Friday, April 24, 2015

The Women of Don Giovanni

By Magda Romanska, Ph.D., Boston Lyric Opera Dramaturg

The Garden of Don Juan by Lajos Gulácsy, 1910
By the 18th century, educated women were beginning to question male freedoms and dominance of society, and starting to demand similar freedoms for themselves. Many men were also increasingly uneasy about their own social and economic privileges, especially the moral latitude shown toward male sexuality (as opposed to the constraints placed on female sexuality). The women of Don Giovanni showcase the many tensions that dominated gender relations of the era, each representing different aspects of the cultural and social landscape.

For critics, the most problematic of the three central female characters is Donna Anna. Her character does not appear at all in Molière’s play, Don Juan. In Tirso de Molina’s The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest, it is suggested that perhaps Don Giovanni raped her, with the play revolving largely around the issue of her honor. At the end, Giovanni confesses that he had not been successful with her, thus resolving the main dramatic question. In Mozart’s opera, she figures not so much as one of Giovanni’s conquests, but foremost as the daughter of the Commendatore whom Giovanni kills, and who in turn enacts his own supernatural revenge on the libertine. Anna’s relentless pursuit of Giovanni and her request to delay the wedding to her fiancé, Don Ottavio, suggest that perhaps she may have been violated, though some critics note that she may simply have been traumatized by the death of her father, who was killed while protecting her honor. In his book on Mozart’s opera, Edward Joseph Dent argues that Anna and Ottavio, “were evidently intended by Da Ponte to be the pair of more or less serious lovers customary in most Italian comic operas.” If Anna and Ottavio indeed fulfill the function of the Italian innamorati, Irving Singer points out that her request to wait the conventional year before marrying is rather normal, and there is no reason for us to believe that her encounter with the Don had anything to do with it. Singer suggests that Anna, the dutiful and guilt-ridden daughter, represents Mozart himself and his own strained relationship with his father. At the end, Singer notes that “neither the capture of Don Giovanni nor the comfort of Ottavio’s love can eliminate the sadness she feels” at the loss of her father.

Of the three women, Zerlina appears to be the most sexually liberated. She can be portrayed as either an innocent village girl or a cunning, no-nonsense peasant woman. She most closely parallels commedia dell’arte’s Columbina, the clever maid stock character. Although Zerlina has no qualms about flirting with Don Giovanni on the day of her wedding to Masetto, we don’t know if her interest is genuine and she indeed comes under the spell of the Don’s charisma, or whether it’s merely her strategy of dealing with Masetto, making him jealous and by extension more prone to her influence. As Singer points out, “[S]he knows that the more she is fickle with Masetto, the more he will dote on her; the more he dotes on her, the greater her freedom to deceive him.” We also don’t know if Zerlina really believes in Giovanni’s promises of marriage, or merely pretends to in order to justify the seduction. She is sensual, but she also understands the social and moral judgment that women must conform to, and she quickly adjusts her behavior to what Masetto expects, begging him to “beat your poor Zerlina.” In the end, Masetto doesn’t beat Zerlina, but Giovanni beats Masetto, which she cleverly blames on Masetto’s own jealousy. Zerlina is often compared to Papagena from The Magic Flute, a child of nature who treats sensual pleasure with casual joy and without the guilt of dominant Christian morality.

Finally, Donna Elvira’s chase of the Don and her drive to “avenge my deceived heart” is one of the most tragic motifs of the opera. Elvira is as traditional as possible; believing in the institution of marriage, she is unable to come to terms with Giovanni’s false promises and betrayal. If she were a character in an opera buffa, her love-hate pursuit of her former lover would be farcical, but the music that accompanies her is always serious, suggesting something darker and perhaps even pathologically obsessive in her passion. As David Cairns put it, “[Elvira] is a victim-figure, and her music depicts her obsessiveness, her continued sexual fascination with Don Giovanni, her lack of control; but, unlike the Don, it doesn’t deride her. She rises above the indignities callously heaped on her, and earns our respect.” She is constantly torn between the reality of her predicament and her fantasy world. She desperately wants to believe Giovanni’s assertions because not believing means admitting to her own gullibility, but the more she trusts him, the more she suffers. He deceives her until the very end.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

DR. VON LYRIC: Giovanni Variations #1

BLO's production of Don Giovanni is roaring is currently loading into the theatre.

