Normally there’s no audience when a stage director begins rehearsing with singers on an upcoming opera. The presence of friends or family can affect this process, making the singers less likely to focus on the rehearsal, which is a time to make mistakes, rather than dazzle someone with a polished aria. So it was quite a privilege for us to get a glimpse into that early rehearsal when the singers begin working with the director.
The singers already know the music well at this point, but they need to know the director’s vision, how s/he wants to interpret, shape, and stage the story. Tonight we watched Christopher Mattaliano convey his interpretation of the duet “Là ci darem la mano” to singers Hannah Penn and André Chiang. “In Mozart,” Chris says, “you are dealing with profound human truths—grief, anger, deep love, and sensuality. Our job is to tell that story as convincingly as we can.”
But the question for the stage director is, how to accomplish this? Chris looks to the music itself for guidance. He asked the singers to bring out the tender, lyrical side of this duet. He molded the singers into various positions, mirroring how he wanted them to stand, move, sit, and at the end, dissolve into each other’s arms. The passion of the seducer Don Giovanni melted together with the sweet tones of Zerlina, the seducee. There were quite a few giggles on the part of the singers as Chris demonstrated the intimate touching, kissing, and nuzzling he wanted to see. The result was a traditional staging of this famous duet.
THAT quickly changed when we returned from break. Alexis had asked Chris to come up with a SECOND way to stage the same duet, as if he were a different director with an alternate interpretation. In this universe, Don Giovanni was no longer an almost sympathetic sex addict. Here, he was a misogynistic, depraved rapist and murderer who circled Zerlina menacingly with a rope. The atmosphere was tense as Hannah was asked to grab the rope and turn herself around as she neared André, trapping herself in it. Showing André what to do, Chris grabbed Hannah’s tied up arms from behind and dragged her across the stage. Zerlina was caught in Don Giovanni’s web, but was it a web of her own making? This interpretation was violent, aggressive, and provocative. Watching it, we students were rendered uncomfortable, but at the same time, engaged and fascinated.
We were full of questions about these types of avant garde opera productions, which audiences run into more and more these days. My first inclination is to say, “Don’t mess with my opera!” But after tonight’s class, I vow to be more open minded about these modern interpretations. Instead of asking myself, “Why are they singing ‘andiam’ (let’s go) when the Don has just pinned Zerlina down on the stage?” I want to consider, “What message is the stage director going for here?”
Each week, I have written about our wonderful teacher, Alexis Hamilton, and the fascinating guests she brought to class. Now I want to express my thanks to the people who also helped to inform and enrich my passion for opera: my fellow opera 101 students. We all came to class with different levels of familiarity with opera, but we shared a common passion for this art form. I felt a warm camaraderie with these generous people. The questions they asked were engaging, brilliant, and thought provoking. It was a privilege to be in their company each week. In closing, I’d like to paraphrase a friend who says, “May opera be the warm sea in which your soul swims.”