The earliest written version of the Don Juan play dates from 1630. Mozart composed Don Giovanni in 1787. During the last century, Errol Flynn (Adventures of Don Juan, 1948), Johnny Depp (Don Juan de Marco, 1994) and many others had a go at it. Clearly, the story of this amoral, oversexed and wildly ambitious man is not limited to any particular time or place.
In putting Giovanni into the hands and voices of our cast of Wolf Trap's 20- and 30-something singers, we decided to bring the story into our own time. Somewhere in America, in the early 21st century, where the Don's natural tendencies toward hubris and narcissism are painfully amplified by an increasingly unavoidable highly technological world.
Why not leave Mozart's opera alone? If it was good enough for audiences in 18th century Vienna, Austria, why should it not satisfy in our little theatre in Vienna, Virginia? Well, giving modern audiences a taste of what it might have been like hundreds of years ago is certainly a beautiful option, one that we and other companies exercise regularly. But in this case, we chose to focus on the relationship between the story and those who hear it -- to allow a sophisticated and jaded 21st-century audience to have as visceral and outraged a reaction as Mozart's audience.
Don Giovanni was a womanizer -- one beside whom Don Draper would pale. But it was not this Don's philandering, but the way in which he held himself above God and all morality that shocked Mozart's audiences most. They would not have tsk-tsked and sniggered about his loose ways; they would've been outraged. Turns out that we're not as easily shocked these days.
How to represent this dangerous man so that we have a reaction to his story that's parallel to that of 18th century audiences? The answer lies somewhere between a safe, distanced scholarly approach and one that is too dependent on shock value. I'm probably indulging in my own hubris to believe that I can speak the truth on such a thing, but I somehow know in my gut that Mozart and Da Ponte weren't writing a museum piece. Were they to glimpse their operas over 200 years later, they might be momentarily flattered by the esteem in which we hold their art. But I'd like to think that they'd be in the back of the theatre cheering any honest, thoughtful and thorough attempt to shake us out of complacency.
As our plans unfold prior to the opening performance on June 29, 2012, we'll find out how unlikely things like buttons, tablecloths and social media will define the world in which our Giovanni plays his last hand.