But while we prepare to confront the irresistible but treacherous Don in person, let's calmly listen to some virtuosic variations by various 19th-century composers drawn to Mozart's unique blend of charm and high drama.

Liszt (who would perhaps appreciate Lang Lang's visual sense of theatre!):




...and  by one of Mozart's sons:

Thursday, April 16, 2015

BLO Exposed: An Interview with Jennifer Johnson Cano!

Jennifer Johnson Cano stars as Donna Elvira
in the BLO production.

This week, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano sat down with BLO to talk about her first Donna Elvira, her musical background, and being in Boston in springtime.

BLO: In your own words, what’s the story of Don Giovanni?
JJC: I think it’s really about the relationships in the piece and how everyone relates to Don Giovanni himself. Ultimately, I think it’s the story of this wildly charismatic person who doesn’t use people wisely, and how it affects people’s lives, but at the same time, they’re attracted to him.

BLO: Have you sung the role of Elvira before?
JJC: This is the first time! And it’s such a great first time for so many reasons—it’s a new production and we’re constantly talking as a group about the decisions that we’re making. And Emma [Griffin], the director, has such a fantastic point of view in terms of fleshing out the relationships … So there have been a lot of really great, collaborative conversations … Sometimes I say something and then I’m like, that’s a terrible idea! Let’s do  something else! [Laughs.]

BLO: What is your process like when you’re preparing a new role?
JJC: For me, it’s always about studying the text. What does the text actually say, what is the story that the libretto is actually telling? And then making sure that I can communicate that through what I’m doing onstage … It’s a constantly layering process. You start off super basic, nuts and bolts, and then you decorate the rest of the time... My husband [Christopher Cano, pianist and vocal coach] likens it to building a house: You gotta lay a concrete foundation, you gotta get the studs in, then you put the walls on and the roof on, and that’s the structure. Then the rest is the interior decorator’s job. Do I want to add a window dressing? Would a rug look good in this room? So it starts off basic, and hopefully as close to the truth as you can get, and then you decorate from there.

BLO: What are some of the things that are challenging in singing Elvira?
JJC: The biggest challenge of any opera, not just Elvira, is finding the highs and low to make the character a fleshed-out person. It’s very easy to take the music at face value and create a stock character, but what you really want to do is create someone who has feelings, and reactions, and emotions, and that it’s very, very honest. And [Elvira’s] music changes a lot. When she first enters on the scene, it’s very angular, very up and down, lots of leaps. And then her next aria is this Baroque piece, and if you heard them separately you might not know it was the same character singing that music. Her final aria in the second act, the “Mi tradì,” again is a totally different style. So [the biggest challenge] is bringing all of these things together to create this one, fluid character.

BLO: Do you have a favorite aria or section of music in Don Giovanni?
JJC: The ensembles are the best parts in the show … Mozart’s arias tend to be one or two points of self-reflection, but in the ensembles, the movement of the story is continuous, and I love playing with my colleagues onstage. We play make believe, all day! …[M]y personal favorites are the quartet in Act I, the trio in Act II, and the final scene between Elvira, Leporello, and Giovanni.

BLO: Tell us a little bit about you, your background and training.
JJC: I grew up in Missouri, a small town about an hour south of St. Louis called Festus, MO. My parents are great music lovers, so I grew up going to a lot of musical theater shows and symphonic performances by St. Louis Symphony. My mom was a church musician. So there was always music around to enjoy, but I didn’t really get serious about studying music until I went to college. I went to school in St. Louis and then in Texas, and then I won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. And from that was invited to be in the Lindemann [Young Artist Development] Program, where I spent three years as a young artist. It was an extremely formative part of my growing up—although I’m still very much growing up!—I had the luxury of being in this incredible opera house, and not only learning actively from people that I would work with one-on-one, but also learning passively though observing incredible people do what they do. And the orchestra making music was the best thing in the world.

