Lately, restoration has become a very loud buzzword for Triangle residents. They’re rescuing neglected houses, they’re recovering older neighborhoods, and most of all, they’re reclaiming downtown. They’re putting the public back in public spaces, recognizing that for a city’s downtown to be viable, it has to have real live human beings. It can’t be just a collection of empty buildings.
The Opera Company of North Carolina is doing its own version of restoration. Its general director, Frank Grebowski, and artistic director, Robert Galbraith, are committed to bringing opera to the people by bringing people into opera. The OCNC’s upcoming production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Don Giovanni gives us a glimpse of how the company plans to infuse new humanity and vitality into an art form that has been at risk of becoming the kind of empty shell that blights our cultural landscape.
Grebowski is literally throwing open the doors. All the company’s rehearsals are, incredibly, open to the public. And last Tuesday night at Brightleaf Square, in one of a series of short concerts scheduled in shopping centers and libraries throughout the Triangle, baritone Jason McKinney and sopranos Andrea Edith Moore and Elizabeth Grayson (all of whom either come from or live in North Carolina) performed highlights from the opera for the 75 people who came and went during cocktail hour, drinking wine, hanging with friends and chasing their kids.
The informal atmosphere of the concert was completely appropriate both to today’s lifestyles and to opera’s history. Opera was born in 1600, and by the 1640s the public venues in Venice were packing the crowds in. The subject matters for the new genre went back and forth for a while between the noble thoughts and deeds of gods and goddesses and the messy, sexy, violent, real lives of real people. By Mozart’s day the battle was basically over, and (surprise!) sex and violence had won.
So in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, opera was popular music. Nobody thought of it as High Art. It was entertainment, just as movies are today. It had bad guys and gorgeous babes, clowns and dwarves, dragons and elephants (sometimes), and astounding special effects. It was meant to be enjoyed, and it was. It was fun.
Somewhere along the way, though, opera began to ossify. It became a stultifying chore, something you got all dressed up for and then fell asleep at. The OCNC has decided it doesn’t care what you wear, it just wants you to look and listen–and it’s letting in plenty of light and air. Grebowski firmly believes that “opera is for everyone.” And as conductor Michael Recchiuti explains, when it comes to making opera “relevant” to modern audiences, “This is the thing about real masterpieces: It’s not that hard.”
The characters in Don Giovanni are people we all recognize. Mozart is one of literally a handful of opera composers who were capable of actually creating character through music. There’s Don Giovanni himself, the legendary Don Juan, as seen in the four-bar portrait Mozart paints for us in the overture: Giovanni sights his quarry in a yearning upward half-step, woos her in two soaring leaps, makes his escape in staccato descending eighth notes, and exults over his success in a triumphant trumpet fanfare. This is the superficial Don Juan, the charmer, the seducer, admired by men and adored by women. The comic aspects of Don Juan are what have stuck in the popular imagination; we accord the name to a ladies’ man, a playa, the guy that girls gone wild go wild for.
But Mozart and his brilliant librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, go on to explore Don Juan’s dark and disturbing flip side. According to McKinney, the cover (understudy) for Don Giovanni, “He’s a very addictive personality.” Addicted to power, to sex, to his own pleasure and others’ pain–a bully, blasphemer, sexual predator, murderer. We know this man: We warn our kids about him.
We know the other characters too: Donna Anna and Donna Elvira, smart, beautiful women who’ve been played by a man they trusted; Zerlina, a small-town girl manipulated by the attentions of a rich man; the Commendatore, the outraged father who gives his life trying to protect his daughter; Don Ottavio, the sensitive-guy fiancé who swears to hunt down Don Giovanni to avenge Donna Anna’s rape and her father’s murder and who accomplishes exactly nothing; Masetto, the underling forced to watch Giovanni come on to Masetto’s own bride on their wedding day; and Leporello, Don Giovanni’s servant, the schlub tormented by the ultimate boss from–and headed to–hell.
Galbraith has rejected the traditional Mozart production style in favor of what promises to be a well thought-out modernist staging set in the 21st century. Opera is music and drama and visual art–a total art work–and Galbraith is determined that all its elements be accounted for in a way that relates both back to the 18th-century composer and forward to his 21st-century audience. The chorus will carry hand-held searchlights–not because flashlights are cool, but because the characters need them to find Don Giovanni and bring him to mob justice. Says Galbraith, “I did not want to make this a work about sets; I wanted to make it a work about relationships,” so in the graveyard scene the chorus will be onstage, filling the cemetery with the souls of those Don Giovanni has destroyed. The stage will contain multiple cameras, TV sets, computers, construction scaffolding–all the stuff of modern life.
The surtitles that project above the stage translations of the Italian are a modern version of a Mozart tradition. Mozart’s audience would have been reading along in their libretti. Opera houses in Mozart’s day, Galbraith says, “did it in the contemporary dress of the time, and I want to capture that by doing [this production] in the contemporary dress of our time.” Cloaks and puffy wigs for Mozart, trenchcoats and ponytails for Galbraith. And although Galbraith insists that “in this [opera] house you’ll never see the basic talent of the voice compromised” (and you will kick your own self if you miss out on, say, Moore’s creamy-voiced Zerlina), he considers the emphasis on opera’s dramatic aspect America’s greatest contribution to the art.
As in Mozart’s time, the orchestra will be on the stage, not in the pit, a level of transparency that allows us to see the music in the making. Also onstage will be artist Matt Sesow, who will create two of his original, graffiti-esque paintings on 12-foot-by-7-foot canvases, in full view of the audience, during the course of each performance.
The rest of OCNC’s season continues the theme of the relation of past to present. Robert Ward’s The Crucible, for which the Durham-based composer won a Pulitzer Prize in 1962, extends doubly back. Arthur Miller’s play of the same name, on which the opera is based, is set during the Salem witch trials of the 17th century, yet it has always been understood as a metaphor for the McCarthy era of the 1950s.
And as for the company’s final production of the season, Triangle audiences should find plenty to relate to in Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème. Students and artists are always poor, always idealistic and almost always in love. It will be fascinating to see how Grebowski’s innovative marketing and Galbraith’s contemporary artistic vision play out in all three works.
Don Giovanni plays Thursday, Oct. 5 and Friday, Oct. 6 at 7:30 p.m. at Meymandi Concert Hall in Raleigh. Tickets for Opera Company of North Carolina performances are available at www.operanc.com.