The battle of good versus evil and a little sexual perversion are par for the course in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which Opera Illinois brings to town May 16 and May 18.

The Don’s Last Act

What makes this particular opera so fascinating is that it can be interpreted in so many ways, according to Opera Illinois Executive Director Margaret Swain. “It’s basically the story of the last day on earth of the famous seducer Don Juan—known as Don Giovanni in Italian. When the opera opens, Don Giovani has had affairs with 2,065 women, but apparently he’s starting to lose his touch. When the curtain goes up we see Leporello, Don Giovanni’s servant, grumbling that he has to be the watchman while Don Giovanni is inside putting the moves on a lady.”

And since the course of true lust never runs smoothly, things go awry. “The lady in question, Donna Anna, doesn’t seem to be a willing partner. We don’t know exactly what happens inside—or how far things go—but at one point, she resists him and chases him out into the street yelling for help,” Swain explained. “It seems the famous ladies’ man has been reduced to forcing himself on women. The psychology of the womanizer who becomes too impatient to be good at seduction is intriguing.”

The action heats up when Donna Anna’s father, who hears his daughter’s cries for help, challenges Don Giovanni to a dual and loses. “Donna Anna becomes obsessed with finding the intruder who tried (succeeded?) to rape (seduce?) her and then murdered her father. She and her fiance, Don Ottavio, are aided by Don Giovanni’s angry former lover, Donna Elvira, who has just arrived in Seville looking for him,” she said.

Additional plot complications ensue, and as the audience has been told to expect, Don Giovanni’s life comes to a dramatic close. “Whether you think it’s just revenge of the wronged parties or Don Giovanni’s out-of-control life catching up with him, he meets the end he deserves,” Swain said. “You can’t mistreat everyone in your life and expect to get away with it forever. It’s a true morality tale—not so much about promiscuity as about being dishonest, taking advantage of others, and hurting people. The emptiness of his reckless life leads him to take greater risks seeking bigger thrills. It will never bring him the fulfillment or happiness he really wants.”

Considering the content, it’s not surprising what draws audiences to this production, which many call the greatest opera ever written. “To put it bluntly, people are interested because it’s about sex,” Swain said. “People also love it because it’s a fascinating story, with complex, true-to-life characters in complicated relationships, set to some of the best music ever written. Mozart and Lorenzo DaPonte, who wrote the libretto, called the opera a ‘dramma-giocosa,’ which translates as ‘comic drama.’ Like real life, humor and tragedy co-exist. For a man who died so young and who didn’t have a normal childhood, Mozart had an extraordinary understanding of human nature. He portrays emotions and situations through the music so ideally and so perfectly that it’s uncanny.”

Setting the Stage for Success

Don Giovanni is closing out a season—which also included Madame Butterfly and Il Trovatore—that’s been a love letter of sorts to Opera Illinois fans. “To celebrate our 30th anniversary season, we chose three well-known and loved Italian operas. Music Director Fiora Contina has a deep understanding of Italian style and language. She’s our direct link to the venerable opera tradition, yet her intuition and insight into life in the world today makes it all completely relevant and understandable—in any context. All three operas are deservedly famous, written by undisputed masters,” Swain said.

Selecting seasons that include both commercially and artistically satisfying works falls to Contino, General Manager Bill Swain—who’s also directing Don Giovanni—and the Opera Illinois board, she said. “It starts with ideas of what we would like to do and have the capabilities to do—tossing out names, as it were, just for fun. Bill, Fiora, and the board all voice their opinions at one point or other. It’s a subjective process; we have our favorites and consider certain operas to be fabulous. Some suggestions that generate initial excitement turn out to be prohibitively expensive or may lack popular appeal sufficient to draw an audience. With her vast experience in production and voice, Fiora sometimes becomes aware of promising singers through her studio and gets ideas for operas. When she hears someone wonderful, she may say, ‘So-and-so would be great as this character.’ Next thing you know—if all goes well—we’ll be doing that opera with that singer.”

The audience figures prominently into the decision, though Swain said it’s just not possible to please everyone. “We try to schedule operas our audience will respond to favorably. Fortunately, there are so many great operas to choose from—even if we stick to the most standard repertoire, there will always be beautiful works to hear for the first time and to enjoy again and again in years to come.”