BLO: What do you have coming up after Don Giovanni?
JJC: This summer I am going to Opera Saratoga, and I’m doing my first Dido in Dido and Aeneas by Purcell. They’re working with a dance company so I understand that dance will be interspersed throughout the entire show, which will be a fantastic challenge … And then I’m also tackling my first Carmen in Savannah with the Savannah Voice Festival, delving into that world as well. So my spring and my summer are filled with these incredible characters studies and these remarkable women. Very different, but I’m sure by the end of the summer I will have found all these links between them. So I’m very spoiled.

BLO: How has your time in Boston so far been?
JJC: I’m loving Boston so far! I’ve only ever been here for concerts, which are very intense, quick trips, and this is my first time where I have been able to take an afternoon or a morning and wander and see what’s going on. And it’s the first time that I’ve been here in spring … So it’s really nice to be here and sit in Boston Common, or walk up and down Newbury Street or Commonwealth, and take it all in. The only issue is that I’m in Red Sox territory and I’m from St. Louis…but don’t hold it against me, I just happen to be from Cardinals world. So far, two thumbs up for Boston!

Behind the Scenes at BLO's Don Giovanni Photo Shoot!

As rehearsals began, the stars of Don Giovanni came together for a red-hot photo shootcheck out the talented cast below! They bring to life opera's most dangerous leading man and the three dynamic women who are determined to bring him to justice May 1–10 at the Shubert Theatre. Learn more.

Jennifer Johnson Cano and Duncan Rock star in the BLO production as Donna Elvira and Don Giovanni.

The three unforgettable leading ladies of Don Giovanni: Chelsea Basler (Zerlina), Meredith Hansen (Donna Anna), and Jennifer Johnson Cano (Donna Elvira).
Chelsea gets ready for her closeup.

Duncan and Jennifer share an inside joke about redheads.

The divas take a break to smile for the camera.

BLO’s PR rep, John Michael Kennedy, and photographer Eric Antoniou provide some direction to the ladies.

The money shot…

And how we got it. Jennifer Johnson Cano lends a hand!

Who said it's not all fun and games?

All photos Eric Antoniou for Boston Lyric Opera © 2015

Thursday, April 9, 2015

DR. VON LYRIC: “My dear Chopin, let me introduce my friends, Herr Liszt and Herr Wagner...”

On Friday, April 10, BLO is presenting a Signature Series program featuring a screening of the film AMADEUS at the beautiful Somerville Theatre (if you haven't seen the place, you should!), with some extra features beyond seeing the excellent picture on a big screen. Check it out!

Biopics of composers are somewhat of a staple of Hollywood (and foreign) cinema. Look at the daunting list from Wikipedia. Not surprisingly, Chopin leads the list, with Schubert second (pale, handsome romantics, desperately in love and dying young ... irresistible!).

For many critics, these films have perhaps not been the cinema's finest hours. They have been often derided as sentimental , historically inept, and wildly distorted, and their depictions of creativity as crude and reductive. These charges have most often been aimed at the main practitioner of films with composers as their focus--Ken Russell. Russell is a very complex and fascinating artist (he acted, wrote, was a photographer ... he also directed opera). Charged with willful distortion and outrageous manipulation (or is it genuine myth-making?), feverish travesties (or is it a delightfully flamboyant and highly expressive use of any theatrical means available?), derided as crude and vulgar (or truth through excess, in the manner of Blake?), Russell remains a controversial figure. Read more here.

