Mozart and Women's Education

My last semester of grad school had me digging deep into Mozartland, the confluence of studying Donna Elvira for the mainstage production of Don Giovanni and analyzing the master's music in the context of Enlightened ideals for my history class. Living with Elvira everyday, I faced this dichotomy of humor and pathetic desperation. I knew her role as the hilarious crazy ex-girlfriend meme, but at the same time I wanted to lift her out of the score, shake her vigorously, and lay on some tough love. I wanted to take her out to a bar and help her find a rebound. I wanted to sit in her apartment and drink wine and eat ice cream from the carton. How could Mozart let me care for her so much and yet still make her the butt of every joke?

SFCM - Don Giovanni Photo by Shase Hernandez

SFCM - Don Giovanni
Photo by Shase Hernandez

And Mozart is very clear that she is a joke. Her music is full of old-fashioned and faux pas musical stylings no true opera seria character would be caught dead making in the mid-1700's. (Handel is so fifty years ago!) Plus her demeanor is so unlady like: graphic lyrics, jagged melodies, furious orchestral accompaniment. Add the humiliation of Leporello's Catalogue aria along with her ensembles in Act 2, and Vi isn't left with a micron of dignity. Is there any other heroine in the opera repertoire that suffers so publicly, both to the audience and other characters ... for the sake of a laugh? Make her two-dimensional and she could be Wile E. Coyote. Girl is a savage mess, so again, why does Mozart add insult to injury by giving her flesh and blood rather than keeping her flat and cartoonish?

Then Vi reminded me of Dorabella from Così fan tutte, another lover of drama for the sake of a laugh from the audience. Again we see opera seria faux pas as a form of mockery in her first aria, "Smanie implacabili." Suddenly, Elvira was not an isolated incident. So what is the pattern?

The celebrated Enlightened thinker, Immanuel Kant described society's purpose of maturing via the conquering of "laziness and cowardice" through a liberal application of reason. Mozart being a Freemason would be all about Enlightenment. He even stuck around in Vienna, a city notorious for not appreciating his genius, in order to perpetuate Enlightened ideals by working for the enlightened despot and Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II. Add in the Freemasonry, and you've got one young composer from Salzburg all tingly with Enlightened ideals.

Taylor Rawley as Ferrando and Mariya Kaganskaya as Dorabella March 8, 2016 Photo by Alex Gilliam

Taylor Rawley as Ferrando and Mariya Kaganskaya as Dorabella
March 8, 2016
Photo by Alex Gilliam

During this time, we see incredible debate on how Enlightenment affects the female population; are they invited to the wisdom and reason party? Mary Wollstonecraft, one of Europe's first feminist philosophers was formally and artfully arguing for women's education in logic and reason for the betterment of all society during the tail end of Mozart's life. Did Mozart have an opinion on the subject? Being a philosophical and cosmopolitan man, he must have at least overheard the debate. Plus, the man was influenced by educated women since his birth (big sis and fellow musician Nannerl, first love Aloysia Weber, frequent collaborators Caterina Cavalieri and Nancy Storace, ...). Add the complexity Mozart gives his female characters in his mature operas and .... an opinion on women's education should be contained in his operas.

What strikes me about Mozart's Dorabella and Elvira are not only their roles as punchlines, but their lack of reason. In fact, each of them is a poster-child for Kant's two barricades to Enlightenment: laziness and cowardice.

Dora is ridiculously impressionable as demonstrated by her drastic swings from the noble opera seria to the lowly pastorale. And neither of these ideas are her own. Don Alfonso, the disgusting instigator of Così gives her the idea of opera seria upon entering her home with the terrible news of war and her fiancee's departure, and Despina, the women's servant convinces D-bella that being fickle is cool with her servanty rustic tunes. Dorabella lazily places her mental faculties with others rather than exercising her own and is proved a fool from her first aria through to the opera's finale. She's that friend who comments on articles without actually reading them. #Lazy

Vi is anything but lazy. She crossed most of Spain looking for the man that could make her a respectable woman rather than pining away at home or heading straight to the convent. She insists on this narrative despite every nasty deceit Gio pulls on her. It takes a hellish intervention for her to finally face the music and move on. Her desperation implies high stakes; she'd rather spend her life with the most notorious (and probably ... ew ... diseased) player in her universe than the alternative. While a modern audience may not explicitly understand her irrationality, most women will recognize the fear and anxiety of being and remaining alone, even if they don't understand why. Society is sneaky that way. Teaches you things on an unconscious level such as women are only as valuable as their male guardian/father/husband (which is why brides are still "given away" by fathers to grooms). Having no male guardian means relinquishing worth as a contributing member of society, hence Vi's only option being the convent, the safe haven of worthless women.

Don't believe me? Look at how women are described in the character list (courtesy of the Neue Mozart Ausgabe). Author Mary Hunter pointed this out in her book, The Culture of Opera Buffa in Mozart's Vienna. The noble men are allowed to exist just as they are - no relations or explanations necessary; however, the women are described by their relationship to another man. Donna Anna must be explained as the daughter of the Commendatore and future bride to Ottavio even though she is a much more important character than either. She's got noble male ownership in spades hence her high notes. Vi though, her only connection to anyone is Don Giovanni. And we know how he feels about keeping her around. #Worthless

To endure all the immense indignity that comes with insisting on "loving" someone worthy of Hell's wrath must mean immense fear of the alternative. Rather than be brave and discover her own self-worth, she gives chase while Leporello, Don Giovanni, and the audience laughs.

These two ridiculous women are cautionary tales to those unsure of educating the female mind. Rather than misogynistic drivel, Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte show the true danger of ignorance: exploitation.

This still holds true today. According to, 31 million girls on our planet are denied even elementary school. Never mind all the girls who miss out on high school, and too many of those young girls become child brides and sex workers. How is it that over 200 years after Mozart's message, human beings are still undecided on what is in the best interest of the female population? We know what happens to those denied education: #Exploitation.

You can read my argument in its entirety here