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INTERVIEW: Bob Neu on Skylark Opera Theatre’s Immersive Donny G.

Photo by Vera Mariner.

This week, Skylark Opera Theatre opens a site-specific production of Don Giovanni at the Women’s Club in Minneapolis. This performance, which will snake through different rooms in the venue, is the company’s second outing since its financial and artistic reorganization last year. The Arts Reader‘s Basil Considine spoke with Skylark’s Artistic Director Bob Neu about this production.

Bob Neu, Artistic Director of Skylark Opera Theatre.

Which came first: programming Don Giovanni or selecting the Women’s Club as a venue for this season? 

Believe it or not, it sort of happened simultaneously.  It was just one of those “Oh, how about…” kind of things.

Why the Women’s Club? Are there special features about the space or the atmosphere that led to its selection? 

It’s a space I know well from having done a lot of special events there – plus we did a lot of our rehearsals last summer for [Angels & Demons’] Figaro there.  That’s probably what got the wheels turning. 

Mostly, it has to do with the fact that the space is completely unique, has a very particular atmosphere, and offers a number of large rooms that could accommodate the action and the audience.

This production is set in 1932 America, which is just one year before the Repeal of Prohibition. The Democratic Party was running on a program of repealing prohibition at the time – are there any resonances, tie-ins, or other aspects of this specific setting that led you to select it? 

The entrance to the Women’s Club of Minneapolis. Photo courtesy of the Women’s Club of Minneapolis.

The Woman’s Club was built at the end of the Twenties and was extremely active in the early Thirties – That’s such a particular time when there were so many particular things going on historically.  Of course, the Depression was in full swing and the drought which led to the Dust Bowl was also taking place.  It’s fascinating to think that this building “saw” all those important periods of history.

Let’s talk about casting. In a February interview, you talked about the streamlined casting process that you used for The Tragedy of Carmen. What was the casting process and timeline like for this production? 

We cast some of our “site-specific alumni” in this production – Andy, Karin, Tess – because we knew that they embrace the aesthetic and they are great interpreters of the roles they’re doing. 

We did hold open auditions for several of the principal roles and for the chorus.  We had a huge turnout [at the auditions] and were able to cast all the open roles from those auditions.

Baritone Gabriel Preisser, who plays speakeasy owner Donny G. in Skylark’s adaptation of Don Giovanni. Photo by Vera Mariner.

Given the stripped-down nature of this production, what’s the design team like?

There’s really only a costume designer. There’s no lighting and set designer because the space is the space.  Sam Haddow is doing costumes and will be making period-specific choices.

Mozart prepared two different versions of Don Giovanni for Prague and Vienna, from which music directors have drawn liberally in preparing performance editions. Before the last decade or so, modern performing editions of Don Giovanni differed primarily in two respects: Whether they incorporated Don Ottavio’s “Il mio tesoro” or “Dalla sua pace” (or both), and whether or not they incorporated Donna Elvira’s “In quali eccessi, o Numi … Mi tradi per l’alma ingrata.” More recently, it’s come back into fashion to omit the final sextet (as one sees, for example, in Amadeus).

What does the score look like for Skylark’s performance? Are you using a published edition, or one of your own creation? 

The opening page of Don Giovanni in Mozart’s manuscript score.

We’re using our own edition – both with the cuts we’re making and with the translation (since we’re performing in English).  The piece without cuts runs well over three hours – close to four, actually – and there are some traditional cuts.  There is a long Leporello/Zerlina duet in Act II which is never performed, for example.  It’s also a bit unusual to include both of Ottavio’s arias.  Also, that sextet at the end is very long and offers some unique resolutions of the various plot points. 

In a nutshell, we are definitely doing cuts – our production will be about 2 1/2 hours, including the intermission.

Are these cuts within songs and scenes, or whole songs? 

We’re mostly just taking internal cuts within numbers. All of the “greatest hits” are there with the exception of “Il mio tesoro.” We are doing only the final Allegro section of the epilogue.

You were involved in Opera Orlando’s recent production of this opera, which set the opera on a college campus. Beyond the change in time and locale, is Skylark’s production different in tone or focus? 

It is definitely different in tone – it really has to be when you’re doing one version with contemporary college kids vs. a piece rooted in the early 1930s about a group of ne’er-do-well, quasi-criminals.  The body language changes, the language changes (we did the recits in English in Orlando and we added a lot of contemporary language), and this all impacts the temperature and tone of the piece. 

We were also able to focus more on the empowerment of women in the Orlando production, because that’s very much on the minds of our contemporary culture. That’s a concept that was not quite so common in the 1930s, although our women will certainly not be without their own minds and strengths. The focus of the piece, however, is not changing.  This is still the story of an amoral man and how he destroys himself. 

We’re also focusing, as we did in Orlando, on the three women with whom he [Don Giovanni]’s involved and exactly what those relationships are.  And, naturally, when you have a piece that’s performed in a traditional theatre with manufactured sets and lighting, it’s going to be a different experience from a “real” setting.  That’s not to say one is preferred over another – it’s just a completely different experience.

Is there a specific, pre-existing English translation that you are using?   

No – we are using a number of different translations including our own. We started rewriting for the Orlando production and then just kept going.

Why create your own?

We didn’t want the language to be too stilted and we wanted to work in some of the slang of the period.


Basil Considine