You are making your Met debut with Don Giovanni. What's your take on the opera and its title character?
Don Giovanni has a charismatic lust for life, but he's not just some serial seducer---he's a dark, complex individual. The starting point of Don Giovanni is a death, and the brilliance of the opera is that Mozart then takes us to a piece about life. There's something quite Shakespearean about it: a serious subject that has many opportunities for comedy, for lightness of touch, for all sorts of layers in the portrayal of the characters.
How do you approach creating a new production?
You really start with three considerations: when was the piece written, what time is it set in, and when are you doing it. The fact that you're doing it now has to be a big part of any equation. The word "modern" is very difficult to interpret because the moment you say it people will imagine it's going to be modern dress, which we've decided not to do. But it has to feel modern. It's all about making the audience feel the piece is for them, so that they can relate to it in some way.
Tell us about the look of your Don Giovanni.
The end of the 18th century, when Mozart created the opera, is a fascinating period. We're actually taking it just a bit earlier, in the mid-18th century, which gets us into a very visually exciting place, certainly with the costumes---they're sexier, freer. The central characters come from the upper part of society, which gives us an opportunity to be quite lavish in the way we present them, particularly the women. For the men, the setting offers a fantastic swagger, something that feels very masculine, very sexual, very alive. We need to believe they're dressed in clothes, not costumes---I feel that particularly with this piece---and that they look wonderful in them.
What about the set?
The structure that [designer] Christopher Oram has come up with has a series of towered walls. Each of the towers has a number of rooms with balconies, and each of the structures can move to form different architectural shapes. The opera flows at a cracking pace, so the opportunity for us to be able to have the stage move us from one location to another has been at the center of our approach. And then, with Don Giovanni, there are some set pieces, like the ending when he goes to hell. That's something you have to have a view on. Once you have decided what hell means in the context of the world you have created, the production can then set about creating this climactic moment in the opera.
What does it mean?
Giovanni is going to hell because he killed a man. He's not going to hell because he seduced a lot of women. If you go to hell for seducing people, then hell must be a pretty busy place I should imagine. If you're looking at an 18th-century setting, the literal nature of hell and its religious aspect are very important. You have to deal with what hell means for a society at that time and where it sits at the center of all of it. Without giving too much away, I think we've found a solution that is believable.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, there's also a lot of sensuality in this piece...
Sex and sexual politics are at the center of Don Giovanni, and you just have to take them on. When you've got an attractive company who really can act---and we have here---you want to address this in a way that allows this subject to really live. So I would like to think it's going to be a central component of the piece and the production. But I bet that every single director who is asked if this is going to be a particularly sexed-up Don Giovanni will say, "Yeah, I'm gonna do the really sexy Don Giovanni." ---Philipp Brieler
This interview was first published online and in the Met's Playbill in September 2011.