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PROJECT by David Collier

What is the concept?

This bold new production sees Mozart's greatest opera as never before. In a completely new lease of life for the classic story, playboy Don Giovanni leaps out of the closet as a debaucherous nightclub owner and straight into the heady heyday of the Eighties club scene, a setting inspired by New York's legendary Studio 54. With the Don's pursuit and conquest of young men, there is a complete reversal of roles. The sopranos become tenors, baritones become mezzos, demonstrating the harmonic genius of Mozart with all parts continuing to work brilliantly together.


Director Dominic Gray and producer Richard Crichton and their creative team successfully brought the idea for this modern Don Giovanni to life back in 2009 for a performance of the final scene of Act 1 on the Main Stage at Trafalgar Square for Pride, to critical acclaim. The team have now premiered the full opera at London's Heaven nightclub in April 2012.

Does London need another Don Giovanni?

'Don Giovanni' is one of the most performed operas in the world. At any one time you can hear the Don descending to hell in many of the great opera houses.

It is a classic – and deservedly so – but there is a value in taking another look at the source material and seeing how it might be approached; to explore the reasons for its continuing relevance, beyond Mozart's musical genius.
 
The Don Juan story has attracted artists and audiences for centuries. Why should this be? In many respects the man could be (perhaps is) an appalling character: he uses people for his own enjoyment; he prioritises his own needs and wants over others; he is prepared to lie and betray those closest to him. But yet… He is attractive, people genuinely fall for him and even when they know he's been a shit, they are often prepared to forgive him.
 
Don is a fascinating archetype and, as such, continually open to creative exploration. Also, there are some elements for this production which make it unique and, also, will make if feel very relevant for a London-based audience.

What is unique in your version?
After 200 years there is probably little you can do to 'Don Giovanni' that has not been either performed or discussed before – but we believe it is unique to have an openly gay Don Giovanni at the centre of a major new production; which requires the technically complex transition of female roles into male and female to male. Also, we are unique in performing the opera in a nightclub rather than a traditional venue.
Why a gay Don?

After 200 years: why not?! Not wanting to stereotype unduly the male gay experience, but having multiple sexual partners is a characteristic of many gay men's lives, particularly in the past 50-60 years.

There is a total logic, therefore, in making Don Giovanni a gay man. He fits very closely to not just a male but a gay male view of sexuality with an open enjoyment of sexual adventures that prioritise the physical over the emotional. Also, you can see Don as a critique of a certain type of hero who puts the sensual in its broadest forms above the intellectual or the spiritual. That is, Don has a fondness not just for the luxury of love but the luxury of good food and drink, of top quality music, of big houses and fine living. Again – perhaps sadly! – it doesn't take a major leap of the imagination to see a parallel between that sensual approach to life to the more consumer-end of gay culture with its interest in fashion, food, culture, etc.
 
Making Don a gay man, therefore, feels a wholly comfortable approach to take, and not at all gratuitous, particularly when updating the world of the opera to London, 1987.
 
Also, you can see parallels between the ambiguities at the heart of the character of Don Giovanni and the more negative commentaries on perceived gay lifestyles e.g. some voices are highly critical of a less constrained sexuality but also envious of that perceived freedom: 'It's disgusting, all this sleeping around: although I wouldn't mind sleeping around a bit myself.'
 
A gay interpretation of 'Don Giovanni' can clearly expose the hypocritical attitudes you find at the heart of the opera. People wanting passion but fearing its affects; people wanting 'the rule of moral law' but admiring those who operate outside conventional morality; people realising the value of broad sexual desires but turning on and destroying those who promote such desires when they are considered to undermine general social stability and personal comfort.

Is the nightclub location part of the action, too?

Yes. The opera is being performed at Heaven nightclub and the club is one of the main locations for the action in the opera. Don is, in our version, a nightclub owner in London; with all the glamour and connections that implies for 1987.

He would have known everyone involved in a certain part of clubbing culture that would have embraced music, dance, theatre, design, fashion, publishing. Don acts in a very public way – he puts on a performance for others to enjoy - and running a big nightclub felt right for such an entertainer. Also, we are able to exploit the awesome Heaven light and sound systems at crucial moments in the story.

Are there other reasons for performing the opera
in a nightclub?