Opera Illinois’ next season includes Lucia di Lammermoor by Donizetto, Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss, and The Ballad of Baby Doe by Douglas Moore and John LaTouce. “The season opens with Lucia di Lammermmor. The sextet and the Mad Scene are two out of several celebrated pieces from this opera. Lucia may be the best drama among the operas of that time; the well-crafted scenes develop a dramatic intensity that builds to a horrifying consequence. The final scene brings tragedy upon tragedy, much like Romeo and Juliet. If you love virtuoso singing, don’t miss Lucia,” she said.

After the steady stream of heartbreak and death in the season opener, Swain said it was suggested they lighten up a bit with the next offering. “During rehearsals for Madame Butterfly, Tim Coleman mentioned he had done his own translation of Fledermaus, and everyone assembled thought it was a great idea. Fledermaus overflows with melody and fun.”

The final production of the season is also the Peoria premiere of this American opera, which has been performed regularly throughout the country since its premiere in 1956. “The Ballad of Baby Doe tells the true story of Elizabeth (Baby) Doe, who falls in love with Horace Tabor. Tabor is married at the time to a woman named Augusta. They divorce and he marries Baby Doe, but in the meantime loses his silver fortune and the respect of society. The tawdry aspect of the story is elevated by the pure love Tabor and Baby Doe share, in spite of their disgrace. Augusta becomes bitter—who would blame her?—but rises above her resentment, demonstrating formidable strength of character. Like Lucia, the opera is a showcase for the leading soprano. Baby Doe sings several melodies with shimmering high notes guaranteed to give you goose bumps,” Swain said.

Opera Illinois has developed a relationship with the Rockford Symphony Orchestra that already resulted in Opera Illinois staging Madame Butterfly in Rockford; next season, Lucia also will be performed at the Coronado Theater in Rockford. “Steve Larsen, the Rockford Symphony Orchestra maestro, had worked with Fiora at Chicago Opera Theatre years ago,” Swain explained. “He loves opera and wanted to do more, so he contacted Opera Illinois—out of the blue—for Butterfly last year. We were especially pleased Steve approached us, rather than a Chicago company. It spoke highly of his regard for Fiora and the level of production we do here. It’s consistent with our mission to bring grand opera to a larger geographical area, and we were all thrilled with the success of the venture and look forward to a long relationship with Steve and the RSO.”

The Magic of Opera

Taking their productions on the road is just one way Opera Illinois is trying to expand appreciation for their art form. “The greater the audience we can reach, the better. Opera can illuminate the human condition in an uplifting way; it can give pleasure or provide catharsis. Opera brings meaning and beauty to our lives. Opera is our bridge between people, times, and places—exposing society as it is, was, and can be. We hope the respect we received in Rockford generates greater visibility and credibility for Opera Illinois within our own community, but sitting in the sold-out Coronado Theater, perceiving the audience’s sympathy for Butterfly, was a rare and profoundly satisfying moment,” Swain said.

Spreading the gospel of opera is a passion for the Swains and everyone involved with Opera Illinois. “I’m thrilled when anyone chooses to go to the opera instead of turning on the television. It’s not an overstatement to say quality arts and entertainment can make the world a better place.”

Swain said opera may not be for everyone, but there’s no reason why it couldn’t be. “Opera, because it combines so may other art forms, has the greatest potential to transfigure the audience. That’s why we take our responsibility so seriously. We want our audience to have the best possible experience, to increase the chances they’ll get something important out of it. Opera requires a person to function both intelligently and intuitively; you must be able to think and feel simultaneously. Some people are immediately bowled over by opera and become fans for life. For some, it may be like single malt scotch was for me—an acquired taste. But isn’t this why life remains worth living? We get to participate in things that make us grow, experience new sensations, and expand our boundaries.”

Performances of Don Giovanni take place at 7:30 p.m., May 16, and 2 p.m., May 18, at the Peoria Civic Center. Tickets cost $25 to $55, with $8 tickets available for students. 

For more information, call 673-7253 or visit www.operaillinois.com. AA!