Lyric Theatre's 'Don Giovanni' 'the right time' for Gunn's directorial debut

Lyric Theatre's 'Don Giovanni' 'the right time' for Gunn's directorial debut

Grammy Award-winner Nathan Gunn, the general director of Lyric Theatre at Illinois and University of Illinois Swanlund Chair professor of voice, has a new role, directing Mozart's story of cruel seducer "Don Giovanni." Staff writer Paul Wood chatted with Gunn about the opera, with a libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte. He's also alternating performances in the lead role.

How many times have you sung 'Don Giovanni'? I'm guessing quite a few, including your Vienna performance last year?

The Vienna performances were the best by far. It was a production by Keith Warner, a brilliant director from the U.K. Surprisingly, though, it was only the second production I'd done. There were quite a few opportunities to play the man, but it never seemed to fit in my schedule.

You're a nice guy. How do you channel this evil man?

The interesting thing about Don Giovanni is that he doesn't consider himself to be evil. He needs the attention of women or "he will die." Since I'm not a conductor, I thought it might be an excellent instructional tool to be on stage with the students. Of course, this creates many challenges, not the least being how to play the part of a psychopath and still be supportive and a source of comfort to the kids while they are singing. We seem to have worked through that and have fostered a trust that would otherwise be impossible were it not for me going into "the mouth of the wolf" (in bocc' al lupo) with them.

What made you decide you wanted to direct for the first time?

(My wife) Julie had been pushing me on this for a number of years. "Don Giovanni" is an opera that probably has the most bad productions done of it and I thought it was the right time for me to create a show that tells a story, albeit less vulgar, which gets to the heart of what Da Ponte and Mozart were trying to say.

Did you have a new vision of the opera?

Yes, absolutely. But my vision comes entirely from the music and the words. Don Giovanni's libretto is a dramma giocosa. The characters are meant to represent different social classes. Not having a nobility in this country, I wanted to create a situation that could relate to a modern audience, so I chose to set the opera in modern day and make Don Giovanni a man above the law due to his wealth and influence (which has been ill-gotten). His crimes against men and women are usually not shown in the opera; in fact, the only crime he commits during the opera is killing (traditionally an accident) the Commendatore (father of his childhood friend, Donna Anna). I decided to show the crime committed against Donna Anna in the first scene rather than not. It is a crime that completely destroys her: he takes away her father, her honor, her wealth and her livelihood. He leaves her completely vulnerable to the world and without resources. The other change that I've made is with his manservant, Leporello. When Leporello says something he means it. When he says he hates Don Giovanni and wants everything that Don Giovanni has, he is being truthful. Leporello does everything he can to undermine Don Giovanni during the opera while enjoying the perks of his position.

Setting the stage like this helps better understand the turbulent times Mozart and Da Ponte were living in. After all, the French Revolution and the blood bath that came with it began only three years after its premiere.

Also, it's the first time you've performed opera at Krannert Center since you were a student. What's it like to make a return to your roots?

(My wife) Julie and I are frequently featured Marquee Artists. We've performed in Krannert Center's Great Hall as guest artists at least a half dozen times and did a cabaret show in the Studio Theater as well. Just last month I sang with the University of Illinois Symphony Orchestra celebrating Mozart's birthday. This show, however, will be the first time I've performed an opera since graduating in 1994 and heading to New York to join the Metropolitan Young Artist Program. The last opera was a production of "The Aspern Papers" based on Henry James' novel ... a brilliant opera, by the way.

You're in charge of costumes, lighting, sets — have you had this much control when you've performed as the star of a production?

I've had some say over my own costumes and a bit of the staging, but nothing that compares to this.

Each role is double-cast — does that give you a little respite when you can watch from the wings?

Respite? What's that? No, it doesn't, but I suppose that's a choice. I am so invested in the students having success and leaving this experience with a new love for Mozart and his operas that I'll do everything I can during this process to make that happen.

If you go

What: Lyric Theatre at Illinois' "Don Giovanni," directed by Nathan Gunn.

Where: Tryon Festival Theatre, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.

When: 7:30 p.m. tonight through Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets: $18 to $93.

Info: 217-333-6280, 800-527-2849,