The Brooklyn Academy of Music’s offering
to culminate the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth is, typically
for this forward-looking institution, anything but conventional.
"Don Juan in Prague," which had its world premiere at Bard College’s Summerscape in 2003, will enjoy its New York premiere Dec. 1316 in the BAM Harvey Theater as part of the 24th Next Wave Festival.
An adaptation of Mozart’s classic opera "Don Giovanni," "Don Juan in Prague" moves the lecherous and immortal rogue fashioned by the brilliant librettist Lorenzo da Ponte to the Czech city, which is linked to Mozart’s music in many ways: the composer lived there for a time, composing and premiering several of his works there, including "Don Giovanni."
According to David Chambers, the adapter and director of "Don Juan in Prague," there were many strands at work that brought about this production.
"In 2003, Bard College began its Summerscape festival, an extension of its Bard Music Festival, which concentrates on one composer each year," Chambers told GO Brooklyn in an exclusive telephone interview from his office at Yale University’s School of Drama, where he is Professor of Directing. "That year, with Czech composer Leos Janacek as the focus of the festival, the school also opened its new arts center, designed by Frank Gehry.
"So the idea was to surround Janacek’s music with events related to Czech and Moravian culture, and I thought of two things: Mozart, because of his relationship to Prague, and Iva Bittova, a Moravian violinist/singer/actress."
Bittova - who is playing the pivotal role of Donna Elvira, the noblewoman spiritually ruined by the Don - is an iconoclastic singer-performance artist whose closest comparisons are the likes of Bjork, Laurie Anderson and Yoko Ono. After hearing a single recording of hers, Chambers was transfixed.
Needless to say, Bittova wasn’t entirely convinced that she was the right choice for a lead role in one of the famous - and vocally daunting - operas ever written.
"When we first approached her, she happened to be in the States," Chambers explained. "She must have thought we were crazy: ’Why would you want me to do this? I don’t understand.’ She thought we would go away eventually. She was really baffled that we would ask her.
"Later, after we made a pilgrimage to Brno, near where she lives in Moravia, she finally realized we were serious. And at the same time, she was also looking for a musical change in her career," he continued.
Casting a singer not known for standard classical-music style was only one element that makes "Don Juan in Prague" the antithesis of conventional opera, the director admitted.
"By adding Iva into it - and although she’s not an opera singer, she sings beautifully - we’ve already unstabilized the usual operatic traditions," he noted.
"There were other traditions that we looked at as well," Chambers continued. "Instead of a full orchestra, we originally used a quartet, with the players’ music fed through a bank of computers and then digitally processed. It’s still Mozart’s music, but it’s a new way of hearing it, if you will: it’s been remixed slightly, with interesting-sounding tweaks."
Remixing Mozart’s music is something Chambers felt compelled to do in order to update this opera.
"I listen to a lot of electronic music - I love Fat Boy Slim - and the technology intrigues me," he explained. "That such powerful sounds can be made with a bunch of machines is interesting. So I thought that we should use that idea to digitally treat the primary sounds of our piece."
The string quartet Ethyl performed the music at the Bard premiere, but for the BAM performances, a Czech quintet, The Agon Orchestra of Prague, will play the reduction of Mozart’s score, having already done so at recent performances in the ensemble’s hometown.
Although not originally slated for BAM, Chambers admits to a series of fortunate events at Bard in 2003 leading to this month’s "Don Juan in Prague" Brooklyn premiere.
"Of course, premiering this work was a big experiment, and since there were some technical problems, I was prepared for total disaster," conceded Chambers. "But the audience response was overwhelming at each performance, so we relaxed a little bit. Then someone said that this production really belongs in the Harvey Theater, and we looked at each other and said, ’Why not?’
"Then, out of the blue, [Brooklyn Academy of Music Executive Producer] Joe Melillo called a few days later, since he had heard good things about it. And here we are. Of course, we have revised things somewhat from the original production, but, purely by accident, we fit into the Harvey."
"Don Juan in Prague" plays at the BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton St. between Ashland and Rockwell places in Fort Greene, Dec. 13-16 at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $20, $35, $50 and $60. A BAMdialogue with David Chambers takes place Dec. 14 at 6 pm at the BAM Rose Cinemas, 30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Place in Fort Greene; tickets are $8 ($4 for Friends of BAM). For more information, call (718) 636-4100 or visit the Web site at www.bam.org.