According to that irrefutable source of all knowledge, Wikipedia, the character of Don Juan has inspired nearly 100 notable works of art and literature. The archetypal seducer of women has been dramatized by such greats as Molière and Shaw; his exploits have been set to music by composers ranging from Richard Strauss to Buddy Holly.
But the most extraordinary, enduring, and entertaining version of this libidinous legend is Mozart’s 1787 opera Don Giovanni. In librettist Lorenzo daPonte’s compressed version of the tale, the renowned lover kills the father of a potential conquest. His further adventures in seduction are interrupted when the dead man’s stone statue comes to life and drags the defiant Don down to Hell.
This weekend at the Granada Theatre, the Music Academy of the West will present a new production of the work, featuring a cast of young professional singers from its vocal program. Stage director Chas Rader-Shieber and conductor George Manahan, the team behind the Music Academy’s acclaimed production of William Bolcom’s A Wedding two summers ago, recently sat down to discuss their approach to this classic work.
As veterans of the opera world, you’ve both worked on several previous productions of Don Giovanni. What keeps this piece fresh and interesting for you?
Chas Rader-Shieber: The sheer theatricality of it. To me, Giovanni is a wonderful thrill ride. Mozart may save the big drop for the end, but that’s good roller-coaster design. It is a great balance of comedy and drama: It’s not weighted toward one or the other. There’s just as much that’s funny in here as there is dramatic and serious. That replicates life. A teacher of mine in grad school defined a classic as something that is infinitely interpretable. The story itself is quite simple: A guy comes to a town, he shakes things up, and he leaves. He’s a provocateur. But there is no definitive version of Don Giovanni. Every day you wake up, you think of it slightly differently.
George Manahan: I think it’s interesting that he has had more than 1,000 women, but in this show, he never gets laid!
The title character does some horrible things, but there’s a playfulness to this guy that makes him quite appealing.
CRS: Otherwise, why would any of these people fall for him? He’s a great seducer—and not just of women. He draws one in. In a way, he’s a classic anti-hero. You know that you wouldn’t do the things he does, but you root for him anyway.
He’s a relatively open book. He’s unafraid of being who he is. It’s terrifying to most people to encounter someone like that. The townspeople are scared to show who they really are. So they poke at one another. They ask him to lie, and he asks them to tell the truth.
He has a commitment to working on his terms that I have great respect for. Whether or not I like the choices he makes, I believe that he believes in them. The other characters profess to be moral beings, but in fact they connive, lie, and scheme. All of this makes them more interesting. They are human beings with great, big flaws. The good are not so good and the bad are not so bad.
GM: Every character has a distinct musical profile. The Donnas (Anna, daughter of the dead man, and Elvira, who follows Don Giovanni around in the mistaken belief he loves her) are sophisticated, turbulent, and troubled women, and their music is sophisticated, turbulent, and troubled. Then you have Zerlina, the peasant woman, who sings in square little eight-bar phrases.
And it’s not just the tunes—it’s the orchestration. Every time (the aristocratic) Don Ottavio and Donna Anna enter, the tympani and the brass come back in with the trumpets. Their music is often in D major, “the royal key.” Donna Elvira’s aria is written in the (older) style of Handel. There’s a lot of counterpoint. I always thought that’s because she has old-fashioned values. I don’t know if Mozart did that intentionally, but I like to think he did.
There’s one fascinating exception to that rule. Don Giovanni’s music takes on the flavor of whoever he is talking with, or trying to seduce. He’s a chameleon.
GM: When he’s sweet-talking the women, the music is amazingly seductive—those sexy, chromatic little crush chords. He’s a complex character who sings all sorts of music.
What makes the music so distinctive, and keeps it fresh no matter how many times you have heard it?
GM: Of his three big operas—Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte—Don Giovanni is the one where Mozart was really pushing the envelope. He has three different orchestras playing in different tempos at the same time! There are many orchestral colors that were shocking at the time. It’s not a perfect opera, but there are moments in it that surpass any of the others.
A masterpiece like this has so many layers; as a conductor, it gives you so many options. So I make choices as to what to emphasize. Do you go for texture and clarity, or do you want to make it denser and darker? Some of the choices I make once we start working on the piece. If I come with an interpretation superimposed on the cast, I don’t think that’s the best. You have to work with their strengths—what they have to offer. I’ve been working with the singers, and I think they’re very talented. That parade of arias in the second act will be pretty stunning.
This will be the first Music Academy opera in the renovated Granada Theatre. How does being in a bigger space affect what you’re doing?
GM: It allows us to have a bigger string section than we could in the tiny orchestra pit of the Lobero. I’m looking forward to that. There is room for a harpsichord, which I will play during the recitatives.
This is a brand-new production. Is it relatively straightforward?
CRS: I never try to be odd for odd’s sake. You could call this a period production. There’s a certain level of abstraction. There are a dozen locations in this piece, and nobody wants to wait around while we change the scenery.
Contemporary audiences like their theater to move forward. So for me, it’s important to find a scenic conceit that doesn’t stop the drama. The curtain opens at the beginning, and it doesn’t stop until the end of the first act. Same for the second act: We go, go, go. I think we’ve come up with something simple and beautiful, scenically.
It would be silly of me to let the production keep you from enjoying the piece itself. Mozart takes care of a lot of this piece. If you don’t defy the score, the odds are something wonderful is going to happen.
Don Giovanni will be performed Friday, August 6, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, August 8, at 2 p.m. in the Granada Theatre. Tickets are $10 to $100. Call 969-8787 or see musicacademy.org.