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INTERVIEW: Bob Neu on Skylark’s Così fan tutte

A word cloud showing the most popular words in an English-language translation of the opera Così fan tutte, which will be staged by Skylark Opera Theatre from March 22-31 at The Historic Mounds Theatre in St. Paul, MN.

Long before Trading Spaces, Celebrity Wife Swap, and other reality televsion, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte wrote an opera called Così fan tutte (1790). In it, a pair of men decide to test their lovers’ fidelity, each courting their counterpart’s lover under disguise.

The remarkable popularity of Mozart’s last opera, The Magic Flute, in many ways overshadowed Così fan tutte. The plot’s titillating nature didn’t help – considered amusing at its premiere, the opera’s plot ran afoul of a European-wide wave of social conservatism after the Napoleonic Wars. Now considered too risqué, Così became known to audiences primarily through scenes and songs that were lifted and added to other Mozart opera productions, especially The Magic Flute‘s popular French adaptation, The Mysteries of Isis. Only in the 20th century did a strong interest re-emerge for performing the opera in its complete, original form.

Skylark Opera Theatre’s production of Così opens March 22 at The Historic Mounds Theatre in St. Paul, MN. Director Bob Neu spoke with the Arts Reader‘s Basil Considine about bringing this work to the stage.

Bob Neu, Artistic Director of Skylark Opera Theatre and director of the company’s upcoming production of Così fan tutte.

Why Così, why now?

Several reasons:

First, we have successfully mounted the other Mozart/da Ponte operas in the Twin Cities in the past couple of years – Don Giovanni and Le nozze di Figaro – so my OCD demanded we finish out the trio.

Second, I love this opera and think it’s one of Mozart’s best – but so many people tend to roll their eyes about it and feel that it’s hopelessly dated. I think the sexual politics of it are not as outdated as people often think – save the ending, which, yes, does need a contemporary lens put on it (which we intend to do).

For most of the rest of the opera, I think the men come off pretty lame and the women are intelligent, thoughtful, strong, and forthright people. Despina, in fact, is quite ahead of her time with her rather 1960s “free love” mentality.

That’s the mission: to examine whether or not Così still has contemporary resonance. I would argue that its gender politics are no more and no less problematic than those in Giovanni and Magic Flute –and yet those pieces are programmed constantly.

Mill City Summer Opera is also doing Così this year. Do you keep an eye out for these programming collisions, and how do you respond when you see one coming?

I certainly keep an eye out, but I didn’t see this one coming – primarily because we had already announced our season prior to Mill City.

I’m sure our takes will be different and certainly the physical productions will each be unique. Again, being an advocate for this particular opera I can’t help but be thrilled that the Twin Cities are experiencing two different productions in the same season.

Since Skylark’s rebirth, the company has been venue-hopping and doing a mix of old and new with twists. What can audiences look forward to with this production?

I hope we convince people of the legitimacy of this particular work and I hope we can always demonstrate that the masterpieces of the past still have something to say about life in our modern society. While our values and perspectives have changed, I think there is much about the human condition that remains constant and Mozart demonstrates that better than few others.

Così is one of Mozart’s strongest scores with characters (thank you, da Ponte) who are complex, dark, ridiculous, appalling, appealing, amusing, and gut-wrenching. I think it’s a shame (and a bit lazy) that the piece is so often written off as being misogynistic and too problematic to present…the fact that there are two productions in the space of a couple months in the Twin Cities is an aberration.

I don’t believe the work is any more problematic than Giovanni, Nozze, or pretty much the majority of the repertoire. However, in the year 2019, the ending could benefit from being reconsidered through a more contemporary lens, and in this production I’d like to keep the women strong and in control throughout the piece.  Also, this opera is a particularly strong candidate for updating: there is nothing in it that “dates” it and ties it to a particular period. Therefore, I want to also try stretching it as much as possible to make it relevant to our current time.

Finally, the work is completely about the characters and not at all about spectacle – this makes it a perfect piece for Skylark, where we focus on bringing the audience into the action and work to create a feeling of intimacy and having a shared experience.

Bob Neu at work.

How did you go about casting this production?

As always, I try to use a mixture of people with whom I’ve worked a lot and people with whom I’ve been wanting to work. And in this case, I had a particular brief for the three women: along with being great singers, I knew I needed individuals who are smart, strong, and sassy. Tess, KrisAnne and Siena fill the bill!

Tess Altiveros and KrisAnne Weiss have, of course, worked with Skylark before in shows like In shows like The Tragedy of Carmen, Don Giovanni, and The Chocolate Soldier. Siena Forest was a Resident Artist at Minnesota Opera – how did you encounter her as a singer?

I’ve heard her on stage with MN Opera. Also, she’s married to Luke Williams, with whom I have worked many times around the country.

You mentioned some of the usual suspects in the cast – what about on your design & crew end? Do you have a regular team that you’re continuing to work with?

Costume Designer is Samantha Haddow who is definitely my “go to” person in the Twin Cities. We seem to speak the same language. Mike Grogan, who is doing lighting, is someone I’ve worked with frequently. Our Music Director, Nathan Cicero, is brand-new to me and to the Twin Cities, having just arrived here after graduating from Peabody.

A promotional image for Skylark’s Così fan tutte.

What is the specific setting that you have chosen for this production and why?

The play takes place in New Rochelle, NY. [Editor’s note: New Rochelle is a 30-minute train ride from Manhattan and home to one of the most expensive zip codes in the United States.] These ladies strike me as people who have money (they don’t seem to have anything to do but moon over their fiancees) and they seem urban. In my mind, they still live with their wealthy parents in this New York suburb.

Being the director at a smaller company can involve wearing many hats. This time around the block, what have you chosen to delegate?

Well, I’m not the music director, rehearsal accompanist, stage manager, lighting designer, or costume designer.  But I am doing props – and I’ll probably help with ushering.

Skylark Opera Theatre’s production of Così fan tutte runs March 22-31 at The Historic Mounds Theatre in St. Paul, MN.

Basil Considine