Local theatre company Against the Grain is reimagining Mozart's classic opera for 21st-century audiences.
Local theatre company Against the Grain is bringing Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni into the 21st century with #UncleJohn, on December 11–19 at the Black Box theatre on Queen Street West. The hashtag in the title is used advisedly—in this production social media features heavily in the main character’s life and in his intimate relationships.
The reimagined opera, which Against the Grain presented at The Banff Centre this past summer in partnership with the Canadian Opera Company and Parks Canada, is set at the wedding reception of Zerlina and Massetto, where the audience and other characters are the guests, and where John (baritone Cameron McPhail) finds himself at the heart of a seduction storm.
Against the Grain is known for its timely stagings and social commentary. Director Joel Ivany says #UncleJohn, although it’s in part derived from Lorenzo Da Ponte’s 1787 libretto, differs from the original Don Giovanni in a number of important ways. “The bars are the same, but the clothes and the skin are different,” he explains during a break between rehearsals. “It’s not just a straight libretto updating.”
In the original Don Giovanni, the sexually promiscuous nobleman kills the father of an attempted conquest, Donna Anna. Later he runs into a vengeful ex-lover, Donna Elvira, whom Giovanni had once abandoned. Giovanni’s servant tells Elvira that his master simply cannot remain faithful and recites to her a list of the nobleman’s conquests. Later Giovanni tries to seduce Zerlina, who is marrying Masetto; he is initially thwarted in his attempt by Elvira, whom he later leads away to a private room as she screams for help. The opera ends with Donna Anna’s father returning from the grave to drag Giovanni off to hell.
Ivay says that with #UncleJohn he wanted to explore sexual licentiousness in a more modern context. “I wanted to investigate how this story—or the skeleton of this—lives in 2014: what does it look like? How does it work within this iconic moment? We’ve gone away from writing, and it’s more iPads and texting and phones. That’s more of the fabric of today.”
Elements of social media activity—collecting followers and curating a public persona—are central to Ivany’s depiction of a Giovanni for the 21st century. Indeed, John’s use of social media reveals insecurities not seen in the original Giovanni character, adding depth to the role.
McPhail—who has sung the role several times over the course of his young career—sees John’s deceptive use of social media as analogous to Giovanni’s literal use of disguise in the original work. “It’s very easy to lie on social media,” he notes. “It’s easy to manipulate and misinterpret texts. I mean, without putting in a winking emoticon, how do you know if someone’s joking? In other cases, if you hit frown-face, you’re fucked.”
Although the production does not take a clear moral stance against John’s duplicitous nature, the fact that #UncleJohn is performed in English (whereas the original libretto is in Italian) will doubtless help audiences decide for themselves who the story’s villain is. “To hear music which is familiar, or could be accessible, but then to hear the language you speak … it’s an odd thing, but in a really good way,” Ivany explains. “It’s understandable and immediate.”