Boston Lyric Opera’s five-day run of Don Giovanni opens at the Schubert Theater on Friday in what General and Artistic director Esther Nelson describes as a new perspective, “Audiences see Don Giovanni from the point of view of his conquests. The machismo sometimes celebrated in other productions is definitely a liability here. And the talented, beautiful, young cast, along with the production design, propels a 230-year-old opera right to the heart of today’s important social issues.”
Helmed by a female-led creative team and starring Australian baritone Duncan Rock in his U.S. lead-role debut as the Rake, the production also features International Opera Awards finalist Jennifer Johnson Cano stars as Donna Elvira.
Stage director Emma Griffin envisioned the new production as “powered by two key women in Giovanni’s life, Donna Anna, whom he attempts to seduce and whose father he kills in a duel; and Donna Elvira, whom Griffin sees as Giovanni’s match.”
Griffin talked with BMInt about her work, as did Cano.
FLE: I’m interested in how the arrangements between roving stage designers like yourself and opera companies such as BLO get planned and consummated. What is it in your work that interests them?
Emma Griffin: I’m a freelance stage director, but I also have a position in the University of Cincinnati opera department. And I pretty much do new productions. If you are interested in a production with a new look, a new feel, a new interpretation, I am the sort of director you would come to. John Conklin, who has a very intensive artistic relationship with BLO, is very familiar with my work and that of my entire design team. And I think Esther saw my recent Cunning Little Vixen, which got a lot of attention in New York about a year ago. When they started to think about this production, I was on the list, and we seemed to be on the same pages about what they were interested in. It progressed from there. This was a really remarkable situation in that they were interested in me and my people. For directors, it’s a dream to be able to work with your own set, costume and lighting designers. We have a long history together that lets us dive into complex conversations very quickly.
So tell where in time and place does your Don Giovanni happen?
These are very difficult questions to answer succinctly. It happens in a space that is of Don Giovanni. It’s a costume party that he is throwing, and the eight characters, and I do think of this as an ensemble piece, are in this Kafkaesque world of Giovanni, and all of the events unfold therein. Without giving away the entire production, I don’t want to go into more detail.
Jennifer Johnson Cano described the set as something of a ’50s banquet hall.
Can you tell me why you want to know?
I like to give readers some sense of what they’re going to see. They want to know if this is going to be a traditional production.
I would say that the thing people should know is that it is a costume party that Don Giovanni is throwing for the “beautiful people.” If you want to think Hollywood, if you want to think Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball, but it happens today give or take 20 years—it is of us, but it is a heightened, extravagant reality.
I gather that the Dons and Donnas are wearing couture and the plebes are wearing normal street dress.
Is this a unit set?
That’s also hard to answer. It is a room. It does a lot of different things.
How did you and BLO come to this shared vision?
We had a lot of conversation about what they were interested in, what was exciting to them. We spent a lot of time with the music and the score. It all comes from the creative impulse of what story do we want to tell. With any guest director, you want input from the company. They know their theater, they know their audience, and things like budget are different for every single place. I and my team have worked in a huge range of scale—from pennies to millions. The performing arts are deeply practical. We’re always trying to figure out how to do more with what you have.
But the first and the last conversation is always about what story do you want to tell. What’s important to us. Who are these people? What do we care about? Where are we going? Frankly, you can tell a story with a couple of chairs and a cliplight, or you can tell that story with millions and gazillions of dollars, but it’s the telling of the story that’s the most important part.
Will you be projecting modern, idiomatic supertitles?
It’s generally my preference to have the titles as simple and clean as possible, so that they give the audience information without providing a lens into the world. I recently saw a Così fan Tutte production where all of the titles were in ’60s slang, and that was fun, but we’re not doing that. This is about giving clean, elegant information. We want it to fall on the audience’s eyes in a non-obtrusive way.
Will this production end with the final ensemble or with the Don’s descent into Hell?
We’re ending without the ensemble in this production, but listen, it goes back and forth. People cut it, people don’t cut it. We’re swinging back to cutting it. Mozart did sometimes; Mahler did….
Any stage fire? And tell us about the statue.
Well, I’m not going to give away anything. There’s no fire, I can tell you that, but I will tell you that the Commendatore is really important psychologically. I believe he is one of the main characters of the opera and he has huge impact on the storytelling.
Do you think he’s Mozart’s father?
I don’t. He could be. Amadeus went down that road really successfully, but Mozart is not staging our production.
Do you have any interest in directing a period production of Mozart?
Ingmar Bergman’s film version of The Magic Flute had beautiful stagecraft and was so much fun, but to be totally honest, that kind of production is now so difficult to do. I think William Christie has done a couple of Baroque pieces with actual Baroque theatrical devices. It’s so beautiful.
