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Opera, you can do better

Jordan de Souza on Don Giovanni, dismisses critique about misogyny

CW: Discussions of sexual violence and assault, rape culture

At only 28, Jordan de Souza may seem an unlikely superstar in the genre of opera, an art form widely perceived as belonging to an older generation. Nonetheless, he is one of Canada’s most acclaimed young maestros. The McGill alum, now based in Berlin, joins Opera de Montreal this season to conduct Mozart’s iconic – and controversial – Don Giovanni. The 18th century opera tells the story of a young and arrogant nobleman and includes accounts of sexual violence. The Daily had the opportunity to sit down with de Souza, who, despite bringing up interesting points about opera as a contemporary art form, shows a lack of understanding about Don Giovanni’s complicity in condoning violence against women.

“Mozart was 31 when he wrote Giovanni,” de Souza told The Daily. “I did a piece by Franco Faccio, Hamlet, in Austria; he was 24 when he wrote that […] This has always been an art form [created] in the hands of young people.”

According to de Souza, the notion that opera is the music of an older generation is simply a myth. “I think what we hear so much in the media […] and what I experience actually working in the business, are two completely different things,” he stated. “Take this Giovanni we’re doing, for example. The whole cast is young Canadians, and all of us have this passion and this kind of adoration of opera and what we can do together through this form.”

According to de Souza, young people’s attitudes toward opera are shaped by a misunderstanding of the art form. “If I have a lack of understanding of something else, that if I met the right person that I had a chance to chat with, they could kind of open a window to that world, and all of a sudden you find something that resonates with you. And I think music, in such a deep way, is a great demonstration of that,” de Souza said.

De Souza himself realized his passion for conducting at a very young age. As a student at a Toronto choir school, de Souza worked as a piano accompanist and church organist; the latter role helped him learn to improvise and think on his feet. “Already as a young guy, I always had this kind of desire to lead musicians,” he explained. “I always had a kind of idea of how I thought music should sound, and how we might go about realizing that together.”

“If I have a lack of understanding of something [and] if I met the right person that I [could] chat with, they [could] open a window to that world […] I think music […] is a great demonstration of that.”

—Jordan de Souza

Those early musical interests eventually led de Souza to study conducting at McGill, where he encountered what he calls the “esprit” of an arts-loving city and province. The greatest resource de Souza experienced at McGill, however, was its people. He explained, “I think the best thing about my time at McGill was the interactions I had with so many great professors and so many great students that never tried to put us in a box, and they kind of allowed us to find ourselves as musicians and not try to fit us in a mould.”

Today, in addition to returning to Montreal for a four-show run of Don Giovanni, de Souza heads the music staff at the Komische Oper Berlin, which specializes in avant-garde interpretations of operas, and continues to serve as conductor-in-residence for the Toronto-based Tapestry Opera, which focuses on performing new and contemporary operas through close collaboration with living composers. This broad range of sounds and styles, from a 1787 Mozart staple to a Canadian world premiere, poses a stark contrast, which de Souza believes offers a learning experience.

“To then go back and work on a piece like Don Giovanni – which, obviously, it’s been the same way it is for 250 years – but to come in with that mindset of still trying to find the beats, of trying to see what’s behind the notes […] I think that’s the great parallel that I enjoy [working] with contemporary music and […] staples of the repertoire like the great Mozart.”

For de Souza, this process of “trying to see what’s behind the notes” is one that is purely artistic. He focuses solely on the formal elements of the opera and avoids addressing its reception, even when the opera has harmful social implications for marginalized groups.

Don Giovanni has received much criticism for its misogynistic values. Partway through the play, female love interest Donna Anna takes her solo, singing: “with one hand he tried to silence me, and with the other gripped me so tightly that I thought I must succumb.” Anna’s story may resonate with some survivors of sexual assault. However, in this opera, violence against women is both normalized and romanticized. The narrative focuses instead on Don Giovanni’s pursuit of his desires, frames him as almost heroic, and completely dismisses the lack of sexual agency attributed to its female characters.

Some contemporary interpretations of the Mozart classic address this aspect of the story. While Don Giovanni has been portrayed as a benign, suave seducer, other productions make it clear that he is a perpetrator of violence against women. De Souza doesn’t recognize the latter.

[Jordan de Souza] avoids addressing [the opera’s]reception, even when [it] has harmful social implications for marginalized groups.

“Giovanni is not an opera about sexual assault,” he says, “although sexual assault is a part of what is the departure point of the opera. To think of Giovanni as an immoral piece is to get lost in the details and not to see really what the totality of the message is […] Giovanni’s weapon is also not seduction as much as it is desire, and seduction as a byproduct of this desire.”

De Souza’s dismissal of the harmful implications of Don Giovanni, and the politicization of art as a whole, shows a fundamental misconception of the ways in which systems of oppression function. Even if an artist chooses to focus only on a piece’s formal elements, they cannot erase the social context in which it is created, especially when the piece perpetuates existing violence against disempowered communities.

In an effort to defend both Giovanni’s actions and his own directorial decisions, de Souza insists on putting the character’s actions “in the culture of the 18th century.” However, this does not absolve de Souza of the responsibility to address the opera’s harmful aspects in a contemporary context. By dismissing Giovanni’s actions based on societal values, de Souza refuses to hold the perpetrator accountable and to recognize that misogyny continues to run rampant today and manifests itself in the form of rape culture.

Though de Souza admits that the opera “puts us in a position […] to ask the right questions,” his passing nod to the controversial nature of Don Giovanni is a passive response to serious and rightful critique. Art cannot be untangled from its social context. Ignoring art’s participation in politics is itself a political act, as it obscures the role of art in reproducing systems of power. At the same time, art has the potential to reveal injustices and act against them. Even the opera, an art form so steeped in history and seemingly resistant to change, can surely be mobilized to this end.

Opera de Montreal’s Don Giovanni runs on select dates from November 12 to 19 at Place des Arts.