Don Giovanni In Mozart’s Footsteps

Behind the Scenes of a Production at Prague’s Estates Theatre
By Geoffrey Larson

On October 29, 1787, Mozart’s new opera Don Giovanni was premiered by the Prague Italian Opera company at the Teatro di Praga, with the composer himself conducting. The premiere was over two weeks late, and was hastily prepared (the singers had delayed the performance by complaining of the work’s difficulty, and Mozart had completed the overture only the morning of the show), but it cemented the composer’s rock-star status in a city that adores him to this day. Now called the Estates Theatre (Stavovské Divadlo), this enchanting birthplace of one of opera’s most enduring masterpieces is the only remaining opera house in the world where Mozart directed his music. Much is different about the theatre today: the flickering candle-light that lit Mozart’s performances has been replaced by gas and then modern electric lighting, the curtains and sets are furnished with modern rigging, and the chamber pots have been swapped out for relatively modern toilets and plumbing. However, the theatre and stage’s surprisingly small size, ornate (and in some areas, crumbling) décor, and rickety wooden floors that may have once creaked under Mozart’s step are a constant reminder that this place has a special significance. The air hangs thick with the silent echoes of notes long faded.

Estates Theatre retrospective 700x264
Left: a rendering of the Estates Theatre, ca. 1787. Right: a contemporary view of the facade.

 

I traveled to Prague in June 2016 to serve as assistant conductor for a traditional staging of Don Giovanni at the Estates Theatre. Part of the Prague Summer Nights Festival, this young artists production was directed by the legendary baritone Sherrill Milnes and his wife Maria Zouves and conducted by John Nardolillo. Now retired after a career that spanned over 40 years, Sherrill Milnes sang at the Met over 600 times, won three GRAMMYs, and is the most recorded American opera singer in history. One of the finest Giovannis of all time, he was the first American to sing the role in Prague, about 50 years ago. His inexhaustible trove of operatic insight acquired from a lifetime of work with music’s greats (Domingo, Pavarotti, Sutherland, Freni, Scotto, Bernstein, Bohm, and Karajan, to name a few) set the tone for rehearsals from the beginning.

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The author with Sherrill Milnes in the Estates Theatre on opening night of Don Giovanni, July 7, 2016.

 

The Rehearsal Process: Creating the World of Don Giovanni

The length of an opera rehearsal cycle can vary dramatically, from as little as a few days for repeat productions of standard operas in major professional houses such as the Met, to over a month in student productions at universities. Sherrill told stories of repeat stagings of major productions in Vienna or New York where the singers were given nothing but one rehearsal onstage with the orchestra and conductor before the run of performances, but these singers were part of legendary casts that had sung the particular production multiple times and already knew it cold. Another friend of mine has shared stories of conducting Carmen at the now-defunct New York City Opera, where he was given one session with the singers but not a single minute with the orchestra before the performances began. These are highly cost-effective solutions for houses that know their artists are capable of giving great performances without rehearsal, but a young artists production is a different process.

In this case, rehearsals for the Prague Summer Nights production spanned about three weeks. Rehearsals began in the town of Tabor at the Divadlo Oskara Nedbala, a theatre where scenes from the movie The Illusionist were filmed, then continued in a rehearsal space at a university on the north side of Prague before moving to the Estates Theatre in the final week. A normal opera rehearsal process begins with a run-through of the music, with conductor, cast, and piano only. If the opera has a chorus, as Don Giovanni does in short interludes, they generally rehearse about this time, although in this particular production the chorus rehearsed much later. Staging rehearsals then begin, with the stage director or directors (in our case Sherrill Milnes and Maria Zouves) leading the cast through the action onstage in a large room with tape on the floor marking the set. Occasionally the singers will choose not to sing full voice if a scene is repeatedly rehearsed, as is the case in the below video of an early staging rehearsal in Tabor. Here, the Commendatore provokes an ill-advised fight with Don Giovanni, who has just assaulted his daughter.

