The opera director on bringing Mozart's masterpiece up to date for a new audience
I’ve longed to stage Don Giovanni for most of my directing career. Opportunities to do so seemed bound to present themselves and when I founded Silent Opera in 2011, it seemed obvious that one day, I would.
What is fantastic about Mozart’s masterpiece is exactly that – it’s Mozart’s masterpiece. He wrote it for an orchestra, for 8 singers and a chorus. The textures under the soaring lines paint our understanding of the character’s emotional state – even if we’re not all consciously aware of the subtleties of the score, we are all affected by it. I don’t want to do any other opera company down, but I don’t see it has its intensity and its drive if it doesn’t have all those elements. If I go to see it above a pub crudely accompanied by an out-of-tune piano; that’s not doing Mozart any justice at all. If I go to Glyndebourne and watch Vladimir Jurowski stir the LPO into a raging fury as the robust chorus drag a roaring Gerald Finlay down to hell – that’s Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Whilst I appreciate that not everyone has that luxury, for luxury indeed it is, I don’t think the answer is rehashing it in cardboard for what we hope are our ‘new audiences’. Indeed, we’re telling our novices that this is, in fact, Mozart’s Don Giovanni. It would be like cutting the witches from Macbeth and claiming it was Shakespeare’s original – it just isn’t.
So, either I wait for the inevitable commission from the Met, or I raise funds and stage it myself. Now, I could bust a gut and get the £40,000 it would take to record a full orchestra, or I could go down another route. I could do my own version.
This idea might sound scandalous to the opera society, but to the wider world of performing arts – it’s actually very normal and expected. In the opera world, it sometimes masquerades as ‘pasticcio’, a very popular form in the Classical and Baroque periods. But to do that you’re still creating opera ‘lite’, and I’m a fan of big and intense, so it won’t work.
I look to the reasons I want to stage this opera in the first place. What do I want to say? I want to look at the man and his impact. I want to work out why he is the way he is, why he behaves the way he does. And there are other Don Juan stories – he wasn’t Mozart or Da Ponte’s creation. So why not go back there and begin to use Mozart as a component in a new, relevant story? Using other sources alongside the essential operatic source could be the start of something really interesting. It opens the door to using contemporary music, Romantic texts, modern experiences and much more.
Now we can begin to re-build the story and the narrative to our own means. Replacing acoustic accompaniment with live digital accompaniment, we can layer, manipulate and control the sound space, creating that intensity I’m so keen on. We can also bring Giovanni into the modern world of Tinder, Grindr and online dating with our own dating app called Fickl that our audiences can join and use during the performance. And we’re not doing a hack version of Mozart’s genius score – we’re nodding to him, using what he gave us to make our own. Our singers are amplified at times, but we use it as another layer of texture – sometimes completely unmiked.
So, why reinvent? Because if you can’t do it or don’t have the money to do it; don’t. It sends out the wrong message about this amazing art form which tragically needs saving. Instead, make new work that resonates with the next generation, embrace the technology we have now, and begin to carve a new path.
Giovanni will be performed at Vault Festival from 25 February – 8 March