It seems that when we look at Giovanni, what we see are our own cultural obsessions peering back at us.
The essence of the story is pretty simple: A powerful and charismatic man sleeps his way across Europe and thumbs his nose at man and God. But every different society seems to zero in on a different part of Giovanni's character, and I'd dare say that within each opera audience there are hundreds of different interpretations.
Some find his promiscuity the most egregious sin. (The number of female conquests is purportedly 2,065; and even with the expected inflation that comes with such story-telling, that's pretty ghastly. It pales beside Wilt Chamberlain's estimate, but then again, it was tougher to get around during the 17th century.)
Others see beyond the sex to the basic way in which he seems to devalue human life. After all, Mozart's version of the story begins with a murder; and in the end, when punishment is inevitable, Giovanni is inconceivably incredulous.
In the late 20th century, we began to see Giovanni increasingly as a man in existential crisis. The debauchery, profligate living and amorality are bad enough, but they're not the point -- they're just the tools he uses to fill the hole inside. He is just looking for an escape; a way to ignore the fact that the inside of his head is a pretty scary neighborhood.
What Does He Look Like Now?
When our Giovanni team conjured up what this man might look like in early 21st-century America, they found him in a part of our culture that provides more avenues for escape than any other in the history of time. He's a Silicon Valley high roller or a Hollywood star -- a man for whom modern technology relentlessly amplifies opportunities for sex, drugs and other forms of escape.
Our Giovanni's world will look as if Steve Jobs designed it. Clean and minimal, and almost arrogant its absence of warmth. The few things you'll see are most notable for their quality, not their quantity.
We can easily picture how class differences in an opera are displayed in 18th-century dress. The powerful people in their panniers and silk breeches, the working class stiffs in coarse petticoats and short jackets. The fashion signifiers for class aren't nearly as strong in our time, but they're there. Our well-heeled Giovanni, Anna and Ottavio will sport suits and dresses made of the finest material (or as fine as a small opera company's costume budget can allow...), and tailored impeccably, with no visible buttons. (Remember Job's black turtlenecks and sleek jeans? Think about it.) And working class Zerlina, Masetto and their friends will appear (as most of us do) in imitations that don't quite hit the mark -- slightly ill-fitting, of cheap material, clearly off-the-rack.
The Boy Next Door?
Our Don Juan is at home where too much money, freedom and time intersect. And in our time, that intersection is increasingly visible in popular culture. You probably wouldn't be surprised to find a story about him on this very website. And you could run on the treadmill next to him at the gym and never suspect what he's capable of.
Follow Kim Witman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/kimpwitman