Scoundrel. Womanizer. Philanderer.
Pops of red painted on lips and emblazoned on suit pieces mark the trail of Don Giovanni, the serial womanizer bewildering women in the black-and-white town of Burgos in the James Madison University School of Music’s film noir production of “Don Giovanni,” set in old Hollywood.
“I love the role," said sophomore Darien Roby, who plays Giovanni on Saturday. "I love the way that Mozart wrote the role. It’s enticing for the audience to see this very narcissistic, self-centered person go about his adventures and quests and finally have to deal with the consequences of his actions over his entire lifetime at the end of the opera."
The JMU production that’ll take place in the Forbes Center for the Performing Arts Mainstage Theatre today and Saturday at 8 p.m. and on Sunday at 2 p.m. features master's and doctoral students who’ve performed opera professionally cast alongside undergraduates performing in an opera for the first time. In the same vein of old and new talent converging, this production of “Don Giovanni” is opera directorial debut for Jamison Walker, who’s also an assistant professor of vocal performance at JMU and a storied professional opera singer.
“Don Giovanni” is an Italian telling of the famous Spanish story of “Don Juan” about a dishonest man who cheats women throughout his life but is then forced to atone for his misdeeds in hell. The music for "Don Giovanni" was composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the version JMU is performing first premiered in 1787. The libretto of the opera was written by Lorenzo Da Ponte and the opera is performed entirely in Italian.
“I think everyone should experience 'Don Giovanni' at least once in their life,” Roby said. “It’s such a great opera. It’s an adventure that includes laughs and drama and action. It covers everything. It’s essentially a movie onstage and not a lot of operas do the same thing.”
The cast is made up of 25 undergraduate students at eight postgraduate students.
Roby said the role is not only his first lead in an opera, but also his first opera and first performance at JMU.
“The whole thing has been a bit jarring, but it’s also been really fun and exciting. Just learning everything from a beginner's perspective,” Roby said.
He said getting to learn not only from vocal instruction by McMillan and direction by Walker but also from the group of postgraduate students has been a valuable experience.
“Watching them and learning from them and how they build their characters,” Roby said. “That’s been some of the good learning points for me.”
The show features a live pit orchestra matching the vocal performers note for note throughout the show. It’s comprised of student volunteers from the school of music and conducted by Foster Beyers, assistant professor and director of orchestras at JMU, who serves as the medium between the performers onstage and the netherworld of the orchestra pit, coordinating every note for the entire show.
“We add musical instruments and a conductor and singers who are singing at the same time,” Walker said. “The directorial part of things I think is actually the easiest part.”
Though the opera is performed in Italian, Walker said anyone can enjoy the show, and subtitles are projected on an unobtrusive screen above the stage, so audience members can keep up with what's being said.
“It has tunes that people will recognize,” Walker said. “Because they watched 'Looney Tunes.' They know these tunes. Opera does require something of us. It requires a little work on our part but you don’t have to be a scholar to enjoy it. If you just sit back and let the music rush over you, see what’s going on, maybe read a little bit about it on Wikipedia beforehand, you will definitely hear things you’ve heard before.”
Walker said opera is different than performing a musical or a play because of the coordination that has to happen between the orchestra and the vocal performers. In an opera, timing has to be spot on, because the people onstage can’t always hear the orchestra while they’re singing, and likewise the orchestra can’t always hear the people onstage.
In those moments where performers can’t hear the orchestra, great singers have to go on their own counting of the beat alone until they can hear the orchestra again, said Nicole Jenkins, one of the most seasoned cast members in the show.
“You may not see the conductor and the conductor may [not notice you]. If I know there’s a spot [in a song] that I might be late or early, I memorize the counting,” Jenkins said. “Sometimes you can’t hear the orchestra. You just have to trust your inside metronome and you have to trust that you are right where you need to be. You just have to trust yourself.”
Jenkins, who plays Donna Elvira, a main female character who is scorned by Don Giovanni before the opera begins, is a fourth-year doctor of musical arts candidate studying vocal performance at JMU. Jenkins started performing opera professionally as a master's student at Brooklyn College Conservatory of Music in New York at venues like the Little Opera Theatre of NY. She then traveled to Austria to study under a famous tenor and became a performer in the Virginia Opera before coming to JMU.
“I had heard some of [Donna Elvira’s] arias before. I’ve worked with really great conductors over the years. A lot of undergrad students are learning that process of really feeling comfortable with the conductor. You don’t really perfect that until you’re out in the real world. You have to be ready all the time,” Jenkins said.
For Jenkins and other post-graduate students, performing with undergraduate students is about learning how to teach others to perform opera. Jenkins said she has the ability to mentor newer performers, while also learning how to pass on her knowledge, since she’s working toward a career in higher education.
“It’s helping me understand what I know, how I know it and how to best communicate it,” she said. "My skill with the conductors, I noticed that a lot of people were coming to me for advice on that because I’ve worked professionally before and I really understand that dynamic."