But I would also recommend the series of very influential and often quite extraordinary programs he did for the BBC early in his career (some consider these his best work): check them out on Amazon. Let's look a few examples of his work (and others):

Chopin and Liszt:

A SONG TO REMEMBER (1945), directed by Charles Vidor
Cornell Wilde as Chopin and Merle Oberon as George Sand


MAGIC FIRE (1955), directed by William Dieterle
Alan Badel as Wagner and Yvonne de Carlo as Minna
Music arranged by Eric Korngold (who also appears as Hans Richter)


LISZTOMANIA (1975), directed by Ken Russell (incidentally, the sobriquet "Lisztomania" was created by Henrich Heine)

The following films depict the composer as rock star (literally ... Roger Daltrey of The Who plays Liszt!). Two more Ken Russells:

MAHLER (1974):



And here are a few more contemporary examples.


COCO CHANEL AND  IGOR STRAVINSKY (2009), directed by Jan Kounen


IMMORTAL BELOVED (1994), directed by Bernard Rose

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

A Chat with Miroslav Sekera, the child Mozart in Amadeus

Remember the amazing child musician who embodied the ultimate prodigy, Mozart, in the 1984 film Amadeus, directed by Milos Forman?

That boy is now the internationally-recognized pianist, Miroslav Sekera, and he’s in Boston rehearsing with Shakespeare Concerts. This week, we caught up with Mr. Sekera about portraying the famous composer as a child, his musical background, and what he’s up to in Boston.

Don’t miss his performance in the Oscar-winning film, on the big screen this Friday, April 10 at 7PM at the Somerville Theatre! Featuring a live performance by Duncan Rock (BLO’s Don Giovanni) a beer special from Aeronaut Brewery, a raffle, and more. Learn more.

Miroslav Sekera

BLO: Was Amadeus your first movie? What was the audition process like? How old were you?
Miroslav Sekera: Yes, it was my first experience with movies. I was seven years old. Luckily, there was no audition process for the role. They were filming several scenes in Prague, and were looking for a child musician who could play both violin and piano (cembalo). They inquired at a very well-known music school, where I studied, so we connected through my teachers.

BLO: What was the filming process like? What are your memories or stories about the process?
MS: I remember one story very clearly: My first tooth fell out, so we were worried about filming. Forman’s assistant told me, no problem, they will make something [a fake tooth] in the make-up room for you. But Mr. Forman stopped us and said, “Calm down, Mozart’s teeth fell out when he was a boy also!” It is very funny, because in my scene I don’t smile and I keep my mouth closed!

BLO: What was your musical training and background like at that point? Did you come from a musical family?
MS: I'm not from a musical family, though all my family members like to sing together, mainly folk songs. I started my [formal] musical education when I was three years old. We visited a very well-known piano teacher for children, Zdena Janzurova. She tried my talent and told me and my grandmother: “He could start learning violin, he has perfect pitch.” We agreed, but I told her that I wanted to play the piano also. So thanks to my grandmother, I studied with her in Prague twice a week.

BLO: Were you already doing professional gigs as a child, or did you decide to make music your career later?
MS: Music was always the clear choice for me. I practiced my instrument every day since I was three years old, and I was called a “child prodigy.” Plus, I love music! When I was fifteen years old, I began studying piano at the Prague Conservatory. I continued to play violin as a hobby. I received some prizes from international competitions, but when some people heard about my performance in an Oscar-winning movie, that felt like the greatest point in my professional career, paradoxically!

BLO: Are you a Mozart fan?
MS: Of course! Mozart is one of greatest composers ever. His music is beautifully clear, but also is one of the most difficult for interpretation.

BLO: What projects are you working on now and why are you currently in Boston? What are your interests as an artist?
MS: Right now, I am working with the composer Joseph Summer, as he prepares the premiere of his opera, The Tempest. We have collaborated together for more than ten years. I like his music, it is so emotional.

I have many upcoming concerts in my country [the Czech Republic] and in Europe. For example, next month I have three recitals in my country and am recording a CD of a piano concerto by B. Martinu. Next year, the violinist Josef Spacek (my good friend and a finalist in the International Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels) and I will play together in Washington, DC, at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts.

