Nathan Gunn Directing and Singing in Lyric Theatre @ Illinois’ Don Giovanni
Nathan Gunn, general director of Lyric Theatre @ Illinois and University of Illinois Swanlund Chair professor of voice, will make his directorial debut with Lyric Theatre @ Illinois’ upcoming production of Don Giovanni while also singing the title role in three performances (February 22, 23, and 24). The Grammy-winning baritone performed as Don Giovanni in Vienna last year, but this will be his first performance in an opera at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts since he was a student at the university. “Directing was always something I wanted to try, and this is the perfect place to do this,” said Gunn. “It’s an extension of what I already do on stage. I have to pay attention, listen to everyone out there. Directing is bigger, but when it comes to the performers, it’s basically what I’ve been doing for the past 24 years,” he said. Directing while singing the lead role in Don Giovanni is an even greater undertaking, though: “I don’t think anybody has done it before,” Gunn said.
Gunn’s vision for the production differs from the traditional interpretation of the opera. “Everyone has an idea in their mind of the Don Juan story (that serves as the basis for this opera). I have very clear ideas of what I think the opera is about, which is a little bit different than what other people think,” he said. The opera, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte, features the Don Giovanni character as a womanizer who murders the father of his childhood friend after assaulting her, beginning his descent into hell. Don Giovanni’s accuser is his manservant Leporello, who sings an aria cataloguing the vast number of women Don Giovanni has seduced. But, Gunn said, “none of the women accuse him. It’s always someone else saying he did it.” I believe, from my experience with Mozart-Da Ponte operas, they never left anything to chance. Anything they left out is for a reason,” he said, noting that Don Giovanni was written at a time of social upheaval. Gunn’s challenge was to portray Don Giovanni as a bad person but perhaps not guilty of everything of which he is accused. The Lyric Theatre @ Illinois production at Krannert Center will tell the story in a modern way, with Don Giovanni cast as a corporate raider who destroys the business of the Commendatore, the father of Don Giovanni’s childhood friend. Gunn sets the death of the Commendatore as an accident, rather than a murder, and the assault that Leporello refers to is the destruction of the business. The production also depicts the women in the opera as having power and choice, “far more interesting” than one-dimensional portrayals, Gunn said. The characters who are intent on destroying Don Giovanni use social media to spread information showing him to be a liar, narcissist, rapist, and murderer. “You get to decide, as an audience member, does the end justify the means?” Gunn said.
Lyric Theatre @ Illinois will be offering special opportunities for School of Music and Illinois Theatre students to explore the complex and timely issues of the production. Patrons are encouraged to attend the post-event talkbacks following each of the four performances.