Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano (credit: Fay Fox)

Jennifer Johnson Cano discusses Donna Elvira as femme fatale in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”

Mark Gresham | 16 JAN 2023

“She’s a good-hearted woman
in love with a good-timin’ man.
She loves him in spite of his ways
she don’t understand.”

~Willie Nelson

Donna Elvira is a woman who will not take betrayal lying down. She is in pursuit of Don Giovanni, who has seduced and abandoned her. When she catches up with Giovanni, Elvira attempts to steer his other victims away from him. Despite her outrage, she truly loves him and believes he is capable of change.

Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano portrays Donna Elvira in The Atlanta Opera’s upcoming production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, in this case not set in the 18th century, but staged in the neon-and-shadows crime drama style of 1950s film noir.

EarRelevant’s publisher and principal writer Mark Gresham recently talked with Cano by phone about the role, especially as a femme fatale in the context of this film noir-style production. The Q&A below is drawn from that conversation and is edited for length and clarity.

• • •

Mark Gresham: How does this production’s film noir context impact your approach to portraying the role of Donna Elvira?

Jennifer Johnson Cano: Remarkably, it impacts it very little other than my clothes and my set of references. The thing about Don Giovanni is that it’s a very old story. The opera was essentially a retelling by Da Ponte and Mozart. And it’s, unfortunately, a rather timeless story about this person, Giovanni, who abuses his privileges.

I don’t think anything differently about Elvira as a person or as a character because everything she says is the same, whether you set the piece in Mozart’s time, a modern-day production, or this 1950s film noir production.

The only thing that really changes for me is fitting within that style of how people moved within film noir, and how they stood. Of course, they’re dressed very differently. I’m not wearing a corset and a big skirt or a white wig or anything like that.

So, it hasn’t really changed my concept of her that much, but it does allow her to be a more modern woman that American audiences would recognize very quickly.

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MG: In the traditional film noir types, would you say Elvira is the femme fatale?

JJC: Of the three women in the show, she would be the femme fatale because, for all intents and purposes, she’s the most dangerous woman on stage. She’s also Don Giovanni’s equal in many ways — her privilege, her temperament, her brains. I always like to think they’re very well-matched in terms of wit and their ways of seeing the world. There are actually a lot of commonalities between them.

The biggest difference between them, of course, is fundamental. Giovanni abuses people, and I don’t think that’s the case for Donna Elvira.

Knowing that we were doing this film noir production, I was doing a lot of reading on the history of the femme fatale. What a femme fatale is more than anything is a disrupter, and Donna Elvira does exactly that. When she shows up on the scene, she is there to find Giovanni and enact some sort of vengeance on him, although she never really states it. Her intent is to make his life difficult, and she does that. She disrupts his plan, and the action that would have happened had she not arrived on the scene.

The word I have used to describe Elvira is the “lone wolf” because she doesn’t necessarily have a partner counterpoint that many of the other characters in the opera have. Donna Anna has Don Ottavio. Zerlina and Masetto are matched. And I would argue that Leporello and Giovanni are sort of a pair. Elvira enters the scene with no person as her confidant. She meets these people along the way, and they all start connecting their stories of Giovanni’s bad behavior through her. She is dangerous in that she is the brain helping everyone to see, “This person is not a good person, and he’s done a lot of misdeeds.”

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MG: Why is it that typically the most dangerous woman in the room, in this case Donna Elvira, is so obsessively attracted to or in pursuit of the most perilous alpha male in the room?

JJC: I honestly have never thought of her as being necessarily obsessive. When a person leaves without explanation, you want to know what happened. Then as she learns all of these other things about him, she also questions a lot about herself. Why did she not see these things? How could she have been so blinded by their passionate love affair? You tend not to see other things in a person when you have on what I call those “love glasses.” You know, you either don’t see or choose not to see. And then, throughout the opera, she is faced with the cold, hard truth. In turn, I think her journey is also questioning what that says about her.

MG: Well, she’s most likely the character that actually evolves through the course of the opera.

JJC: Oh, absolutely! I think all of the women evolve, in different ways, as do many of the male characters. Giovanni doesn’t necessarily evolve. He stays the same, and that’s why he comes to the fate he ends up having. But yes, in every great opera, and Don Giovanni is a great opera, you do see the evolution of different characters. I think that’s why we go to opera, to see other people evolve through these highly dramatic and intense situations. And Elvira’s journey is absolutely that. She thinks the world is one way, and by the end of the opera, she sees the world very differently,

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MG: We’ve talked about character portrayal. Let’s touch on the singing for this particular role. What would you advise a vocal student about the highlights and challenges of the role of Donna Elvira?

JJC: The challenges of the role are the things that make it the most interesting. Because of her evolution and because of the things she learned along the way, you have to use every tool in your technical toolbox to portray her: different shades of color, different ways of singing, in order to emote anger, frustration, sadness, pain, even moments when she is seducing or being seduced.

What makes the role fabulous is what presents you with all of the vocal challenges, and [in turn] those challenges make the role fabulous. It’s really one of those things where you have to be ready to dive in and experiment and find the things that make Elvira come alive on stage.

Elvira is so very modern that, for many people who come to see the opera, she is familiar in a way, especially in today’s society when there is a great, raised fist in the atmosphere to stop these abuses by privileged patriarchal figures.

What’s marvelous to me is that here we have this 18th century opera that is still so topical and meaningful and provides such insight into the human experience. That always excites me to no end. And for people who may hear Mozart and think, “Oh well, that’s old stuff. How does that possibly pertain to my life now?” I always believe they would be pleasantly surprised that it is an ever-present story that we still feel compelled to share, and we can watch it and identify with the experiences of every single character on stage.

The Atlanta Opera presents Mozart’s Don Giovanni January 21, 24, 27 & 29 at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.


Mark Gresham

Mark Gresham is publisher and principal writer of EarRelevant. he began writing as a music journalist over 30 years ago, but has been a composer of music much longer than that. He was the winner of an ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for music journalism in 2003.