramatization, born from my habit of imagining myself as the protagonist of an as-yet-unpublished Dan Brown novel. Perhaps more accurately, Mozart’s audiences were familiar with certain compositional conventions, which assigned meaning to everything from two-note rhythmic figures to the overall key of a piece, and Mozart used these conventions to interpret and color Lorenzo Da Ponte’s librettos. (Da Ponte wrote the texts for both Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro.) The effect is a kind of running musical commentary, complete with informative wisdom and inside jokes.

Take Count Almaviva’s first scene in The Marriage of Figaro, which features the terzetto “Cosa sento” (“what do I hear?”). In it, the Count angrily calls for the banishment of the pageboy Cherubino after overhearing rumors that he’s in love with his wife, the Countess. The Count’s melody is, essentially, a scale—the simplest musical configuration that exists. But it halts before each step upward and repeats the last pitch before proceeding to the next, as if even this most basic of constructions is too much for the Count’s plodding intellect.

Rhythmically, Mozart utilizes a dotted figure—a motif he generally employs to depict strength and nobility. But he undercuts this with a series of grace notes in the orchestra, which sound like short comedic “blips,” thus mocking the Count’s self-regard and bravado. Mozart also plays with the listener’s expectations of strong and weak beats, making it sound as if the Count’s first phrase finishes early. This, coupled with the sudden harmonic drama of the cadence (the kind normally reserved for the end of a piece) parodies the Count’s impulsiveness—and very possibly hints at his sexual ineptitude. Within the context of an opera buffa (a genre bound by the rules of comedy and satire), ridicule is the most castigating treatment a character can receive—and Mozart goes to great lengths to ridicule the Count not only in this opening scene but throughout the entire work.

Mozart’s treatment of the opera’s female characters is more revealing still. In the duettino between the Countess and Susanna, “Sull’aria … che soave zeffiretto” (“on the breeze, what a gentle little zephyr this evening will sigh”)—which many will recognize from The Shawshank Redemption—the two women formulate a letter designed to trick the Count into abandoning his designs on Susanna. Because the letter is deceitful, Da Ponte’s words are rather superficial—and Mozart could have easily written a score to match. Instead, what begins as a sweet, lilting theme opens up into a soaring combination of rich harmonies and sweeping melodies, with the two soprano lines arching over one another, passing gentle echoes back and forth. It’s difficult, while listening, not to feel that this is a celebration of the bond between these two women, whom circumstances might have made into enemies but have instead found comfort and strength in their alliance.

Mozart was the impetus behind the setting of Marriage of Figaro, having taken a liking to the then-banned Beaumarchais play it’s based upon. But it was Da Ponte who first suggested an opera based on the legendary Don Juan. Of the two, Marriage of Figaro is the more inherently feminist story, with Susanna and the Countess masterminding traps for their male counterparts at every turn. It’s also a more obvious fit for Mozart’s characteristic witticisms. Da Ponte’s Don Giovanni, on the other hand, is an odd mixture; at times the title character is clearly vilified, while at others Da Ponte’s interpretation is unclear. As a dramma giocoso, it treads the line between comedy and tragedy, making it harder for Mozart to employ the same effects he applied to Count Almaviva without undermining the work’s seriousness.

Still, from the opening scene, Mozart quietly champions Donna Anna, Don Giovanni’s would-be victim, as she chases him from her rooms. Mozart sets her words to militant dotted rhythms—this time without the subverting grace notes—that climb for two and a half measures before her line peaks and cascades to a resolution. Don Giovanni’s subsequent answer falls after only one measure—before reaching the equivalent high point—indicating Donna Anna’s moral high ground and foreshadowing her eventual triumph. Donna Anna later sings the commanding “Or sai chi l’onore” aria (“now you know who sought to steal my honor”), in which she commands Don Ottavio to aid her in avenging her father, whom Don Giovanni has killed. The aria utilizes a combination of dotted figures and dramatic leaps to show her anger, strength, and nobility. These figures rise in a majestic sequence, celebrating her righteousness and imbuing her character with tremendous power. Don Giovanni’s arias are comparatively simpler—both harmonically and structurally—with none of the substance or complexity Mozart gives to Donna Anna.

Mozart’s handling of the opera’s two death scenes makes for an even clearer comparison. The murder of the Commendatore (Donna Anna’s father) is followed by a sad and somber interlude, set over pulsing, unsettling triplets in the accompaniment. It’s followed by Donna Anna’s tragic and unusually melodic recitative, which leads into her duet with Don Ottavio, set in the opera’s primary key of D minor. Meanwhile, Don Giovanni’s death is followed by a cheerful chorus—set in G Major, a key which traditionally symbolizes peace and accord. In this final chorus, each character is given a short epilogue, taking us through several modulations and tempo changes, after which Mozart ends the opera in the key of D Major—the key of victory and rejoicing (used by Beethoven for his Ode to Joy some 36 years after Don Giovanni’s premiere).

The #MeToo movement has done much for the classical music world. It’s illuminated our dusty little corner of society and begun to expose the many spiders and cockroaches we’ve allowed to nest and flourish over the years. But Mozart and his operas are not among the guilty—despite the fact that his works have often fallen into the hands of directors who prioritized novelty and licentiousness over the integrity of the music. Given the often feminist sensibilities of his scores—the measures he takes to demonstrate disdain for sexual offenders and respect for women—one might easily surmise that he would have even celebrated the fall of so many unworthy figures.

Is it possible that I’m biased? Absolutely. When I was 2 years old I lost my voice because I wouldn’t stop singing the Queen of the Night’s famous “Der Hölle Rache” aria from The Magic Flute (or Florence Foster Jenkins, if you’re a Meryl Streep fan). But in this case, there’s also ample evidence to back me up, and I will happily share it with anyone who remains unconvinced—in an agonizingly technical measure-by-measure analysis of all of Mozart’s operatic scores.