An 18th century tale of a man who treats women abhorrently is just what the #MeToo era needs.
Of course, it helps that the production featuring this scoundrel is “Don Giovanni,” perennially regarded as one of the greatest operas ever written. And when it comes to the story line, it may be eye-opening to focus less on Giovanni’s behavior and realize he meets a very bad end.
Ken Pereira, UW-Eau Claire music and theater arts associate professor, explained why he found the work speaks so powerfully to audiences in 2019 and how that figured into why he’s directing it. Opening night is Thursday, May 9, in Pablo Center at the Confluence’s RCU Theatre.
“For me the striking thing about the story is how relevant it is,” he said. “It’s incredibly relevant, and that was one of the reasons for wanting to tell this story.”
Specifically, he said, some who don’t know the plot especially well may think it celebrates the title character.
“But in fact the second title of the opera translates as ‘The Rake Punished,’” Pereira said. “The whole story was even written in the first place because a priest was seeing the lives people were leading and said, ‘This is what’s going to happen to you. There’s punishment for doing bad things.’”
Pereira and five cast members gathered recently in his office to talk about the show’s thematic and musical richness.
Jacob Hilton, a junior vocal performance major playing the role of Giovanni’s servant Leporello, pointed out that one of the joys of canonical works is that they flourish for centuries.
“(T)he great thing about opera is you can interpret it in different ways throughout the years, and I think it’s really important that we use that and interpret it to fit into our era right now,” he said.
The fact that the story retains its power for audiences today will be emphasized through the look of the show, which Pereira said reflects both the original period and contemporary times.
“The clothing and the set and everything is a fusion between two worlds — and even the movement,” he said. “(Y)ou’re going to see a variety of dance moves, shall we say, all in one scene, from a very classical minuet to club dancing. We’ll just leave it there.”
For some characters, Pereira said, he hoped to avoid some choices that have been repeated through the years.
“Like Donna Elvira for instance — she often comes off as a crazy person,” he said. “She is staged or directed to be that way or has acted that way.”
But that misses a key point about one of the women grievously wronged by Giovanni.
“She has a really legitimate gripe,” he said. “We’ve really tried to overcome that stereotype or that tradition of how she’s normally directed or staged so people don’t go, ‘I don’t blame him for leaving her.’ We see more of her side of the story.”
Kathryn Flynn, a junior vocal performance major, elaborated on how the anger of Donna Elvira, as she is portraying her, should come across as justifiable outrage.
“She can be perceived as the crazy lady, but in the same way I feel like that represents the #MeToo movement in a larger light of women finally feeling comfortable enough to step forward and (say), ‘Oh, this happened to me,’” she said.
Or as Flynn added: “(I)t’s kind of like the saying: Where there’s one mouse there’s a thousand rats.”
Junior vocal performance major Carleen Baron plays the role of Donna Anna, another woman victimized by Giovanni. She suggested a 2019 staging of the opera has real-time benefits.
“I think it’s really important because, yes, the story is not always the brightest and happiest story. … These things really happened then and happen now, which is very sad,” Baron said. “But I think it’s nice that we have the opportunity to bring them into a better light and to really bring them out into light in general and really bring attention to them.”
Gabriel Feldt, a senior vocal performance major, said even dated elements of the composition are worth seeing so such actions and attitudes portrayed therein can be viewed critically.
“‘Don Giovanni’ is a very historical piece, and it’s important history isn’t hidden at all,” said Feldt, who plays Masetto, a peasant whose fiancee is another of Giovanni’s attempted conquests. “I think it’s important that we see it and examine it and question it. That’s the only way we move forward from it. So I think ... erasing it from the canon would in some ways be worse than showing it and talking about it.”
Feldt emphasized that the UW-Eau Claire production has a more progressive view.
Ian Rucker, a senior vocal performance major who plays the title role, said he enjoys the way this staging highlights the #MeToo movement in action. Specifically, he appreciates the way the other characters, mainly the women and a few of their allies, unite to give his character what he deserves at the conclusion.
Crediting Pereira, he explained, “(Giovanni) has all the women characters going together to fight against him. ... Even at the end, when he gets his comeuppance, it’s all the women taking him down.”
Pereira added, “And it didn’t require any changing of text to do that.”
Music in character
Part of Mozart’s genius — and, again, how he speaks continues so powerfully to all eras — is how he crafted the characters through his compositional skills, performers and the director noted. They commented specifically on the power of the female characters’ music.
“It’s so much more complex than most of their male counterparts’,” Pereira said. “So Mozart obviously had something to say about (treatment of women) and thoughts about it.”
Hilton, too, counts himself as a fan of the music.
“It’s always good,” he said. “And you can always find different things. I feel like every rehearsal I look at Gabe (Feldt), and I’m like, ‘Did you just hear that?’”
Feldt finds it interesting that only one character doesn’t have music unique to them: Don Giovanni.
“He actually is like a chameleon in the opera and attaches on to whoever’s music that he’s trying to seduce in the moment,” he said. “So everybody’s music is so specific except for his.”
Baron spoke about how the music brings out the characters’ humanity, adding, “I just think the humanity in it is what makes the story so relevant.”
As great as the music is, Pereira said, Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto also plays a central role in its success.
“He and Mozart worked very close together, but Da Ponte is an even more fascinating person to study,” Pereira said. “He was like best friends with Casanova (the famous Italian author and adventurer). So talk about somebody who could really write the character of Don Giovanni. His best friend was one of the most infamous lovers in Italy.”
Rucker also is enjoying the libretto. “This is an opera that can have you laughing one moment, on the edge of your seat the next moment, just in total awe the moment after that. The drama relates to the music and vice versa.”
That’s true, he added, even for those who don’t speak Italian, the language in which the company is performing. However, Pereira said, English supertitles will be presented along with the production.
Pereira added that “Don Giovanni” shows its creator’s similarity to another genius for the ages.
“Mozart is the Shakespeare of opera,” he said. “And just like Shakespeare, you can really set a (Mozart opera) in any era, and it still speaks to its audience.”
Which is why, Pereira said, “Don Giovanni” can be appreciated by any contemporary audience member. For one thing, he added, thinking of opera as high brow is mainly an American attitude.
“You go to opera in Europe it’s like going to a sporting event,” he said. “In America it’s part of social elitism; I get that. But that’s really not the art form.”
As he further noted, “When people actually get in and they see these situations and they find characters they relate to, it can be transformative.”