Don’t miss Mr. Sekera’s appearance in The Tempest, a new chamber opera by Joseph Summer, with Shakespeare Concerts. Performing Friday, April 17 at the Somerville Theatre. Tickets available here!

Monday, March 30, 2015

DR. VON LYRIC: 3 Characters in Search of ...Vengeance? ...Justice? ...Love? ...Sex?

It has often been commented that in Don Giovanni, while the work is ostensibly focused on the title character (the obsessive seducer, violent libertine, seducer, rapist, and unrepentant sinner), Mozart pours his most powerful, dramatic, and psychologically perceptive insights into the personae and music of the three ladies that the Don encounters over the course of the evening's trajectory.

On Wednesday, April 1, BLO is presenting a 6:00pm discussion on this topic in conjunction with the Boston Public Library (at the library...and free!), titled Feminine Vengeance: Opera's Unforgettable Leading Ladies. Some of the opera's leading ladies (sung by Chelsea Basler, Heather Gallagher, and Meredith Hansen) will join guests from the New England Foundation for Psychoanalysis for musical analysis and, I guess, a little therapy.

Here follows some uninhibited clinical testimony from the ladies themselves.

Subject # 1: Donna Elvira (erotomania?)

Subject # 2: Donna Anna (frigidity?)

Subject # 3: Zerlina (masochism?)

Monday, March 23, 2015

Get to Know Don Giovanni

Background on Don Giovanni by John Conklin, BLO Artistic Advisor


Don Juan and the statue of the Commander, Fragonard
oil on canvas, circa 1830-1835

The Archetype
“The archetypal character wants to go everywhere, and to become everyone … to explore an infinitude of possibilities. Europe has three such tireless recurrent seekers—Faust, the man of the mind who wants to know everything; Robinson Caruso … who wants to own everything; and Don Juan, the man of the senses who intends to both know and own everything, and whose mode of doing so is to make love. Since their ambitions are global, the careers of these characters last for centuries.”
—Peter Conrad, “The Libertine’s Progress”

The Sources
Perhaps the first appearance of the mythic and iconic figure of Don Juan is in a rather rough and ready street play from 1616 attributed to Tirso de Molina, El Burlador de Sevilla y Convidado de Piedra [The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest]. This unrepentant “mocker” burlesques religion and is duly punished by heaven. But by the time Molière wrote his Don Juan in 1664, the “jesting apostate” had become a philosopher driven by a rational curiosity, “prising [sic] open the fissure between moral presence and carnal truth.” (Conrad)

Don Giovanni Playbill Vienna Premiere 1788
Public Domain
The Title
Mozart’s title was originally Il dissoluto punito, ossia il Don Giovanni, an opera buffa in two acts, which translates literally to The Libertine Punished, or Don Giovanni. Each word (even the “or”) in this has been endlessly parsed, analyzed, debated … and, indeed, they do bear thinking about. Why did the more generalized description of “the libertine” originally come before the specific character’s name? Is “libertine” a good translation? Would “rake" be better? What does “libertine” actually mean? Is it connected to “liberty” (remember the Don's provocative toast, “Viva la Liberta”)? What is the “punishment”? And who (or what) delivers it? Is it deserved? And… “opera buffa”? Is Don Giovanni meant to be a comedy? The fact that these questions—and characters such as Don Juan—still resonate today reveals why this opera remains such an audience favorite.

The Libretto
The commission followed the triumphant premiere of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro in Prague (December 1786). The impresario Guardasoni probably asked the librettist Da Ponte to expand Bertati's one-act opera of the same title (set to music by Gazzaniga for Venice in 1787) but, in his memoirs, Da Ponte plays down any connection. In any case, he greatly improved the text, drawing on other sources, notably Molière’s Don Juan and versions from popular theater. About half of the libretto is entirely original.

