When OA Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini approached director Michael Gow about a new production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni for Oz Opera, he made it clear that he was looking for a chamber version suited to a touring company. And as neither he nor Gow liked existing English libretti of the work, Gow was asked to do his own translation of the original. “Lyndon was interested in something like Julie Taymor’s Magic Flute, which cut that opera back to 100 minutes,” Gow says.
The director, who has produced Gluck’s Iphigénieen Tauride and Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio for OA, was “a bit terrified to begin with”, since turning Mozart’s original into a chamber opera would demand extensive consultation with a score which is “on most people’s list of top five operas”.
Fortunately he could rely on the input of OA Music Director Anthony Legge. “Basically, if a moment or a musical number didn’t push the story forward, we talked about cutting it.” But the danger with cutting the score is that the music may have to be picked up again in an inappropriate key. Legge made sure that Gow’s cuts did not lead to this situation. He also ensured that Gow’s dramatic cuts did not cause musical problems. And because the touring Don G only has three chorus members, he helped to trim the opera’s chorus moments.
Don Giovanni’s performance history provided valuable clues about how a shorter version of the opera might be arrived at. For example, when Don Giovanni was staged in Vienna after its Prague première, a number of singers let it be known that they would like to be given more arias. Thus, Mozart wrote an extra Act II aria for the Vienna Donna Elvira, which nowadays is almost always performed. Similarly, the original version included a tenor aria which the Prague tenor couldn’t sing, so Mozart replaced it with an Act I aria one more suitable to his voice. The Vienna tenor decided to perform both arias, a practice which has prevailed to this day.
Other sections were trimmed or cut. “We lost the big Act I sequence before the beginning of the finale, because it’s basically people saying the same thing over and over again,” Gow says.
Pruning gave Gow and Legge the opportunity to re-examine a few structural issues too. For example, Gow rewrote the finale so that Don Ottavio and Masetto start putting up posters of the murdered Commendatore all over town, which is partly how he “returns”. Gow also has the pair hatch a plot to use disguise to summon Justice to deal with Don G. The Commendatore thus makes the final dramatic “return” without coming back from the grave. “It’s a bit of an adaptation, for which I hope people will forgive me!” Gow laughs.
Because the chamber version of the opera had to be fast-moving, the decision was made that there would be no changes of scene. “We came up with the idea of setting the opera in the town square on which the Commendatore lives, and letting all the action play out there.”
Because 16th and 17th century costumes are difficult to maintain on tour, Gow ‘updated’ the opera to the 1950s, “a visually interesting era in which it still mattered whether or not you were marriageable, and when for women, maintaining virtue was still crucial”. Donna Elvira thus arrives in the town square with a suitcase full of wedding gear, looking for Don Giovanni.
For a director who works mostly in spoken theatre, opera rehearsals can be challenging. As Gow puts it: “The one constraint of working in opera is that the amazing music has to be heard.” His approach is to tell singers that he’s going to push them as far as they can go, and that they can only say ‘Stop!’ when they can’t see the conductor, or breathe properly. Otherwise he treats them like actors. “But we’ve become used to people singing Handel arias standing on their heads and doing yoga – these days singers are capable of just about anything.”
One of the advantages of working on an Oz Opera production is that Gow had three weeks in the rehearsal room, with the whole cast. “You have the opportunity to explore,” he says. The further into the International stratosphere you go, the more difficult it becomes to do so. “The last time we did Seraglio, Osmin flew in from a concert in Tokyo when we’d reached the stage rehearsal phase. You can’t include much detail under such circumstances.”
Time constraints notwithstanding, does he aspire to direct more opera? “Absolutely. I find working with conductors very interesting and satisfying. I’d like to do a bigger version of Don G, or perhaps get out of the 18th century altogether. Parsifal would be nice.”
Don Giovanni opened inDandenong (Victoria) on 7 July and tours until 15 September. The production will also be showing at the Canberra Theatre this Thursday 12 July to Saturday 14 July: Click here for more information and tickets.