Following the completion of staging rehearsals, there is a sitzprobe (literally “sitting rehearsal”) where the singers join the orchestra for a full rehearsal of the music only, and occasionally there will be a wandelprobe (“walking rehearsal”) where the singers do their stage blocking while rehearsing with the orchestra. These take place either in the theater or in a rehearsal room, depending on the situation. A tech rehearsal then takes place in the theatre with the singers in full costume and only a piano in the pit with the conductor, while the crew adjusts lighting, set, etc. Finally, dress rehearsals see the entire production come together in the theatre, running the entire show and making final corrections.

Four performances were planned for our production, and it was double-cast, meaning nearly everything had to be rehearsed twice: two sets of singers were rehearsing to perform on alternating nights. Only the Commendatore, who has the least amount of singing of all the characters, was not double-cast. Though most of the singers hailed from the United States, there were principal members of the cast from places such as Chile, Portugal, and China.

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Don Giovanni’s impressive spread of props included 18th century pistols, fencing swords, keys, and chicken.

 

The set and props were owned by Czech National Theatre, and were from a traditional production designed for the re-opening of the Estates Theatre in 1990 after an 8-year reconstruction project. In staging rehearsals, as much of the final feel of the show as possible is simulated, with the aid of the real props used in the production. For us this included pieces of costuming such as cloaks and hats; even the boots and heels worn by the singers make a big difference as they immerse themselves in their characters. The props also featured real fencing foils and sabers (dull, but still not fun to be stabbed with). One rarity of this production was a fully-choreographed sword fight between Don Giovanni and the ill-fated Commendatore in the first scene. Fight scenes are difficult to direct, and this is where Darya Zholnerova, one of the production’s excellent assistant directors stepped in, showing the singers a traditional (and spectacular) stage fencing practice.

Maria took the lead in staging rehearsals, teaching the blocking and masterfully guiding the interaction of the characters, while Sherrill roamed the room dishing out important advice. No cast member was spared, but the two Don Giovannis got special scrutiny. As befitting possibly the greatest Giovanni of all time, Sherrill added fascinating dramatic detail to every facial expression and body movement. His advice was wide-ranging: addressing the style of the singer’s walk onstage (a “noble walk” in the style Yul Brynner), moving the voice to the corner of the mouth for a sneer of contempt in the midst of recitative, adding an extra wince and raise of the eyebrows when Don Ottavio thrusts a pistol in Giovanni’s direction. He absolutely lives opera and drama, and his work with the singers was something special to behold; I hope I have that much energy when I’m 81.

The assistant conductor operates as the music director’s right-hand man, addressing small problems with the singers and orchestra that may have been missed in rehearsal and generally helping to clean up small production issues. The assistant is the cover conductor for all performances in case of emergency, is often tasked with conducting singers and piano in the relentless stop-and-go of staging rehearsals, occasionally will lead a sectional rehearsal with the orchestra, sometimes serves as the chorus-master. He or she sits directly behind the music director in rehearsal, taking notes that are then relayed to the singers and orchestra members as necessary. A good assistant conductor notices technical issues regarding the music or language, and is able to succinctly relay to the singers the precise corrections that are needed, eschewing unnecessary nitpicking and matters of personal taste. As an assistant conductor for this Don Giovanni production, I conducted extensively in staging rehearsals, in addition to a chorus rehearsal and a morning tech rehearsal in the Estates Theatre. Additionally, in the event that a singer is missing from rehearsal for some reason, it’s generally expected that the conductor on the podium sings the part. It was thus that I found myself conducting in a staging rehearsal with the Commendatore missing, singing his role with Sherrill Milnes standing a few feet away, who walked up to me and muttered “darker.”

Don Giovanni Graveyard Scene
A Mozart’s-eye view from the orchestra pit of the Graveyard Scene, where Leporello and Don Giovanni address the statue of the slain Commendatore (and inhale quite a bit of stage smoke in the process).