If you have a historic theater like Bergman did in Drottningholm, it’s much easier.
But the technology is really difficult. We’re just talking practical—it’s all rope and wood, and really hard to maintain. But that stuff can be really moving and beautiful and theatrical and thrilling.
Have you had enough time to spend with your actors?
Oh, my God, there is no director on the planet who will say they’ve had enough time. We always want more time, and I think the conductor would say the same thing about the orchestra.
Do you sing and move a lot during rehearsals?
I certainly do not sing. The rehearsals are very active. We’re all present in the room and we’re working things out—they’re definitely very physical. But I do not demonstrate—that’s very old school. It’s a conversation, it’s direction, suggestions, and we move on from there. I’m certainly very interested in what the performers have to bring to the role.
In terms of gesture and movement, have you come up with a new vocabulary?
Again, they’re at a party, they’re beautiful people. It’s story of people. It’s not a Robert Wilson 1980s production, but stage pictures are very important.
How do you find the singers?
It’s an extraordinary cast. They’re a true delight to work with. They are curious. They are tremendous singers. They have real insight into their roles. They have great chemistry on stage. It will be hard for me to do Don Giovanni again ever in some ways, because I don’t know if I could ever get this cast together again.
BMInt talks with Jennifer Johnson Cano:
FLE: Is this a revenge opera from Elvira’s perspective?
JJC: Donna Elvira is definitely on a mission in this opera and that mission when she first arrives on the scene is pure vengeance and to confront Giovanni face to face. As it continues, she goes on this fascinating journey of learning a lot more about this individual and sorting her own very complicated feelings about him and their relationship.
In part she wants to expose him because she wants him back and in part she wants to save him and in part she wants to destroy him. There really is a complexity. She’s been chasing him around Europe and she may still want him as much as she wants vengeance.
The Don would not necessarily make the best life partner match in the world. She really doesn’t know that much about him from her first encounter. After Donna Elvira later learns more, she comes to that realization that this isn’t a person that she would want to spend much more time with. I think she’s a very passionate person who lives in the extremes—those highs and lows. She and Giovanni actually have quite a chemistry and they’re well-matched, but they really don’t know each other’s life stories. As she is around him and sees his encounters with Masetto and Zerlina and, one would assume, behind the scenes hears the stories from Donna Anna and Don Ottavio, it comes to her as a warning that this isn’t something that she should continue pursuing.
But at what point, is it just in the final scene, that she truly gives up on a romantic image of herself and the Don?
I think it happens during the aria “Mi tradí,” which is in the second act, where she really goes on what could almost be treated as a monologue. She delves into this idea that he does make her unhappy, and yet she feels pity on him and she does care for him. When she arrives in the final scene to sort of interrupt him one more time and says ‘I don’t expect anything from you at this point, except you should try to change your life’ and then he tells her that that’s not going to happen, she responds that he should stay in this horrible life that he’s created for himself, and when he sees the Commendatore coming for him—sort of his future—she flees. But she comes much closer to danger than I think she ever realized at the beginning of the piece.
Is it hard to take her seriously or do you think she is the most complex character in the opera?
I think she’s a very rich character and the key to understanding her is how she enters and exits each scene. When the audience first meets her, they get to see only one side of her character. The fun thing about her as an actor is that with each time she steps onstage, a piece of the armor comes away and you get to see more and more of who she is as a person. When she first shows up in the opera, she is there with a mission, she’s been looking for Don Giovanni. In my mind she has thought through all of the things she’s going to say to him, and she keeps having obstacles thrown in her way, which throw her off course.
And it’s sometimes played for laughs in some productions, but have you rehearsed this production; do you know what to expect from the staging?
The production is really going for a very human experience, which includes everything from incredible moments of vulnerability and sadness to things that simply are funny and ridiculous that happen in life. Nothing is really played up for laughs; the focus is true-to-life drama. We’re trying to flesh out the characters in a way that the audience can connect to every single person instead of them being a stock stereotype characterization.
I’ve seen some productions, including one where Donna Elvira was literally kicking baggage across the stage and Leporello was projecting Victorian pornography with a carousel projector for the catalogue aria. It sounds like this one is going to be truer to Da Ponte. What is the setting?
It is a modern setting. The idea is that the opera is taking place within a 24-hour period at a venue in which the Don throws parties. So the costumes are reminiscent of an older era, with the idea that people are showing up for a costume event, and Zerlina and Masetto are dressed in something almost anyone could be seen walking down the street in today. Those of us who are the Dons and the Donnas have a bit more refined, upscale elegance to what we’re wearing, because we’re of a different class, so to speak. It combines Hollywood glamour—the idea that the Dons and Donnas are a part of that echelon of Hollywood stars and Zerlina, Masetto, and Leporello are the average person.
