Over the past month, as I boarded four flights and about ten bus rides, I found myself listening to the same recording over and over: Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s 2012 recording of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.
I’d set out to study the opera over the holiday break because I plan on referencing it in an upcoming project. “Don Giovanni” is a seminal work in the opera repertoire — some consider it to be the best opera ever written.
Given the meaning of this work, I figured the best way that I could go about studying it was pouring over the score. For those unfamiliar with opera, the score is the music notation from which all sound is derived. It contains the instrumental parts and vocal parts along with lyrics and some stage directions.
Studying a score requires patience. Rather than idly listening to a recording, it requires the viewer to read, comprehend and imagine each part on the page. It also requires the listener to imagine how these parts might fit together were they not slowly being read and understood from visual notation.
This is a skill I’ve worked on for years. It was something I struggled with as a high school composer and something I slowly but steadily improved over the past two years of undergraduate music theory. It’s something I am proud to have developed a fluency in, and something I like to exercise when possible.
Though I hadn’t wanted to admit it, I imagine a small part of me wanted to revel in the fact that I could study score. Not everyone is capable of doing that, I realize, and there’s a certain amount of superiority that one inherently feels over the layperson (or even average opera fan) in possessing this skill.
After a while, though, this study began to lose its interest. I began to wonder why I’d decided to study the work to begin with — the notes on the page stopped translating to sound in my head.
I decided to put the score aside and focused instead on a recording. I listened to it constantly, starting from the beginning of the opera and the beginning of each act. I followed along with the score and the libretto as I listened. I memorized the intricacies of every aria and the many false cadences of the overture.
And after my first listen, I knew my feeling of superiority at only needing a score to understand the work had been misguided. If the score represents the creator’s ideas of the work, the recording represents the creator and performer’s many additive creative thoughts about the work. If the score is what the composer intended, the recording is what the composer intended plus what the performers added.
This dichotomy is unique to the performing arts, that the creator’s idealized creation of the work rarely represents the final rendering of it. Is “Don Giovanni” best represented by its score, I asked myself, or by its recording? Does the work exist in the composer’s hand on paper or does it exist in the soundwaves captured by a computer — soundwaves bound for endless reproduction?
And after I returned from my trip I became aware of another complicated aspect to this equation. “Don Giovanni” as Mozart expressed it exists both in the notated score and in the computerized recording. But “Don Giovanni” as most opera houses present it is so much more than that.
The set design of specific productions, for example, can totally taint the audience’s understanding of the work. The costume design as well can make or break a production. And this is to say nothing of the staging and acting that goes into each production of the opera; the decisions that give each part in the score a physical presence.
If I wanted to study “Don Giovanni,” or even experience “Don Giovanni,” merely studying the score or listening to a recording would not be enough. I needed to experience the work from the audience. (Assuming I couldn’t do that, I needed to experience it via video.)
As such, I decided to watch one of the Metropolitan Opera’s online recordings of “Don Giovanni.” But the interpretative decisions made by the performers in this recording differed greatly from those made by the performers in Nézet-Séguin’s recording. And both interpretive decisions differed from those that I’d reached while studying through the score myself.
There’s a certain beauty, I realized, in the complexity of the performing arts. It’s every creative member of the production adding their own interpretation and insight to each manifestation of the work. It’s the creator providing not a definitive blueprint for the artistic work but a loose set of guidelines within which the performer can thrive.
And there’s also a certain beauty to be found in the temporality of this work, the uniqueness that every performance and every computerized reproduction provides. These products are all “Don Giovanni.” But they are also all discrete, distinctive works.
One is Nézet-Séguin’s understanding of the work, the other the Metropolitan Opera’s, another merely the notes as they existed in Mozart’s head and on the notated page. There is no empirical, definitive manifestation of a work of the performing arts, I’ve realized. This exists neither in theory nor in practice. There are merely various interpretations, each with their respective strengths and faults.
There is, I’ve come to realize, no single artistic work that is “Don Giovanni” — and far as I can see, there won’t ever be. But by the same token, why should there be?