A Night at the Opera: Art Imitates Life

Steven Hayward

March 20, 1998

As chance would have it, the very same week that the long-awaited film adaptation of Primary Colors is being released, Mozart’s comic opera Don Giovanni is playing at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. I craned my neck at Friday night’s performance. Nope, the President’s Box was empty.

The word around town is that Primary Colors bears only faint resemblance to Joe Klein’s stinging prose portrait. Precisely because the story has been overtaken by events, the film may sink like an Arkansas catfish at the box office.

It is said, of course, that great art is timeless, and so the element of nervous, knowing laughter during a DC performance of Don Giovanni is palpable. Every one of the dramatis personae of the current Beltway maelstrom is recognizable in this old classic. Does not Don Giovanni’s manservant Leporello sound like the beleaguered Bob Bennett, "Slaving day and night for one whom nothing pleases"? "Promise you won’t fly into a rage," Leporello/Bennett implores his master; "You’re leading the life of a scoundrel. . . Worthy Don Giovanni, all’s going badly."

Don Giovanni’s defiance comes right from the McCurry/Carville playbook: "I know not what to do, my head is in a whirl; oh God! a fearful storm threatens me. But I do not lack courage, I’ll not hesitate or weaken or show the slightest fear, though heaven itself should fall!" Is this not deception?, Leporello asks. "It’s all for love," Giovanni answers. "To be faithful to one is to be faithless to the others. I have so generous a heart that I love every single one of them; but women, who have no head for figures, call my good nature deception."

Mozart’s capacious story line includes Giovanni’s longsuffering wife Donna Elvira (no character guide is necessary here, is it?): "That ungrateful man betrayed me and left me wretched, O God! Yet betrayed and forsaken, still I feel pity for him. When I think of his wrongs my heart urges vengeance, but when I see his peril my heart falters within me."

Opera-goers will recall that Don Giovanni is done in at the end (following a meal in which the ravenous Giovanni downs several Big Macs and more than a few fries) by the ghost of Commendatore, whom Giovanni had thought vanquished in the opening act. The character with the fewest lines in the whole show ends up as the agent of justice and retribution; appearing as a statue, it is not much of a reach to envision him as Commendatore Starr.

Lo and behold, it turns out that this reflection is not much of a reach. A cast member of the opera told me later that during rehearsals the director told the chorus: "As you are reacting to one another think of yourselves as White House interns who have just been invited to the Oval Office. You are thrilled and delighted but also somewhat frightened because you have heard some rumors about what goes on there." To the supernumeraries who usher everyone away except Don Giovanni’s next mark the director advised: "And you guys are like Secret Service agents. As you hustle them in you keep poker faces because you know what goes on but don’t let on."

Don Giovanni ends its run at the Kennedy Center this week. But don’t expect things to start looking up for the White House; the next opera on the schedule is Dangerous Liaisons. The President’s Box is likely to gather a lot more dust.

Steven Hayward, an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University, is a frequent opera-goer in Washington DC.