The nightclub setting also allows for the singers to move around and through the audience. The singers will be very close to the people watching the action; which will be tremendously exciting for both parties. We can surround the audience with singing and give them a really dynamic experience of the opera from what they might not be expecting or be used to from watching a production in one of the big houses.

There will always be a place for grand opera in big, plush houses but many people involved in contemporary opera realise that for the long term health of the art form you need to broaden the audience from, generally speaking, older and wealthier groups. We hope, of course, that everyone will come along to Heaven: traditional opera goers and newer audiences!
 
There are other, practical reasons for performing 'Don Giovanni' at Heaven. The wider aim of the production is to see if we can use existing public nightclub spaces that could support performance but where, currently, the only performance is a club night PA. Most clubs have stages, sound systems, lighting rigs: not just in the UK but in Europe, America, Australia, etc. If we are successful in making Heaven a venue for a touring performance then we hope to set up similar creative partnerships in other cities where we can create a space for top-quality opera productions.
 

Regarding the music – how technically complex is
gender-swapping the roles?

The music is at the very heart of the opera: how can it not be? Unless the music and the singing is of the utmost quality the whole production, like Don, is doomed. We have been really fortunate in gathering together, after a long audition process, a group of absolute top opera singers. They are all brilliant and convincing actors as well as possessing superlative voices. It really is a hugely talented ensemble, and everyone is really excited about the production and eager to contribute.

Swapping around male and female voices is musically terribly complicated. In the original, for example, you have the baritone Don playing alongside his male servant, a bass voice. But in this version we have a baritone Don playing alongside a female PA, who is a mezzo. We need to make sure that the male-female balance works: it's not just about re-keying the music. And with the lovers, the original has the baritone Don playing against three sopranos: which we have changed to three tenors.
 
It is not always easy for tenors to replicate comfortably the higher end of the octave range of some sopranos, however, and the musical arranger has had to take this into account in the casting of roles as well as transcribing the score. Also, a tenor voice can have different tonal qualities to a soprano – the timbre is heavier in many cases, for example. So while an aria written for a soprano can float along, a tenor can make the phrasing sound heavier. And, again, we have to be careful about musical balance when the original uses male-female voices but our changes result in male-male voices singing together. All this needs careful work and rehearsal to get right.
 
And there is additional complexity when the score moves into the big ensemble numbers. We have been very keen to keep some of the more extended sections of group singing – the Act One Quartet and the Sextet in Act Two, for example. The latter requires all six musical lines to be transposed between male and female voices and to sound harmonious and lyrically clear. This is a major creative challenge.

Are the words faithful translations of the original?

They are faithful to the spirit of the original and, of course, keep to the same musical and lyrical length. We have had to change the precise meaning of much of the libretto, however, as a natural part of both reversing the genders and reworking the story for 1987. It is a lyrical challenge to create a version of the story that is credible for the characters and their setting but which also retains a real feeling for Da Ponte's word-play and rhyming schemes. We have been very keen to keep a high-level of poetry in the text: it would be too easy to simplify all the language and make it sound 'real' and prose-based.

We have been very keen to keep the comedy of the original. While the opera is tragic in one sense, and people behave very badly towards each other, there are a lot of laughs and ironic posturing in the rush of people trying to cover their backs.
 
We've also tried to stress the sensual, consumer take on the Don and his world with references to pay, money, deals, etc.
 
It is ambitious, but one we feel has paid off admirably, in keeping as closely as we have to the internal and end-line rhymes, the alliteration, the verbal jokes, etc but making sure that the characters are pitched for a contemporary world. We don't shy away from bawdiness…

Does this mean the characters swear?

Yup! But we've been careful not to use swearing and modern idioms as a trite shock tactic. Not all the characters swear – the Don doesn't, for example, because he has no need to assert his power in this verbal way: he is secure in himself. But some characters do swear because, frankly, that's who they are and, in the context of the story, they have often had a really miserable time. Why wouldn't you call Don 'a bastard' if he'd treated you as badly as he treats Elvira or Zerlina (in our version, Eddie and Zac)?

