White Skirt Wednesday: The Trope of the Trouser Traveller

[Taking out the trash? Also the precise moment Zerlina considers option B (or rather, option E). – Myrtò Papatanasiu (Donna Elvira), Ildebrando D’Arcangelo (Don Giovanni) and Emily Fons (Zerlina) in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”, San Diego 2015.]

When we liveblogged the 1999 Vienna “Don Giovanni”, the only redeeming element about its costumes (candyfloss and spaniels, anyone?) were the commedia dell’arte elements used for Leporello and Donna Elvira, turning them into a Zanni and an Innamorata respectively. That meant Donna Elvria in pants, which makes a startling lot of sense, given the history of the myth prior to Mozart and da Ponte.

A classic commedia dell’arte plot (both in Italian and Spanish tradition) is the abandoned young woman who dons male clothes to chase after her lost lover and save or reconquer him. Does that sound a lot like Donna Elvira to anyone?

Both the de Simone 1999 for Vienna Staatsoper and the Muni 2015 for San Diego Opera make use of this pattern (it is a coincidence that I watched them/excerpts of them back-to-back this summer), resulting in both cases in an enriched portrayal of Elvira (Anna Cateria Antonacci and Papatanasiu, respectively – both on the singer-actress side of the spectrum). The commedia background gives Elvira a framework to draw from that is not focused on the post-Enlightenment sentimental female lover prevalent in the majority of 20th century stagings of “Don Giovanni”, but marks her instead as someone who is taking risks, defies convention and actively chooses to pursue her own happy ending.

Of course in the commedia setting, the Innamorata marries her recovered lover in the end (who is almost always a man. Though there is at least one scenario where a woman gets magically transformed into a man in the end, so her female love interest can marry her. Early Modern problem-solving was so practical at times.)
In “Don Giovanni”, Elvira chooses to enter a convent (so… a quiet place with a library, music and female companionship. See how I am trying to keep a straight face here. See how I am failing.). In my personal version for the set-up pictured above, Elvira would run off with Zerlina and found a vigilante duo avenging the issues of women scorned. Marriage optional.

trouser travel trope 3.png

[Elvira to the rescue: cutting in to save the damsel in distress! – Myrtò Papatanasiu (Donna Elvira), Ildebrando D’Arcangelo (Don Giovanni) and Emily Fons (Zerlina) in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”, San Diego 2015.]

The Innamorata in pants crosses several discourses: her gender-reversed clothing does signal her leaving the female-assigned sphere of the home and going on the road instead: a switch from passivity to activity. It also casts a light on the gendered perception of space when it comes to traveling: male clothes were more practial, male garb a protection from assaults (a thread prevalent all the way to Verdi’s “Forza del destino”, which also has strong Spanish influences). All this fits perfectly with Donna Elvira – a young, abandonded lover – who leaves her home and travels from Burgos to Sevilla on her own (we only learn in da Ponte of only a chambermaid she has taken along, a figure turned in an older nurse figure in the San Diego setting) and who enters the the stage with a passionate conviction to get back Giovanni, or else.

Bottom line: all the Donna Elviras should storm onstage for “Ah chi mi dice mai” in pants. And, possibly, a sword (unless it’s Cecilia Bartoli, who gives the impression she would rip out Giovanni’s heart with her bare hands no matter how she is dressed and armed. Which is just what Elvira proclaims in that aria). Because it makes sense historically, because it is practical and because hnnng.

For a broader look at the San Diego concept (and, as a pointer in a context of Greek Soprano Syndrom fan service, its Donna Elvira): there’s a brief background teaser, for a glimpse of sword-wielding and bodily breaking apart Giovanni and Zerlina, and a longer feature with some insight into the development process and the staging ideas, focusing largely on the female characters and the singers stances on them (and yes. Stance).

4 thoughts on “White Skirt Wednesday: The Trope of the Trouser Traveller”

    1. We know we have reached the next level of contemplation when the Duchess is unpacking the Double Dactyls! (which, if you were a superhero, would certainly be your weapon)


      1. Contemplating: just how rare is a pattern of thought that prefers the other to the same? But that’s heteronormativity. And its tensions show, not only in its fear of homophilia, but also in its underlying distaste for the other it requires. The association of opera with hetairai, sexually experienced women, starts early and continues consistently, Poppea to Violetta to Carmen to Lulu. The progression is to worse and worse endings (even the Marschallin is forced into age and religious observations).

        Considering opera, then, as sexual fantasies, an economics of culture resents the control of their production by a monopsony, a dominant customer, toward whom the advertising of media reportage and industry affirmation is overwhelmingly directed (#oscarssowhite) with any deviation likely to be punished by exclusion: we can’t use you, people think you’re gay/of color/socialist/feminist.

        Baroque was, to its great artistic benefit, an LGBTQ-friendly market, in years of homophiliac affirmation. The market saw the customers, gave them product, took their money, everybody was happy. Why has the market turned away? Why is it not so concerned with your money as you want it to be? The answers must be economic; I suspect that they also have something to do with the change from affirmation to respectability. Western societies have dealt with minority discontent by allowing the more talented/advantaged members of minorities into the propertied classes, where they are less active leaders of the minorities, and where they find their influence diluted among the majority which extends political tolerance but does not want to know. Feminism has been greatly weakened by the prevalent belief that women no longer need organize as a class, while efforts against racial discrimination are no longer visible.

        “Freedom of the press belongs to those who own the presses.” Artistic freedom belongs to the people who pay salaries. They produce for the demands they perceive, and so it is essential to focus and to voice demand as you do. It worked before, it will again.

        „Daß das weiche Wasser in Bewegung
        Mit der Zeit den harten Stein besiegt.
        Du verstehst, das Harte unterliegt.“

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Otherness, sameness: what mindset created “opposites attract”? On another level: is it not only the focus on prefering the other than casts light on the same being the same? If there were no opposition, would there even be an opposition, or a difference between likeness and not-likeness?

          Good call on the downward spiral of sexually active (more so, sexually independent and self-governing) women – linking a bit to Clément, perhaps? Baroque and Early Modern overall left places due to class, up to the Enlightenment: the heroice of the seria is rationally in control of her feet despite battling her feelings, just as her hero counterpart. it is 19th centory body politics that encloses her on the crinoline or dawdling sentimentality.

          Opera, sex and the market: I believe monetary arguments are the only ones the market will heed. I could argue for inclusiveness on the grounds of human decency (and in a way, I want to, because much of my own growth is owed to opera, so surely it must have a moral core outside of its listeners? perhaps, though not when it comes to its marketers), but I think the only argument being heard is money. And if inclusiveness wins money, then social change is the carrot to follow behind the carrot of pecunia. Not idealist, perhaps, but effective?
          Minority members being assimiliated into normative maintext (if they are assimilable – and then scrubbed clean of their otherness safe for the harmless thrill of the subdued exotic) is of course an important pattern. Depending on the perspective, it can be a brain and body draught for the minority, or a chance of getting a foot in a bigger social door. But yes, the majority does not want to know. – Oh, how to create a space where everyone is voiced and heard, and where that polyphony is not seen as a negative force (negative, I guess, because it confuses the market if there is no clear target group that defines itself my discriminating against other target groups).

          (see where women (or a particular one) in trousers get us in three short steps? All the way into the waters of Lao-Tse. There is power in that pose…)


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