• Opera Canon vs. Opera Fanon: Edition #1

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    In modern Internet speak, “canon” means the unquestionable truth of a work of fiction: what’s actually written or shown in it, or what the author says about it. “Fanon” means ideas about the story and characters that are commonly held by fans of the work, but really have little to no basis in canon. Fanon can result either from misinterpretation of the text, from “filling in the blanks” of a subject that the text leaves vague,

    or from applying details of an adaptation to the original work. This phenomenon was probably best shown by a now-defunct Lord of the Rings website, “Canon? Not! It’s Fanon!” Examples of Lord of the Rings fanon discussed on that site included the belief that Denethor hates Faramir and wishes he were dead (no, he loves both his sons, he only would rather that Faramir had died than Boromir), and that Aragorn is insecure (that’s only true in the movies; not in the books).


    As I read various examples of literature and movie fanon online, it strikes me that opera has its fair share of fanon too. Many popular operas have misconceptions commonly held about them, or else standard interpretations of characters that really are only one possible way of portraying them. Some stem from different editions of a score that make changes to the libretto (e.g. Carmen) some stem from ignoring source material (e.g. the original plays of The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro), and some are simply subjective opinions. Since various people online have devoted themselves to debunking the fanon of other genres, I decided to try my hand at debunking opera fanon.


    Below are some examples of widespread opera fanon and my responses to them. I’m starting with only a few examples, but I plan to add more as I discover more.



    Don Giovanni. Donna Anna is in love with Don Giovanni.

    This is possibly the most popular opera fanon ever conceived. Book after book, essay after essay, and production after production insist on it. Sopranos are routinely criticized if they don’t portray Donna Anna this way. Some 19th century productions even “improved” on the libretto by adding text that made her love for Giovanni overt. Officially, E.T.A. Hoffmann first proposed the theory, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it predated even him. Whether they think she was aroused by Giovanni’s rape attempt, or (more popularly) that there was no rape attempt, that they had consensual sex, hundreds of Mozart lovers have embraced this fanon. But for all its popularity, it’s just as easy to argue against it as for it.


    “If she doesn’t secretly love him,” some people insist, “then why does she seek revenge on him so obsessively? She must be trying to atone for loving her father’s murderer!” Maybe, or she may just be a girl who loved her father very much and wants to punish his killer, who also tried to rape her. Is that so unconvincing? “But why does she insist on postponing her marriage to Don Ottavio?” people ask. “She must not really love him!” Maybe so, or maybe she’s telling the truth when she insists that she just needs time to mourn her father. After all, Mozart gives her a very beautiful aria in which she assures Ottavio of her love – I’ve never quite bought the argument that “Non mi dir” is supposed to sound cold and insincere, or that in her mind she’s actually singing to Giovanni.


    “But I don’t believe her story that Giovanni tried to rape her!” people say. “He’s a seducer, not a rapist!” Now, I don’t know where they got that idea, but it’s obviously not true. He may usually seduce, but if seduction fails he’s perfectly willing to rape: his assault on Zerlina in the Act I finale proves that. “But he’s so irresistible to women,” they say, “how can she not be attracted to him?” They have a point, but how do we know, really, that he’s irresistible to all women? Who’s to say that at least half of his hundreds of conquests weren’t achieved by rape? “But when Giovanni and Anna first enter after the supposed rape attempt,” people point out, “she’s not running away from him or trying to fight him off, he’s running from her and she’s trying to force him to stay! That obviously suggests something!” I’ll admit, they have a real point there. But even then, she’s ostensibly trying to keep him from escaping so her father can bring him to justice. Mozart and Da Ponte may not have meant to suggest anything else.


    Now, I’m not saying that “Anna loves Giovanni” champions are necessarily wrong – they make plenty of excellent observations. But that’s not the only way her character can be interpreted. So many opera devotees treat the “love” interpretation as canon, but really it’s strictly fanon.



    Carmen. Don José initially loves Micaela but then switches to Carmen.