We have been careful, also, to make a point of using religious oaths through the piece – lots of people saying 'God…' or 'Jesus…' or 'go to Hell…' etc. This is our way of acknowledging that the original used religion in a prominent way. For many in the audience of 1787 there would have been a real belief in Don's taunting of the Dead as well as the living and his payback when being sent to Hell would be read as literal as much as metaphoric. Arguably, most modern audiences view these elements in a wholly metaphoric way, but it's good to keep some connection to the real concerns and beliefs of the past. Also, with certain forms of religion gaining strength in society rather than retreating, using religious imagery provides a contemporary edge.

Who are the 'new' characters?

At the heart of the opera you still have the Don Giovanni figure who is, in our version, a London nightclub owner. He no longer has a servant but a female PA called Leo (Leporello in the original). We have kept closely to the class-based delineation of the three lovers: Donna Anna becomes Alan, a younger closeted man from a wealthy and privileged Notting Hill/Holland Park background; Donna Elvira becomes Eddie, a middle-class, openly gay man who works in the City; and Zerlina becomes Zac – a young, working class lad from Milton Keynes who is visiting the city with his new fiancée. Playing alongside these three roles (now all tenors) Don Ottavio becomes Olivia, Alan's equally privileged best friend (she is in love with Alan, despite his being gay); Masetto becomes Marina, a young working class woman enjoying her engagement to Zac; and the Commendatore is now Petra: Alan's imposing mother.

Together, they present a strong and credible look at cross-section of London society: the city is very much a character in this production. We have been keen to avoid, as Jonathan Miller once said, a sense that 'It is only too easy to portray [the characters] as demented banshees weightlessly haunting an abandoned city.' We hope to give the characters and the setting real and recognisable weight.
 
And by believing the characters we hope the opera with have a genuine moral impact on the audiences. All the characters are flawed and hypocritical and often entirely selfish; caught up in trying to find love but not appreciating that love is about kindness and caring as much as the pursuit of physical fulfilment.
 
But they are all real and passionate and hopefully the audience will be forced to consider how does love and sex function in a modern consumer society which tends to foreground the sensual over the spiritual? Is sex always about power and wealth these days? Is love? Was love and sex always about power and wealth – and if that's the case, why do we continually, as a society, keep beating ourselves up about 'finding romance'?

How is the gay world in London in 1987 substantially
different from 2012?

It's really easy to forget how much has changed in gay culture in the past 25 years. In 1987 the majority of gay bars and clubs were still hidden away behind blacked-out windows, even in Soho. Clubs tended to finished at 2am on weekends rather than going 24/7 from Friday to Monday.

It's really easy to forget how much has changed in gay culture in the past 25 years. In 1987 the majority of gay bars and clubs were still hidden away behind blacked-out windows, even in Soho. Clubs tended to finished at 2am on weekends rather than going 24/7 from Friday to Monday.
 
Apparently, Mrs Thatcher was wholly tolerant towards gay MPs, but this does not seem to have stopped her government baiting gay sensibilities when chasing for votes.
 
Paradoxically, the most famous gay-related political initiative implemented by Mrs Thatcher ended up radicalising huge numbers of gay men and women: Section 28. This piece of legislation was not introduced until 1988, but you can see the sensibilities behind the act in a 1987 election broadcast which included the section: 'This Labour controlled authority has on its suggested reading list for schools "Young, gay and proud", "The play book for kids about sex", "Black lesbian in white America".' The whole tone of the piece is intended to demonise gay culture: to scare 'the normal people'. Aside from being deeply patronising towards 'the normal people' (many of whom were the parents and friends of young gay people) it succeeded in pushing many previously quiet gay people into becoming more vocal about their place in society. Section 28 led to the far higher profile of gay culture in London life.
 
The opera doesn't look at the political detail of Section 28 but you can see how a gay Don Giovanni would react against such moral taunts.
 
AIDS and HIV was a very public concern. 1987 saw the famous iceberg/tombstone adverts on TV with their slogans: Don't Die of Ignorance. In a sense these were intended to 'de-gay' the illness but the condition was very much part of the wider gay sensibility. Younger people won't recall these ads but they were a massive part of public consciousness. As was, for example, Princess Diana visiting the UK's first specialist HIV ward and shaking hands with the patients, not wearing a glove! It sounds as if from another world, but this action got masses of press coverage. Don't forget that earlier in the year, Edwina Currie had said 'good Christians won't get AIDS'. There was a lot of anti-gay stigma around related to HIV and AIDS.
 
