A lover’s hell

Kasper Holten directs the Israeli Opera’s production of Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni’.

Don Giovanni  (photo credit: COOPER)
Don Giovanni
(photo credit: COOPER)
The greatest fictional lover of all time chases women from land to land before he settles in Spain, where he fails to add another conquest to the 1,003 women he had already seduced there. The Israeli Opera presents a new and captivating production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni.
The production opens on February 8 at the Opera House in Tel Aviv, conducted by Daniel Oren, with a cast of international solo singers, the Israeli Opera soloists and the IO’s orchestra and choir. It is a collaboration of the Israeli Opera and the Covent Garden Royal Opera House.
The new production, set in the 19th century, is staged with a plethora of innovative video art and new technology. Responsible for the intriguing interpretation of Mozart’s masterpiece is Danish director Kasper Holten, who until recently was the opera director of the Royal Opera House in London.
Holten was born in Copenhagen and began his career in opera as a director’s assistant to such figures as Harry Kupfer, John Cox and David Pountney. In 2000, at age 27, he became artistic director of the Royal Danish Opera and in 2011 took the position at the Royal Opera House.
In 2009, Holten co-wrote (with Mogens Rukov) and directed the film Juan, based on Mozart’s Don Giovanni, starring Christopher Maltman and Mikhail Petrenko.
In an interview with Holten, the director reveals a lot about the upcoming opera production.
Is the Israeli Opera production related in any way to the film ‘Juan’?
Yes and no. Of course, as artists we always gather experiences, and when you do a masterpiece like Don Giovanni several times – even in different formats – you learn about the piece every time, and you inevitably carry some of that knowledge forward with you. I learned a lot about the characters in Don Giovanni by doing the movie, where we tried to look at the piece in a contemporary setting. Some of that knowledge is very present in the stage production, but in other ways it is completely different. You can do different things on stage, and I was keen to try a different approach – less naturalistic than the movie, more trying to invite the audience, in a way, to get inside the world of Don Giovanni’s mind, which we can do through the video productions.
Why did you decide to set the opera in the 19th century?
We felt it was interesting to investigate the characters and how they deal with sexuality in a time that allows for very little sexual freedom, so we set it in Victorian times. In a way, it is sexier to see a person who is all buttoned up and hardly showing any skin take off a glove than to see a person in underwear.
We also feel that the character of Don Giovanni says a lot about our modern lives, which was possibly established in the last half of the 19th century. So through looking at the piece in that era, we can investigate the changes that modernity brought to human interaction without retorting to setting it in the present, which I had already done in my movie.
Does the #MeToo campaign change the way we look at the story?
Does it change the dynamic of the opera? It is a very good question, but I guess it is too early to say. In a way, to me, this opera has always been an artistic way of raising some of the same issues as #MeToo does, so you can say that [librettist] Da Ponte and Mozart were ahead of us.
#MeToo obviously has brought about some permanent and very important changes to the conversation about gender and sexuality, but it is probably too early to fully understand the impact and thus how we will view Don Giovanni in the future.
But it is also clear that as important as it is to talk openly about these issues and to be quite clear about what is acceptable or not, in the arts we should always strive for complexity and curiosity. An opera such as Don Giovanni can make us feel and think, but opera should not be too political or part of a campaign in a 1:1 way. Art can make us interested in people, both when they do good and bad, and it isn’t our job as artists to cast judgment on our characters, but merely to try to portray them as honestly and with as much empathy as we can.
The opera is described as a ‘dramma giocoso.’ Did you feel that you had to balance the tragic and the comic elements?
For me, that is the whole trick of making Don Giovanni work. If you treat it only as a comedy, you reduce the tremendous complexity and human insights we can find in the work. But if you neglect the comedic elements, the piece doesn’t fly. We were keen to do a set that would keep offering opportunities for the comedy element: that characters can hide, can bump into each other, can get lost, can hear someone without seeing them – all without having to fake it. We hope that the labyrinth we have put on stage will prove both intriguing – as a portrayal in a way of Don Giovanni’s inner world, in which the people he meets get lost, until they all one by one decide to leave him for good – and offer some wonderful opportunities for both suspense and comedy.
Can you tell us a little about the stage set, which is so unique?
We wanted to look at Don Giovanni as a creative person, as an artist. He can create illusions, he can change the world for a little while and offer anyone he meets the opportunity to become what they dream about. That is the wonderful energy he offers the people he meets. But creativity is not just a positive thing. If it used without any moral borders and if it used to manipulate others, it can become dangerous. In the end, Don Giovanni himself can no longer repress the ghosts of the past that live in his mind, his own consciousness. He more or less goes mad because he does not control his creative energy but uses it to escape himself, as a chameleon, without a thought about the consequences for other people.
We wanted therefore to merge a physical set – a house built on a rotation, which keeps changing but inevitably goes in circles – with video projections, so we see both Don Giovanni’s wonderful creativity, how he can use reality as a canvas to paint, so to speak, but also how things get messy in his mind as the story progresses.
Video technology has become so advanced that it is a natural tool for us to use in telling stories in the theater, alongside music, staging, costumes, lights and props, and it was great to investigate this new tool through this production.
Don Giovanni
ends up in hell. What does hell look like for your Giovanni?
That is a very important question for me. Hell for modern humans is not about flames and smoke. But if we look at Don Giovanni, we find that the way Mozart portrays him gives us the key. In any other opera, you would expect the lead character to have at least one big solo aria in which he expresses himself. Don Giovanni has only two short arias, and they are both sung to other people. Mozart lets Don Giovanni’s musical language change for every person he meets; the music is as much of a chameleon as Don Giovanni himself. He escapes himself through meeting other people, using his empathy to read their dreams, and then he briefly becomes that dream for them.
Don Giovanni thus only exists when he relates to other people. For me, I think his worst nightmare – his hell – would be to be left alone forever. So we show a man who wants to have everything, who is suffering from that modern condition we call Fear of Missing Out. And in the end, because of this, he is left with nothing. One by one, the characters decide to leave him behind. And when he is left only with his ghosts and his memories, he finds his own personal hell: eternal loneliness, which for him amounts to complete loss of meaning.
‘Don Giovanni’
will be performed on February 8 to 23 at the Opera House in Tel Aviv. For tickets and more information, call (03) 692-7777 or go to www.israelopera.co.il.