Director Francesca Zambello on Don Giovanni

For this season’s showcase of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists, WNO presents a staged performance of Mozart’s timeless drama Don Giovanni featuring engaging set and costume design elements–with the WNO Orchestra conducted by Michael Christie and direction by WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello. Join us for the performance on March 17 in the Opera House.

There was a time when people used the term “Don Juan” to refer to a kind of charming rogue. Today, we see nothing charming about a man who won’t take no for an answer. How do we approach a character like Don Giovanni in 2017?

No one was giving workshops on consent when Mozart and Da Ponte wrote Don Giovanni, but that doesn’t mean the creators of the opera condoned Giovanni’s actions. The complete title of the opera is Il dissoluto punito, ossia il Don Giovanni (“The debauched punished, or Don Giovanni”). This is an opera about a bad guy who gets what he deserves.

It’s true that we can get overly comfortable with some of the great, standard operas. We bask in Mozart’s beautiful melodies, we compare interpretations, we marvel at modern stagecraft. But I don’t think that’s what the creators ever intended for this piece. We should be disturbed by the events that unfold. This is a drama with serious consequences.

I’ve directed Don Giovanni many times, but I don’t think I have ever chosen to make it so clear that the opening scene between Don Giovanni and Donna Anna is an attempted rape. I have always struggled with it, as there is textual uncertainty in the libretto, but this time I made a conscious choice with the artists. It really seemed so clear to me, directing this piece immediately after Dead Man Walking, which begins with a violent rape. I want the audience to understand from the beginning what kind of man we are dealing with.

So why spend an evening with these characters? Why put a man like Don Giovanni at the center of an opera?

Look, if you’re going to the opera to find characters to model your behavior after, you might want to reconsider. That said, I do think the great operas teach us a lot about life. I think that’s especially true of the three operas that Mozart and Da Ponte wrote together (the other two being The Marriage of Figaro and Così fan tutte). Those two didn’t just give us good guys and bad guys—they gave us an array of complicated human beings.

We opened our season with The Marriage of Figaro. The Count is a character who has some things in common with Giovanni. But everyone in that opera has some less-than-enlightened moments—as do we all. In Figaro, the Count eventually finds redemption when he admits his wrongs and asks forgiveness. It is one of the most moving moments in all of opera. Giovanni, on the other hand, refuses the Commedatore’s call for repentance. Again, it is interesting for me to consider themes that resonate across our season. In Dead Man Walking, Sister Helen pours all of her energy into getting De Rocher to confess and confront his crimes before he dies, which he ultimately does.

I believe we go to the theater to hold up a mirror to our own lives. Maybe a piece like Don Giovanni can help us recognize moments, hopefully at a less significant scale, when our desires become more important than other people’s feelings; when we enable a predator; when we are tempted to stray from a relationship; when we fail to comprehend the depth of a friend’s suffering; when we behave like victims. And with any luck, we’ll be able recognize our own failings before we get to the point where we, like Don Giovanni, are pulled down to hell.

What can you tell us about this production?

Mozart and Da Ponte’s opera is so character-driven, the words and music—in the hands of great performers—are practically enough to create the world. We are keeping it simple in terms of staging so that the focus can be on the complex psychology.

It has been a joyous and fulfilling process to work on this piece with our amazing Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists. They have really dug into their roles, and I have had a blast working on the characters with them. I cannot say enough about this group of singers. Not only am I looking forward to their WNO performances, I am looking forward to watching their interpretations of these fascinating characters evolve as they go forth to continue their careers around the world.

Our 2017-2018 Season Has Just Been Announced! — By Artistic Director Francesca Zambello

Click here for the full Kennedy Center new “classical” season announcement.

There are so many things I love deeply and passionately about our art form of opera. Opera can expose us to concepts we’ve never imagined before—it leads us to wrestle with ambiguity, multiple interpretations, and ideas that we can find soothing or jarring. Opera can be the launching pad to stimulate conversations about humanity—it can combat indifference, ignorance, and polarization. And opera can transport us from the day-to-day—showing us that its value does not lie in its utility.

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NEWS FROM NIBELHEIM: SOMETHING BORROWED, SOMETHING NEW

Voss-FrancescaZambello-21FINAL_cropOne of the initial choices a director makes in preparing a production is what does it look like? How will I interpret the story? The people you first turn to are your collaborators in the production team, the designers and choreographer. In this case, we also used projections as well as scenery, lights and costumes to define our world.

Many people have asked me how we arrived at the visual world to tell our story. When I worked with the designers, now over a ten-year arc, we thought a lot about how Wagner wrote a story about the end of the world using Nordic myths as his model. In turn, we thought how would we parallel that for today’s audiences.

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NEWS FROM NIBELHEIM: RING BY THE NUMBERS

Voss-FrancescaZambello-21FINAL_cropDid you know?…

With 94 people in the orchestra, 74 members of the chorus, 63 crew members, and countless others, there are 370 people involved on stage, backstage, and in the pit during the performances.

