San Diego Opera makes Don Giovanni a rock star
SDO general director David Bennett is always looking for innovation. After taking on the job in 2015, he created a new series dētour, which was designed to be everything that is not grand opera. So that included chamber opera, concert opera, musical theater and opera from other cultures as well as looking to use new venues to stage performances.
Now he is excited to be unveiling a new production of "Don Giovanni" that does not look like anything that the company has staged before. (See video below for SDO's more traditional production of "Don Giovanni.")
"We thought about, who is Don Giovanni — sort of a bad boy, could be considered a rock star," Bennett said. "So we started to think, what are a lot of contemporary pop rock shows today? We think of Katy Perry and Taylor Swift, and these kinds of artists do use the kind of media that you'll see in this production."
That idea excited director Kyle Lang.
"I was talking to the technical director, and it really came up how Giovanni is such a rock star. We think of him as such a rock star in the repertoire," Lang said. "So what if we really think about rock concert lighting and really using lighting as an architecture base for the presentation."
Bennett was excited to see the first full dress rehearsal on Tuesday night.
"We'll see these beautiful columns of light coming through in a way that's very arresting," Bennett said. "So the architecture that we see on stage is actually made of light and projections and costumes."
Eschewing huge, fixed sets means the action can be more fluid and scene changes can be faster with lighting and projection redefining the space. But it is also less costly. Another decision that combines both cost effectiveness and creativity is having the orchestra on stage with the singers.
"The whole industry is in a place where we're trying to experiment and find new ways. We're all in the process of recovering post-COVID," Bennet said. "We're all trying to find the ways to embrace new audiences and keep our existing audiences. And a lot of companies are approaching that in this way, which is by putting an orchestra on stage. But this is actually how opera started, with the orchestra on stage."
Having the orchestra on stage is also a way to highlight conductor Yves Abel and the San Diego Symphony musicians. There are times when Abel's energy and the musicians' performing feed into the energy of the story and add another character.
"It does sort of start off as a way to deal with cost," Bennett added. "But it also is a new way to embrace the way we produce opera and a way to do it in a fashion that we think will attract new audiences."
Bennett is also trying to make smart decisions about how to serve both new and old audiences. One change this year is to only offer two performances rather than four. Although it may sound counterintuitive to reduce performances to be more profitable, it actually saves SDO money because each performance is so expensive to put on. There can be hundreds of people on stage and behind the scenes making each performance happen, and they cost money.
"Because the cost of producing opera is so expensive right now, really expensive, sort of the fiscally responsible thing to do is to not overproduce expensive opera," Bennett explained. "We should sort of look at what our demand is and deal with supply and demand. So that's really where this decision of reducing our number of performances came from."
So instead of having four performances partially full, "Don Giovanni" is looking at two almost sold out performances in the 2,800 seat Civic Theatre venue.
"So people are coming," Bennett said. "So it gives me hope that I think in future seasons we'll be able to add performances back as we regain our audiences."
Lang is hoping this new production, with its more contemporary setting, will resonate more with audiences.
"It feels very contemporary. And the reason I decided to go that route is because this story, as old as it is, the psychology of it is about the human condition, and we're still humans, wired the same way," Lang said. "This story is timeless."
The opera takes its inspiration from the literary character of Don Juan, a dashing cad, womanizer, and a bit of an antihero. In this production, he wears a leather jacket, smokes and prances around the stage like a rock star.
Lang added, "there's an energy that comes when you see the workings of what happens around a production. Seeing the light fixture, seeing the orchestra on stage, it kind of allows you to see the organs of the mechanism working together, rather than just the skin or the makeup on the outside. You really get a more visceral experience by seeing not just the singers working, but really seeing the conductor working, really seeing the lights change position."
You can enjoy this fresh take on an opera classic with two performances of "Don Giovanni," one on Friday night and then a Sunday matinee, both at the Civic Theatre.