The last production of Kentucky Opera's 60th Anniversary Season is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Don Giovanni. Called a dramma giocoso for its mix of of serious and comic elements (in other words, a "dramedy"), Don Giovanni is based on the story of the infamous seducer Don Juan.
Kristine McIntyre, who directed last year's Carmen, returns to Kentucky Opera to direct this high-concept production, which takes Don Giovanni from its traditional setting to the post-war atmosphere that defined classic film noir tales, such as The Third Man and Double Indemnity. Recently, I asked Kristine about her own background in opera and how she brings together all the elements for a new concept in direction.
Q: First, tell me a little about your background: Where are you from? When did you first become interested in opera?
McIntyre: I grew up in Philadelphia and San Diego, and now live in Portland, Oregon. As a child I was taken to see a lot of symphony concerts, theater, and ballet but didn't see my first opera until I was 16, and it was love at first sight. I studied English Literature in college and during a junior year at Oxford I saw a lot of opera in England and Europe that was much more like theater and much more conceptual than what I had seen in the US. I was so fascinated by it that I went back to England to get a Masters in theatre and to study opera. I then spent seven years at the San Francisco Opera and eight years on the directing staff of the Metropolitan Opera before leaving in 2008 to direct my own work full time.
The first opera I ever directed was The Barber of Seville (which, ironically, is also the first opera I ever saw). So, yes, I come to opera from a theater background but also a music background - I play the piano well and the flute really badly.
Q: How do you come up with your concepts to guide the direction of an opera like that of the film noir for Don Giovanni? Does it come from close reading of the original resources and research of the piece, or is there just that burst of inspiration?
McIntyre: Don Giovanni is an opera I know really well. (I've worked on it both at the Met and San Francisco -- and directed my own production before.) The film noir idea came to me in a flash and the more I thought about it, the more I realized it was a good fit that brought out a lot of the themes and ideas that interest me about the piece. I often approach a new piece first from the text and the background sources (I am an English lit major after all...), but then I go to the music and that tells me where we should ultimately go. I spend hours just listening to the score, sometimes typing stream-of-consciousness style as I listen, whatever comes into my head. I often actually see the show in my head months or even years before we start rehearsal. I also spend months doing background research - in this case, watching lots of films noir and reading about the genre. I love researching the look of a period, and the social history that drives it.
Q: When you have decided on your vision for a production, how do all the pieces come together? The design, costumes, casting, etc.?
McIntyre: I came up with the concept a year and half ago - then when I was here directing Carmen last season, I had a meeting with set designer Eric Allgeier and lighting designer Connie Yun (who was lighting Carmen). Soon after that, I began having phone chats with Holly, the costume designer. Most of the design work was done long distance -- phone conferences, Skype, sharing files via Dropbox and other cloud platforms. Joe Mechavich, the conductor, and I started a conversation about how to shape the piece musically in order to get the best effect for this production.
As the director, and the originator of the concept, I drive the process, but I really welcome the input and creativity of others -- and they all loved the idea, which made it really easy and really fun.
Q: Have you ever had an idea for a production that was completely shot down, or is that pretty much decided by the time you sign on for a directing gig?
McIntyre: I can't remember getting really far with an idea and then having it shot down. It's usually more like "we want to do a traditional production of (fill in the blank) - are you interested"? And then I have to decide yes or no - or, given the sort of director I am, people often come to me with challenging things -- new works, 20th century operas, unusual pieces (sometimes I joke "anything based on a book" ) and say, "We want you to do this - how should we do it?" And then, that's a lot of fun.
Q: When a well-known opera is taken out of its original era and context, traditionalists are often resistant to "modernization". Can you think of a specific production where you thought the new conceit totally didn't work? What do you think the boundaries are and what should guide those kinds of decisions? (I seem to remember a particularly harsh review in NYT recently of an opera that was given a 50s-era diner makeover, but I can't for the life of me think of which it was now!)
McIntyre: The diner production might be Peter Sellar's adaptation of Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte (nicknamed Despina's Diner) -- the critics hated it when it was first done, but then it became a classic, and many people think it's his best production. I actually wrote my dissertation about Concept Opera and so I know a lot about the history of modernization in the art form -- and the pros and cons. I too am often skeptical -- I don't think everything can or should be updated or conceptualized. It's often poorly thought out.
And let's face it, bad opera is just bad opera, no matter the setting. But I also don't think we should continue to take the standard pieces for granted. Coming from the theater, I know that with Shakespeare, for instance, a whole world of possibilities exist -- sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but at least it keeps the pieces alive.
I'm not an archeologist trying to figure out what audiences and composers and librettists might have believed hundreds of years ago -- and I'm not a museum curator. I'm a theater artist, and my job is to tell the story. And that's the only boundary (other than good taste) that I really believe in -- do what tells the story.
Q: Besides Don Giovanni, who is your favorite anti-hero in literature, movies, or television?
McIntyre: Oh, there are so many! In noir, I love Harry Lime, the anti-hero of Orson Welles' The Third Man. Or Al Pacino in the The Godfather films. In literature I like the ambiguous cynics like Eugene Onegin or Jay Gatsby or Holden Caufield. Those characters always speak to my darker side. For TV it would have to be Don Draper in Mad Men -- I think you love and hate him at the same time.
Q: What projects are on the horizon after Don Giovanni?
McIntyre: My next show is a production of La Cenerentola for Pittsburgh Opera, then home to Portland to do a new production of Die Fledermaus. I'm writing a new translation for that, which is hard but fun. And the project I am most looking forward to is a new production of Britten's Peter Grimes at Des Moines Metro Opera.
Bass-Baritone Ben Wager stars as Don Giovanni and soprano Deborah Selig as Donna Elvira in this production, conducted by Joseph Mechavich. Tickets are still available for both the Friday night opening on February 15 at 8:00 p.m. and the Sunday matinee on February 17 at 2:00 p.m.
McIntyre talks about her noir inspiration for the new production in the short film (approximately 3 minutes) below, or view it by following the Youtube link.