It takes approximately 17 hours to complete all four operas in the cycle.

The Ring uses 13,000 ft. of chain (that’s more than 2 miles long), 950 lbs. of propane, and over 500 lighting instruments for over 400 lighting cues.

920 liters of liquid nitrogen are used nightly for fog effects.

There will have been over 230 rehearsals leading up to opening night, averaging at 3 hours per rehearsal, totaling over 690 hours rehearsing.

There are a total of 309 costumes for the 175 cast members on stage.

– Francesca Zambello, WNO Artistic Director and Ring director

NEWS FROM NIBELHEIM: KILLER SCENES

RVoss-FrancescaZambello-21FINAL_cropecently in Takoma (which BTW, I would love to give a shout out to this little burg, since it is so charming), we worked on the killer Siegfried and Brünnhilde duet (Daniel Brenna and Catherine Foster) in Act Three of Siegfried and then did a run-thru of all of Rhinegold—all the cast and our 50 kid supers who play the Nibelungs. It’s amazing how Wagner so brilliantly lays it all out here.

It is a joy to be reunited with Alan Held, our Wotan, who I began this journey with, and now we are putting it all together. Other long-time colleagues in the cast include Bill Burden making his debut as Loge and Betsy Bishop as Fricka. Loge is really the start of it all.

The notorious RBG (Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg) once said, “if he had been better lawyer, we would not be in this mess…”

– Francesca Zambello, WNO Artistic Director and Ring director

NEWS FROM NIBELHEIM: MY FAVORITE TIMES

Voss-FrancescaZambello-21FINAL_cropEvery day from 10:30 in the morning until 10 in the evening, many of us are slaving away like Nibelungs in D.C.’s Takoma neighborhood, where the WNO rehearsal studios are located. In a sort of industrial building, we are fortunate to have three large rehearsal rooms the size of the Kennedy Center stage.

As a director, often these are my favorite times. You are in a rehearsal space with the performers and you can really talk and dig into the meaning of each scene, each word that Wagner wrote. With Wagner, we start by dissecting every scene together, usually around a table, investigating the words, the meanings of the “leitmotifs,” and how the characters interact. So many Ring scenes are just two or three people, so you have to really get on a wave together to find the meaning in the words and music – and then be able to bring the power of it all forward.

– Francesca Zambello, WNO Artistic Director and Ring director

News from Nibelheim: My “Gift” to Ring Fans

Voss-FrancescaZambello-21FINAL_cropMany drinks are consumed in Wagner’s operas—and as my personal “Gift” to you, let me introduce my series of special recipes to salute these delightful libations!

(Now, remember that “Gift” in German means poison. So some of these drinks can get you really hammered. Over the next few weeks, I will offer some that are with alcohol, and some without!)

For our first beverage, remember in those old 19th-century etchings when you see a group of hunters dressed in armor with those funny helmets, and they’re always toasting each other with big copper mugs? What do you think they were drinking? I made up a cocktail to match the image and I’ve called it the “Sturm und Drang,” which literally means “Storm and Drive” or “Storm and Urge.” It’s based on other drinks we know, but with ginger beer.

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News from Nibelheim: Open up to the Wagner Experience

Voss-FrancescaZambello-21FINAL_cropNow I am sure everyone reading my blog has a different level of how they have experienced or perceive the works of Wagner. How about we just all get on the same page of starting fresh and discovering it anew?

Naturally, we will be doing many lectures and talks leading up to our production of the Ring. But a simple and fun book to use to explore the “Master” is Wagner without Fear by William Berger, easily available on Amazon.

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News from Nibelheim: What Exactly is Nibelheim?

Voss-FrancescaZambello-21FINAL_cropNibelheim is a place inhabited by people called the Nibelung. One of the defining characteristics of the Nibelung is their short stature. (Some of you may also know them from your kids’ video game called Final Fantasy). Here in the Domain of Alberich, who has renounced love to take possession of the gold, the Nibelung are working to forge the actual, ultimate power-giving ring.

But wait a minute… who really are our Nibelungen? You know, I’m always happy for any opportunity to get young people involved in the opera, so for WNO’s production of the Ring, we’ll be casting children dressed as the slaves of Alberich. Sometimes, I playfully call them the Munchkins. (Fun fact: Did you know there were 124 original Munchkins in Oz?!)

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News from Nibelheim: Creating the World of the Ring

Voss-FrancescaZambello-21FINAL_cropMany different inspirations went into the designs for WNO’s production of the Ring. Some of the inspirations used by the set, costume, lighting, and projection designers along with myself are right here in Washington and will be fun to share with you. Why not start with the first image? It’s the perfect, pure creation of the world suggested by Wagner in the opening chords of The Rhinegold.

We thought of the perfection of the natural world captured by the great German American painter Bierstadt.

There are four of his works in the National Gallery. Most importantly, there is Mount Corcoran, which was one of the opening inspirations for the natural world of the Rhine. And do not miss Frederic Church’s evocative Niagara (see below). 

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