 

Communing with the Commendatore: Performances in the Estates Theatre

Arriving in the theatre was a powerful experience for all of us. The special ambiance of the theatre hit me even before I saw the plaque in the pit, apparently marking the spot where Mozart sat at the harpsichord and conducted. The backstage area and four floors of production offices, wardrobe and dressing rooms plus a rehearsal loft space is all a relatively new refurbishment, but the entire front half of the theatre building consisting of the entryway and actual theatre space is mostly original with few modern changes. In the audience, rows of small private boxes with tiny doors rise up to surround a small floor seating area. The fading designs on the ceiling look original, and the whole space is topped by a chandelier the size of a small car. It’s a minuscule stage, with even less space in the wings, and the pit is similarly tiny.

Mozart plaque and orch pit
Top: a plaque in the orchestra pit at the Estates Theatre reads “At this spot, [Mozart] conducted and accompanied at the harpsichord.” Bottom: A view of the orchestra pit from a second tier box. The harpsichordist accompanies singers through interludes of rapid speech-like singing known as recitative, and is positioned on a platform to the side where he can see them. Mozart likely would have conducted from the harpsichord, placed in the center of the orchestra without a lid instead of off to the side.

Mozart and da Ponte’s original conception for Don Giovanni included a lot happening both onstage and off: troops of musicians onstage for Giovanni’s lavish parties, chorus members and a ghostly Commendatore singing offstage, etc. The orchestration wasn’t small either, by any standard, with a full woodwind section and complement of brass that included three trombones. Walking the stage and helping to set up the pit for our orchestra, I couldn’t help but wonder how Mozart had crammed everything in. The sheer effect of the first production of Don Giovanni in 1787 must have been more powerful to audiences than IMAX 3D.

Don Giovanni makeup and announcements
Left: Leporello and Zerlina in makeup before the show. Right: the view from a concealed curtain peephole during announcements at the start of the sold-out opening night performance.

 

Hours before the first audience members begin to file in through the front doors of the Estates Theatre, the singers are already in the house on the second level, as National Theatre staff apply make-up and help them into their costumes. The stage manager, positioned at a desk in the wings stage right, speaks over an intercom system restricted to the backstage areas. He welcomes the crew in Czech and the artists in English, and starts the countdown to the start of the show. The assistant conductor is in the house and checks in with the music director an hour before start time. The orchestra trickles in to their backstage area, which in the Estates Theatre is actually a chamber directly underneath the stage, and the musicians take their places in the pit. The principal cast members are then called to take their places for the start of the show, the maestro is called to the pit, and the performance begins. Announcements are made throughout the show by the stage director, calling the chorus and various other cast members to the wings in time for their entrances.

Don Giovanni performance combo
Upper left: the stage manager follows the score and monitors the action, calling cast members over the intercom and giving instructions to the crew as necessary. Upper right: a view of the chamber underneath the stage of the Estates Theatre. A lift is positioned in the center underneath the trapdoor, which opens for the lift operator to pull Don Giovanni down to hell. Is it somehow poetic that this is also the warm-up room for the orchestra? Bottom: the full cast, conductor, and directors take the stage for bows following the opening night performance. It’s actually common for the stage director(s) to depart after the first performance, sometimes even before the first show. Sherrill Milnes and Maria Zouves, being lead faculty in the voice program, stayed for the full run.

 

With the lights in the theatre dimmed low for the performance, it isn’t difficult to imagine the glow of candlelight surrounding you, and our production even emphasized this with actual burning candelabras in the second act. The singers reported that the Estates Theatre is a dream to sing in – with a small, comfortable acoustic the voice easily fills the entire hall – and then there’s the enchantment of breathing in the same musty air as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and singing his music. In that final week of rehearsals leading up to opening night, I was asked to conduct the first tech rehearsal in the theatre. When I took the podium, I felt an unusual amount of pressure. Even though it was just a rehearsal with piano in the pit instead of full orchestra, it was impossible not to feel a special presence as I began those first thundering D minor chords.

Before Piano Tech 325x578
Credit: Tom Ciluffo

 

Geoffrey Larson is the Music Director of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra, and a contributor to Classical KING FM.

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