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Opera Notes: roll over Mozart, "Don Giovanni" is news


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Amnon Wolman disdains the religious reverence required of modern performances of classical music. It's around midnight in an Evanston coffee shop, and the Northwestern University professor has just finished rehearsing his upcoming production of Don Giovanni (Revisited), an updating of the Mozart classic with a postmodern, pop-culture-laden spin.

"A young DJ recently asked me why do I want to deal with dead music," he says with a bemused grin. "And I told her classical music is not sacred--on the contrary, it's a living, vibrant thing that's open to many different interpretations. There was a time when performers brought music to the audiences, but since the advent of recording technology many listeners are familiar with works like Don Giovanni. Paradoxically, they have come to expect a standard and what they take to be authentic way of performing. They get quite upset when the musicians take liberties with the score."

Wolman's take on Mozart's dark and intensely psychological masterpiece--his first venture into directing--is likely to startle most opera lovers. Not only is the staging insistently high tech and unorthodox, but the music has been rearranged and all the characters have been condensed into two leads. "The story we are telling," he explains, "is the opera's subtext, the one that's hidden in the twists and turns of the main narrative and in the separation of characters. It's about the abusive relationship between a man and a woman--a man who's a womanizer and has trouble falling in love, and a woman who cannot decide whether to be victimized or to leave him. It's all very contemporary, touching on issues of feminism, sexual harassment, and addiction. The story is still the same, except my treatment is perhaps more liberating and relevant."

In rolling all of Don Giovanni's pairs of lovers into one couple Wolman had to cut and paste Mozart's arias. "Other postmodern interpreters only experimented with the staging and the set," he points out. "Peter Sellars, for instance, set his in a Bronx diner and used twins to portray Giovanni. That's a great concept, but he didn't reinterpret Mozart's music. In our case the music is streamlined through the use of modern technology to heighten the powerful inner struggles among the different aspects of the male and female psyches. I've rearranged Mozart, using him as a reference point in my commentary, just as the movies have abridged Shakespeare. In the opening number, for example, all the male parts are sung by the same baritone. Some of his lines have been recorded and stored in a PC. During performance, the recorded tracks will be manipulated and juxtaposed with live singing for spontaneous effect."

Up to now Wolman's reputation has rested chiefly on his expertise in finding novel means of musical expression through electronic gizmos. Born and raised in Israel in a musical household, he was not at all enamored with technology during his conservatory days. In fact, he decided to enroll in a Dutch university's computer-music program in the early 80s just "to find out how stupid the whole practice is." Instead he became a convert and ever since has been pigeonholed as an electronic-music maven, hired first by Stanford, then Berkeley, and now Northwestern (to oversee its computer-music lab)--schools that pioneer and popularize the use of the latest computer and video technologies. "It's a nice niche to be in," Wolman says, "because many of my colleagues are intimidated by computers. But I feel uncomfortable being limited this way when people commission me to write pieces that include some sort of technology. I see the computer as a machine, not an aesthetics."

Wolman prefers to think of the computer as extending the natural capability of a performer. "It's not about the mere manipulation of sounds. In my Concerto for Piano, Pianos, and Orchestra the computer is used to replicate on six other pianos what the pianist plays on one. It makes what is physically impossible musically possible. In the piece I'm writing for the German cellist Michael Bach, I program the computer to follow and stretch his muscle motions so his playing becomes even more virtuosic. I also tend to use the computer to generate a lot of noises--as if one's listening to a slightly scratched record. I'm always more interested in imperfections than perfections."

The soft-spoken Wolman sees himself as an avant-garde composer who owes an intellectual and ideological debt to the abstract expressionism of Morton Feldman, the political commitment of Italian composer Luciano Berio, and the contradictory impulses of John Cage (whose Europera V he presented at Northwestern last year during Cage's 80th-birthday bash). "It's funny," he says. "Here people regard me as a European composer because I'm politically minded, but in Europe they think of me as an American composer because I treat atonality flippantly."

A wry sense of humor pervades some of Wolman's recent compositions. For the local orchestra Symphony of the Shores last season he and a colleague arranged an endearing parody of Verdi and Puccini in which prerecorded snippets become a witty dialogue between the two operatic titans. And in Don Giovanni (Revisited) Zerlina's plea to her boyfriend "Batti, batti" (Beat me, beat me) will be belted out "Madonna-style." The chorus, he adds, will behave like participants in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, "voicing most of the wise and neurotic sayings in the libretto." He pauses, having noticed a jazzed-up rendition of a well-known classical piece amid the din of the coffee shop. "We hear Beethoven peddling sausages and Gershwin endorsing United Airlines," he says, smiling. "Even classical music has become part of pop culture in unexpected ways. If people want safe, familiar interpretations, they can go to the Lyric."

Wolman chose Metro's main stage as this production's venue. "It's a fantastic place," he says. "It's already equipped with the kinds of video and lighting technologies we need for our mixed-media approach. On the monitors we will have continuously moving computer graphics showing the opera's visual motifs of masks, statues, and rooms--sort of a "mentalscape' that conveys Giovanni's total spiritual loneliness. Some of the arias are prerecorded and synthesized and will be played back as if they were voices in his head. Both singers, Paul Krieder and Sunny Joy Langton, will be in nondescript modern dress. For the live accompaniment we'll be using a small orchestra of period instrumentalists, with one string per part. Their performance will be as "authentic' as possible. You know, in Mozart's time the audience was allowed to move around and chat with each other. I hope the Metro's audience will too."

Don Giovanni (Revisited) will be performed at 7:30 and 10:30 on Thursday, February 4, and at 3 and 8 on Friday, February 5, at Metro, 3730 N. Clark. Tickets are $12, $10 for seniors and students. Call 549-0203 or 708-491-5441.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.

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