Claire Nowak

MSO Opens Season With ‘Don Giovanni’

Production of Mozart’s opera to emphasize music over theatricality.

By - Sep 10th, 2014 04:17 pm
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Paul Appleby

Paul Appleby

First impressions can make or break a relationship, and with the opera “Don Giovanni” as its 2014-2015 season opener, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra plans to make an impression strong enough to keep audiences invested in this year’s concert lineup.

Considered one of the Mozart’s greatest works, “Don Giovanni,” opening Saturday, Sept. 13, tells the story of its dangerous title character, who murders the Commendatore after a failed attempt to seduce his daughter, Donna Anna. Making a swift escape, Giovanni runs off with his servant Leporello to find more vulnerable women and leads pursuers on a trail of lies and deception to avoiding being caught.

“[The opera] encompasses so many truths of human existence,” said tenor Paul Appleby, “combined with Mozart’s genius for the human voice and for setting words to music in just the right way to convey a story.”

Appleby, playing Donna Anna’s finace, Don Ottavio, makes his debut with MSO this weekend. After singing the lead role in the new opera “Two Boys” at the Metropolitan Opera last season, he is ready to accept the challenges facing him in “Don Giovanni,”which he calls “one of the greatest pieces of art ever created in the history of mankind.”

One challenge is simply working with the history and notoriety surrounding the renowned piece, which can complicate preparation more than recently composed works.

“When you’re preparing for an opera like ‘Don Giovanni,’ you are not just learning the role, but you are learning a couple hundred years of tradition of opera,” Appleby said. “I don’t just have the score like I would with a new work; I also have several dozen recordings of people over the last several decades recording it. It’s very humbling to participate in that tradition.”

MSO’s performance will stray slightly from that tradition. Opera companies put a strong emphasis on the production’s staging and theatricality. While the MSO cast practices a substantial amount of staging, Appleby said the primary focus of their rehearsals is the music. That includes spending extra time practicing with the symphony under the guidance of MSO music director and conductor Edo de Waart, who began conducting operas in 1971.

“Edo de Waart is one of the foremost Mozartian conductors living today,” Appleby said. “He has so much experience with opera and knows the piece so well and has been such a guide to us in the cast.”

One way he aids the cast, which features Daniel Okulitch as Don Giovanni and Tamara Wilson as Donna Anna, is with the rather difficult arias. Appleby considers Ottavio’s two arias, “Dalla sua pace” and “Il mio tesoro,” “poor-tenor arias” because every tenor attempting to sing opera is told to practice those at some point in his career.

“If you know how to sing those two arias, then you know how to sing,” Appleby said. “They’re very challenging, and they’re the kind of pieces that just about any tenor voice can get his voice around. It’s somewhat daunting because to a tenor, this role and these arias are iconic and just about every famous tenor that’s made a recording has recorded one of these arias.”

Appleby is aiding the production’s divergence from convention by steering away from long-held opinions about his character. Despite Don Ottavio’s determination to avenge the Commendatore’s death for Donna Anna, audiences and critics typically consider Don Ottavio “a wimp” because he stands in opposition to Don Giovanni’s aggressive, seductive masculinity.

After studying the role for several years, Appleby has gained a new perspective on his character that he hopes to carry into the performance. He believes Ottavio is strong because of his compassion for his fiance and concern for the values of his society.

“[He has] this idea of nobility and honor he genuinely subscribes to, and tries to embody,” Appleby said. “For him not to just lash out angrily or be violent and ungenerous to the woman he loves, for example, is not at all a wimpy thing, but the acts of someone who is acting in a way consistent to the values he professes to ascribe to.”

The intense vocal preparation will prove to be especially beneficial for Appleby, who will be performing the same role with the San Diego Opera later this year. He says he will be able to focus more on the dramatics the second time around,but after growing attached to Milwaukee during rehearsals, it may be hard for him to leave.

“I know I really like a place when I start looking up real estate listings,” Appleby said.

7 p.m. Sept. 13, 2 p.m. Sept. 14 and 7 p.m. Sept. 16 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets range from $21.50 – $81.50 and are available online or by calling 414-291-7605.

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