Vintage-style sets help UBC Opera conjure a Mozart-era Don Giovanni

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      In late October of 1787, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart himself conducted the opening of Don Giovanni, to maniacal applause and cheering at Prague’s gilded Estates Theatre.

      Now, 232 years later, UBC Opera is preparing to stage a Don Giovanni that’s as close as local audiences might ever get to the way Mozart presented it that night.

      For a start, the painted sets and intricate costumes come directly from the Estates Theatre itself. Director Nancy Hermiston secured them for the grand reopening of the Old Auditorium at UBC in 2010, following a long tradition (which continues to this day) of making near-annual visits to the Czech capital with her UBC Opera Ensemble.

      “We’ve sung in that theatre three times and I’m hoping to take students to it next year,” Hermiston, the chair of opera and voice at UBC, tells the Straight over the phone. “You walk on that stage and think, ‘My God, Mozart was on this stage and talked to singers like me on this stage.’ I haven’t taken students over there that haven’t started to cry.”

      Hermiston is hoping to bring some of that magic and history to the Don Giovanni they’re staging here. The drops—which are actually photographic laminates of the original painted sets—are operated by fly lines and bring a traditional style here that is rarely seen anymore.

      “It’s an old, old European way of creating sets,” Hermiston says of the form that allows for quick scene changes between, say, a village and a flowery garden. “It’s an art that’s slowly being lost, which I feel personally is a shame. My students are fascinated by it.”

      UBC also adopted several crates of wigs, props, guns, swords, and costumes for this Don Giovanni—all used by the Estates in repertory over the 1980s and 1990s, she estimates. Since that theatre is so dedicated to Mozart’s works, it hews closely to what the outfits on opera singers would have looked like two centuries ago. And that’s been invaluable practice for her students, she reveals.

      “They’re so beautifully made, and they will affect how you move,” Hermiston explains of the often heavy-velvet Prague-crafted designs. “For the women, there’s the boning of the upper part of the dresses and big skirts with trains at the back. And the men have to know how to watch for those trains and not step on them!

      “Then there’s the weight of the costume: it can be 20 to 40 pounds. We’re all so used to wearing really light clothing and being really légère. And this is why I do this in our program; I do period productions so they’re ready should they go on to the Met or La Scala or somewhere else that might do this kind of production.”

      Those are just some of the challenges layered on top of the already demanding task of performing one of Mozart’s most punishing operas, sung in this production with members of the Vancouver Opera Orchestra, under conductor Leslie Dala. The morality tale about the notorious bad boy Don Juan brings a series of taxing recitatives, a formidable sextet, and complex arias.

      Hermiston says her two youthful casts are up to the challenge—bringing to light yet another similarity between this UBC production and that original one with a 31-year-old Mozart at the podium. “What’s especially interesting is that his first Don Giovanni was 21 years old, and the Donna Anna was 20,” she says. “So not only do we have the costumes and sets that would be used in his time, but also the youthful exuberance of the singers. You get that same youthful enthusiasm here.”

      UBC Opera presents Don Giovanni at the Old Auditorium from Thursday to Sunday (June 20 to 23).