We have talked a lot, therefore, about HIV and AIDS when developing this work. It's a very tricky area because you could argue that, for example, giving a gay Don AIDS at the end of a production set in 1987 works for that period and also works thematically if you go with the original's morality of 'people getting the end they deserve': what could be more apposite than a serial lover dying from a major STD? You touch on all sorts of themes to do with responsibility, sexuality, revenge, etc. But you could argue equally strongly that giving Don HIV or AIDS results in a very simplistic cause-effect moral at the end: people with AIDS deserve what they get. And when written out this baldly you can see all sorts of problems presenting themselves. For the less enlightened, Don becomes an easy metaphor for gay men in the 1980s and provides comfort for those who believe that gay men with AIDS 'deserved it' because they were sexually irresponsible. Now, to be brutal for a second, you could argue that quite a few gay men did know about AIDS once it had become widely known about but did not take precautions and so knowingly put themselves and others at risk. And before the epidemic the bath-house culture was extreme: 1000s of sexual partners and all that... But that's a really sophisticated approach to take because without being put into a highly detailed socio-cultural context it just sounds so reactionary and so thoughtless. And in this version of 'Don Giovanni', despite all the cultural reworkings, we just don't have that contextual breadth. Whatever way you play it out, it still feels both extreme and unconvincing to send Don (and so all gay men with AIDS) to Hell!
 
Also, people with AIDS still face a certain stigma: if not necessarily the children and women dying unnecessarily in Africa but the gay men in the West; that there is still a sense of 'they brought it on themselves'. Of course, you could say that in a way Don does bring his downfall onto himself – but giving Don AIDS almost provides a moral 'get out clause' for some people watching the opera. 'Oh, he deserved it because he put others at risk, good riddance he's dead, I'm not like that'. Looked at from that perspective giving Don AIDS closes down rather than opens up the ending to be a more complex exploration of different moral stances.
 
 
It would be interesting to think that you could use AIDS in the way that, say, Verdi uses consumption in 'La Traviata' i.e. you can have an illness without bringing in a ton of other issues, but that's currently not the case with AIDS. Perhaps in 100 years time?
 
 
So, we have woven in references to safe sex and HIV into the opera but hopefully in a way that is sensitive to how the condition is perceived while being faithful to the 1987 setting.
 

Don and the role of women – how does a gay Don affect
this important element?

The original is a really interesting exploration of the role of women – as well as, of course, providing several brilliant and substantial roles for female singers. There is a history of critical theory which says that 'Don Giovanni' tells us more about the nature of female love than it reveals about masculine affection. That the opera explores the thoughts and feelings of Elvira, Donna Anna and Zerlina in more detail than it explores the men (Don Ottavio, Masetto, Don himself): in this interpretation Don himself is in effect a totem-phallus whose actions reveal – unleash perhaps – the complex yearnings of the three women.

Also, one arguably radical aspect of the original is how it showed that women, specifically, took the brunt of failings in the social system.
 
By shifting the roles, these parts of the original are lessened – although hopefully there is an upside in that it affords a more rounded view of male love. We see that men, as with the women in the original, can love unrequitedly (and for another full-blooded gay man: this isn't about a gay man lusting after a straight or an underage boy); can be simultaneously drawn towards and repulsed by a lover; can risk a true and heartfelt love for what appears to be an experience more about passion.
 
Conversely, gender-swapping the roles can show women in a less traditional operatic light, too. It's fun to see Don working with a sparky PA; confronting a fierce matriarch rather than a stony commendatore; to reconfigure Don Ottavio and Masetto into two female roles of appealing depth.

Why are you setting the opera in 1987?

We believe that the success of any production is creating a credible world for the characters to operate within and for the audience to experience. As with a making Don unapologetically gay, it felt a strong creative decision to set the production more recently than the opera's original setting of 16th Spain or the first performance dates in 1787. There is something very 'Don' about the 1980s. Speaking generally (and not intending to sideline movements like the Miners' Strike), the dominant socio-political culture in that decade saw people acting for their own interests more than with empathetic compassion for the needs of others.