The First Performance
"Don Giovanni, Act 2, set design, Prague 1790s"
by Leopold Peuckert, designer,
the earliest known set design for the opera
Don Giovanni premiered at the Teatro di Praga (now called the Estates Theatre), on October 29, 1787. The legend that Mozart composed the overture the night before the premiere (or even on the day of) has been challenged. Was the whole piece actually composed in three weeks, as claimed by some? In any case, it was a triumphant success. Another intriguing legend (or fact?)—Casanova himself was among the opening night audience.

The Vienna Performance
That success was not repeated in Vienna at its premiere in May of 1788 at the Burgtheater, although Giovanni received more performances there than Figaro had in 1786. Mozart made several changes to the score, cutting a short aria for Leporello, and adding a wonderful additional scena for Elvira (“Mi tradi quell’alma ingrata”), a replacement aria for Ottavio, and an undistinguished buffo duet for Zerlina and Leporello, which is rarely performed today. The final ensemble may have been cut.

The Afterlife
Don Giovanni was given in Warsaw in 1789 and made rapid progress in Germany (performed in German), becoming, after The Abduction from the Seraglio, the Mozart opera most often performed during his lifetime. Amsterdam (1793) and St. Petersburg (1797) followed. It became popular in France in both French and Italian adaptations. The premiere in Italy was in 1811. In 1817 in London, it appeared at His Majesty's Theater Haymarket in Italian, and a few months later at Covent Garden in English.

The American Don
The American premiere occurred on November 7, 1817, in Philadelphia under the title The Libertine. In 1825, the famous tenor Manuel García brought his troupe (consisting in large part of his talented family—including his daughter who later, under the name of Maria Malibran, became one of the most celebrated 19th-century divas) to the Park Theater in New York. They performed Rossini (five operas), two of García’s own operas, and Don Giovanni. Da Ponte, who had emigrated to America in 1805 to escape debt and bankruptcy, and, after running first a grocery and then a bookstore, had become the first professor of Italian at King’s College (now Columbia University), was in attendance.

The Cultural Context—1787
 • Premiere of Don Giovanni in Prague
 • Catherine the Great of Russia visits the Crimea and tours the infamous “Potemkin Village,” ornate facades with nothing behind them
 • Goethe’s final verse version of Iphigenie auf Tauris is published
 • Schiller’s play Don Carlos premieres
 • Edmund Kean, the celebrated Shakespearean actor, is born (d. 1833)
 • Christoph Willibald Gluck dies (b. 1714)
 • U.S. Constitution is signed in Philadelphia
 • Settlement founded in Sierra Leone for freed slaves

The Other Giovannis
Only a few highlights from the prodigious literary and artistic life of the Don: 
1736 Carlo Goldoni’s play Don Giovanni Tenorio premieres
1761 Gluck’s ballet Don Juan debuts
1813 E.T.A. Hoffmann’s novella Don Juan is first published
1819 The first two cantos of Byron’s epic poem Don Juan are published
1830 Pushkin’s play The Stone Guest is written
1834 Prosper Mérimée’s novella Les Âmes du Purgatoire is published
1872 Alexander Dargomyzhsky’s opera The Stone Guest (based on Pushkin) premieres
1889 Richard Strauss’ symphonic tone poem Don Juan receives its first performance
1903 George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman is written (Act 3 is often performed separately as Don Juan in Hell)
1911 Guillaume Apollinaire’s novel Les Exploits d’un Jeune Don Juan is published
1934 The Private Life of Don Juan, Douglas Fairbanks Sr.’s last film, is released
1936 Ödön von Horváth completes his play Don Juan Kommt aus dem Krieg [Don Juan comes back from the war]
1970 The Stoned Guest, a half-act opera by P.D.Q. Bach, is released by Vanguard Records
1994 Don Juan DeMarco, a film starring Johnny Depp, is released
2014 Don Juan Comes Home from Iraq, a play by Paula Vogel, premieres