    Yes, in the once-standard “grand opera” edition of the score, this is canon. Twice in Guiraud’s recitatives Don José declares his love for Micaela. The popular ‘50s update Carmen Jones also makes this canon, albeit with their names changed to Joe and Cindy Lou. But in the original version of the libretto, which the Guiraud edition heavily cuts and alters, he never says that he loves her. We also learn in the original text that Micaela is his foster-sister, an orphan whom his mother took in, and that he was originally going to be a priest before circumstances forced him into the army instead. With that in mind, look at their interactions: they’re possibly the least romantic operatic “couple” ever created. Their duet isn’t a love duet, but all about José’s mother. Micaela doesn’t come looking for José in Act III to try to win him back, but because his mother is dying. Her aria isn’t a lament for having lost his love (though Oscar Hammerstein rewrote it into one for Carmen Jones), but an expression of fear at approaching the smugglers’ den. It seems likely to me that the librettists saw Micaela as a girl whom José is fond of and willing to marry to please his mother, but ultimately only a sister figure to him. A scenario that makes José much more sympathetic than the popular image of the jilted sweetheart.



    Manon/Manon Lescaut. Manon dies of consumption.

    Why is it that just because two operatic heroines (Verdi’s Violetta and Puccini’s Mimí) die of TB, audiences seem to assume that every time an operatic heroine dies a natural death, TB is the cause? Even the Met’s official synopsis of Massenet’s Manon attributes her death to consumption. But neither that opera nor Puccini’s Manon Lescaut ever implicates that disease. The death of Puccini’s Manon, in keeping with the original novel, can be attributed to her long trek through the desert: exhaustion, exposure, malnutrition and/or dehydration. The “cruel fever” that she develops doesn’t necessarily imply a disease – the heroine of the novel Jane Eyre likewise develops a fever after a near-lethally exhausting journey across English moors. Meanwhile, in Massenet’s Manon, which eliminates the desert-wandering, her death can be attributed either to exhaustion from her long march to Le Harvre or to some unspecified illness contracted in prison. TB can’t necessarily be ruled out, but still,  it’s fanon, not canon.



    The Magic Flute. Sarastro is Pamina’s father.

    Blame Ingmar Bergman for this enormously popular fanon. His film of the opera makes it canon, as do various other adaptations (film, novel, etc.) that follow in his footsteps. His film, however, uses an extremely abridged and altered version of the opera’s spoken dialogue. Schikaneder’s original libretto states that Pamina’s father is dead. Her mother, the Queen of the Night, tells us that on his deathbed he gave the Sevenfold Disk of the Sun, an object that’s vaguely defined but apparently a source of great power, to Sarastro and his priests. Thus the Queen’s goal is to destroy Sarastro and seize the power that she feels is rightfully hers.


    “But the Queen could be lying,” certain Mozart lovers might say. “Pamina presumably never knew her father – it could be Sarastro!” No, the libretto indicates that Pamina did know her real father. When defending the priests, she says: “But my father believed in these good men and praised their goodness and their wisdom.” The misconception that she never knew him springs from the fact that her dialogue with the Queen is almost always heavily cut in performance, with any mention of her father either trimmed to a minimum or dropped altogether.


    I respect Ingmar Bergman and generally adore his Flute film, but honestly: is it thematically appropriate for Sarastro and the Queen to be a former couple? In an opera as devoted as Flute is to celebrating and glorifying romantic love (“Mann und Weib, und Weib und Mann…”), is it really fitting to bring in the specter of bitter divorces and (as in the popular fanon of “Donna Anna loves Don Giovanni”) imply that no woman can ever obsessively hate a man unless she also loves him, or used to love him? Whether fitting or not, however, that specter doesn’t exist in the original libretto.

    • I love this article. It’s so easy to take fanon as gospel because it’s in the ether surrounding the particular opera. This article is clear and concise and most importantly…it was a fun read! Thanks.

    • Just incredible writing..your originality of perspective is very helpful…gives me a whole new way to appreciate… love your romantic heart..

    • I enjoyed reading this very much – the “Donna Anna really loves Don Giovanni” thing has always irritated me as well.

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