Opera Noir

UT Opera Theatre gives Don Giovanni a '40s New York makeover

Perhaps like no other art form, opera must exist in two worlds. Historic works live on in tradition through the impact of their music. Yet they must also live in the world of modern theatrical audiences. That's where the production camps divide—into those who believe that contemporizing older works keep them fresh and interesting for modern audiences, and those who believe in retaining a work's basic historical production premise. Excellent arguments exist for both sides.

Updating or re-imagining an opera and its characters into recognizable locations is a fairly recent practice. While there are outstanding examples of re-imagined dramas and operas over the last 50 years, directors who take this route walk a fine line between originality and the potential pitfall of alienating an audience. Carroll Freeman has first-hand experience in this type of production, and he's chosen a similar approach for the University of Tennessee Opera Theatre production of Mozart's Don Giovanni that is part of Knoxville Opera's Rossini Festival.

As a young singer, Freeman appeared as Don Ottavio in director/provocateur Peter Sellars' production of Don Giovanni that was filmed in 1990, subsequently aired on PBS, and was later released on video. Sellars moved his locale to a 1980s Spanish Harlem in which the character of Don Giovanni is a hustler and drug addict.

Freeman has taken a slightly kinder tack with his Don Giovanni, bringing it into the noir-ish streets of 1947 New York. Part of that production decision was grounded in 21st-century practicality—the audience may recognize a re-worked New York brownstone set from last year's production of Kurt Weill's Street Scene. That marvelous set, designed by Keith Brumley, was acquired from Des Moines Opera with a generous grant to UT Opera from the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music.

But why 1947 in particular? "My costume designer, DeWayne Kirchner, told me that 1947 was a very important fashion year," Freeman says. "With the war over, designers like Edith Head and Christian Dior started bringing back this exaggerated fashion. But I also liked the idea of film noir. So we're going all black and white except for the two act finales. We end both with a lot of color."

Casting a production in the world of university opera training programs can be fraught with all sorts of issues. In Freeman's case, they might not be the obvious ones. "I've got major talent in this program," he says. "One reason I picked Street Scene and Don Giovanni is because they had a lot of parts. For this production, all the students sang for me, and I just could not decide. So I've got three Donna Annas, four Donna Elviras, and five Zerlinas and a cover for each. This is a large amount of talent getting performing opportunities."

As in past UT Opera productions, the cast is split over five performances. Appearing as Don Giovanni will be John Arnold and Seth Maples; as Donna Anna, Rachel Anne Moore and Claire Boling; as Donna Elvira, Paige Patrick, Mieke Rickert, Leah Kaye Serr, and Jessica Tucker; as Zerlina, Denisha Leshai Ballew, Jessica Cates, Valerie Haber, Sarah Hoeppner, and Clarisse Colao; as Leporello, Andrew Gilchrist, David Simoson, and Rocky Sellars; as Don Ottavio, Jonathan Murphy, Jonathon Subìa, and Cody Boling; and as Masetto, Evan Broadhead and Shadarius Shields. For the first time, however, the Saturday evening performance will feature an undergraduate-only cast performing with piano and conducted by Kevin Class. The other performances will feature the UT Opera Orchestra under the baton of James Fellenbaum.