There was a sense of 'if I get want I want then everyone will benefit'. In economics you had the 'trickledown' theory of wealth and a shift to, for example, a belief that society would function more smoothly if everyone owned shares, owned property, had 'stuff', etc. There was also a feeling that if you're poor then the fault is yours rather than how society and the economy functions. You can see that view of society reflected in how Don operates. He looks out for himself; he prioritises his own (gargantuan) sexual needs; he tends to think that the weak and the poor deserve what they get in life because they don't help themselves and so should be grateful for any attention (which, in this case, they are).
 
Of course, the opera doesn't explore the detail of monetarism or other explicit political movements but it feels appropriate to set 'Don Giovanni' in 1987 where it reflects the sensibility of a world which tends to see the emotional health of society in consumerist terms. Don gathers lovers and seeks new experiences in much the way that you saw people in 1980s spending vast amounts of money on more shiny new stuff. And you can, and not taking a huge leap of the imagination either, see the 1980s being a template for 2012. So by setting the opera in 1987 you manage to be a comment on a precise moment in British history as well as making a comment on contemporary social mores. All of which, incidentally, feels sympathetic to the shape of Mozart and Da Ponte's original.
 
Also, there seems to be an undercurrent of sexuality and sexual politics around Conservatives politicians. Scandals like Christine Keeler in the 60s and Jeffrey Archer and Harvey Proctor in 80s... Thatcher, also, seemed to inspire a sexual fascination at times. It feels as if there is quite a natural relationship between a gay and overtly sexualised reading of the Don and a 1980s setting.
 
1987 more specifically. We looked at the whole decade before deciding on 1987. A lot happens over ten years and these were particularly full-on in many areas of political and public life. But 1987 was, in some ways, the high point of Thatcherite conservatism. She won the election in June; unemployment was going down; BA was privatised; the Channel Tunnel was signed off. For much of the year, when you look at the general shape of events, there seems to be a bullish, arrogant feeling of 'we're doing alright'. This enabled the Tories to canvas on the back of a slogan: 'Our overseas reputation has seldom been higher - it's great to be great again.' Interestingly, if you go abroad at the moment you'll see the word 'Great' stressed in 'come to Great Britain' posters promoting the country.
 
However, there are exceptions to the feeling of 'greatness': hence riots in Leeds, a particularly heavy year for the Northern Irish Troubles, impending AIDS concerns –and concerns over abolishing the GLC. And the seeds of Thatcher's downfall were put into place: her Parliamentary majority was reduced, she announced the Poll Tax… While the opera doesn't explicitly explore the detail of these elements, they form the backdrop to the characters and their views of how the world – how London – works.
 
There's also something quite neat about 1987 being 25 years exactly before 2012 when this production is going to debut and 200 years after the opera first appeared in 1787.

So should Don Giovanni be seen as a Thatcherite hero?

Well, it's simplistic to say 'Don is Thatcherite' – it reduces the archetypal complexity of the original as well as being a sweeping generalisation for a considerable and controversial period of British history. But there are parallels between someone who puts their own desires above the well-being of a wider society which, ultimately, was a characteristic of popular Thatcherism. This is a quotation from Mrs Thatcher's PPB in May, 1987: 'Let me give you my vision: a man's right to work as he will, to spend what he earns, to own property, to have the state as servant and not as master. These are the British inheritance. They are the essence of a free economy and on that freedom all our other freedoms depend.' You can see Don agreeing with all of that.

And Don's descent into a living hell can be seen as a comment on the profound failure of the Thatcher legacy (and that includes its New Labour manifestation) to show compassion, empathy and tolerance towards those who, for whatever reason, are cut adrift from the more comfortable social centres. Mrs Thatcher and her intellectual supporters would surely be horrified at the crass way some her opinions have been promoted ('lets all buy more shoes and handbags and sports cars and houses!') but that doesn't excuse their initial placing of consumer tendencies at the heart of society and at the expense of fairness and justice. If you ruthlessly pursue personal gain – as the Don does – you basically end up in a terrible place. Don ends up in a living hell. UK plc ends up with banking crises and a broad feeling of cultural malaise… Perhaps David Cameron, a Thatcher fan, should come along and see the production?

 







 

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