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Houstonia: At HGO, Don Giovanni May (or May Not) Be As Deplorable As You Remember

Ryan McKinny will be wandering into the mind of one of history’s legendary seducers. Mozart and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte based Don Giovanni on the legends of Don Juan, the rake and rogue who seduced women across the world. The resulting operatic standard, opening this week at Houston Grand Opera, picks up and discards women with an abandon that seems unsettling at best in our current #MeToo moment. And even though his servant Leporello tries to warn him he’s living a terrible life, Don Giovanni refuses to be changed.

“I try to look at his justifications,” says McKinny, who says he’s happy to be singing the role at HGO, where he was once a studio artist. “Why does he think he’s able to behave in this way? And I think there are several scenes that can be interpreted in a lot of ways. In old-school opera, he’s just this great seducer, but I think that’s a two-dimensional character.”

McKinny’s looking to break out of that characterization, to see Don Giovanni as more three-dimensional. For instance, he says, Don Giovanni is attracted to Zerlina, another man’s fiancé, and he pursues her out of his own selfishness. But, he notes, she’s attracted to him, too.

“There’s a tug-of-war there. She wants to be with him. But she doesn’t. She thinks she does, but she says no, and Giovanni blows right past that no,” he says. “That kind of scenario is something we still find today.”

McKinny knows he’s not playing a good guy, and he’s definitely not out to defend Giovanni’s actions. But his character’s arc, and his tragic ending might surprise those who’ve seen the opera before, in which Giovanni is traditionally cast into hell for his sins.

“This production has a very cool concept behind it,” he says. “It’s a bare-bones set, just the outlines of buildings, with the walls filled in with projections. And many of those projections echo things that are going through my character’s mind as he becomes more and more dark.”

Those projections are the work of Luke Halls, who says he started conceptualizing his vision for the opera with Don Giovanni’s list of women he’s seduced.

“In the Champagne (‘Fin ch’han dal vino’) aria, Giovanni sings about the 2,000 women he’s seduced, and he’s kept a list of them,” explains Halls. “So, I started with this visual of his notebook projected on stage, with the names just scrolling. I made up 200 Italian names, 400 German names, and so on, to illustrate the point.” As Giovanni’s life becomes more manic, Halls says, the list becomes frayed and marred with ink spots, reflective of the seducer’s state of mind.

Halls was excited at the reaction his projections received when this production appeared at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. He’s hoping people will fold his artistry into Don Giovanni’s overall story, as opposed to seeing it simply as an element of design. He also hopes they leave the opera house talking about the morality of it all.

“I think that Giovanni basically spends his life trying to connect with people, but he can’t get there because of his own character,” he says. “Traditionally, he ends up in hell, but we do something we think might be an even worse fate.”