Does the setting look like a banquet hall or is it a step above that?
The main room of the set looks like a very clean party space. It’s a very colorful background from what I’ve seen of the sketches, and it will have sort of the high stylized chair, which will be the Don’s chair, a beautiful painting, chandelier and some sort of tigeresque sculpture. So the idea is it is Don Giovanni’s space, but it is not anyone’s personal space. It is a place where events happen.
Singers often switch between the roles of the Don and Leporello, sometimes even in the same run, yet you rarely see Donna Elviras singing Donna Anna. Are the vocal requirements really so different?
To me, it’s very important that the casting of those roles fits a characterization, so that when you hear the different women singing you get a sense of who they are just through the sound. You have Zerlina being this younger woman on her wedding day and the idea that she is a bit naive. And then you have Donna Anna, whose music is quite powerful and that has its own connotations, and with Donna Elvira you have a combination of very angular singing along with very ‘speaky’ legato lines, so she kind of crosses this realm between Zerlina and Donna Anna. It’s really a matter of taste.
Could you sing any one of the three? As a singing actress could you impersonate any one of the three? Or do people get typecast?
Of the three ladies, Donna Elvira is the best fit for me both artistically and vocally. I could never envision myself as a Zerlina or as a Donna Anna. Ultimately, choosing a role is a personal decision driven by what any given singer believes he or she can bring to a specific role.
Your repertoire is huge for one at this stage in your career: you’ve sung everything from early music to Wagner to contemporary opera to lieder. Is there anything you can’t do?
I truly enjoy all of those different elements and each serves a different function in terms of my artistry. I like the challenges behind different types of music. I love various languages and various styles and also combining opera and concert works with lieder and chamber music. All of those things combined are all very strong aspects of my personality and when I’m away from one of those for too long I quite miss it. It’s all about balance, and I can do all of those different kinds of projects and styles and genres. I actually feel quite at home.
Do you sing lieder like an opera singer or a lieder singer?
I sing it like a singer. I like to think that I bring the intimacy of what I do in my lieder and in chamber music and carry that over to moments in opera. In the same way, I attempt to bring my operatic training into my lieder and chamber music making. To me, there is no divide between any of these; it’s just making stylistic adjustments and choices for whatever music I’m working on at the time.
Many opera singers have trouble with the conversational intimacy and the more intimate tone, and it sounds like you relish that rather than have trouble producing it.
Absolutely, whenever I think of approaching lieder versus opera I think of it no differently than singing Mozart versus Wagner. I’m using an instrument, I’m singing music and it’s my job to have a grasp on the style and whatever the demands of the style are, and to do that to the best of my ability. I enjoy the challenge of it, and it keeps me as well-rounded personally and artistically.
I must’ve been in the backwoods somewhere, but I’ve never heard of the Don Giovanni Duncan Rock. And this is his BLO debut. Is he someone we should really be excited about and are you excited to be singing with him?
You should absolutely be excited about him. I know it’s Duncan’s company debut, and he’s primarily based in Europe. But he’s a wonderful singer and a fantastic actor and colleague. Our entire cast has been having a tremendous time working on this project and getting to know one another.
How long have you been in rehearsal?
Two weeks so far, with a week to go until opening night.
Well, that’s luxurious, isn’t it, to have that much rehearsal time?
It is quite a luxury, but for any of the Da Ponte – Mozart operas, time in preparation and rehearsal is a necessity. The goal is to paint on a broad canvas and adding or refining details along the way.
So this is a real ensemble; you’re playing to each other and not just standing and delivering?
I look forward.
Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte
Sung in Italian with projected English translation
BLO link here
Friday, May 1, 2015 at 7:30pm
Sunday, May 3, 2015 at 3pm
Wednesday, May 6, 2015 at 7:30pm
Friday, May 8, 2015 at 7:30pm
Sunday, May 10, 2015 at 3pm
Conductor David Angus
Stage Director Emma Griffin*
Set Designer Laura Jellinek*
Costume Designer Tilly Grimes*
Lighting Designer Mark Barton*
Fight Director Andrew Kenneth Moss
Wigs and Makeup Designer Jason Allen
Cast, in order of vocal appearance:
KEVIN BURDETTE as Leporello
MEREDITH HANSEN^ as Donna Anna
DUNCAN ROCK* as Don Giovanni
STEVEN HUMES as Commendatore
JOHN BELLEMER as Don Ottavio
JENNIFER JOHNSON CANO* as Donna Elvira
CHELSEA BASLER# as Zerlina
DAVID CUSHING^ as Masetto
Boston Lyric Opera Orchestra and Chorus
*Signifies BLO debut
# Signifies BLO Emerging Artist
^ Signifies BLO Emerging Artist alumna/us