It was during the same week that Harvey Weinstein was convicted that I found out about Kennedy’s “Don Giovanni”: “A notorious lover meets his ultimate fiery punishment in Mozart’s celebrated tragicomedy. He’s spent his life betraying women. Now, time’s up.”
My reaction was, “I want to speak with the actor who plays Don: Ryan McKinny.” I looked him up and contacted him for an interview. My first question for him was:
How do you understand the character of Don Giovanni?
McKinny: I think that there are a lot of ways to understand the character, especially when you have an opera that has been done so many times over so many years. I think, in this version, he's very much a person in power who abuses that power and is, I think, addicted to power — especially power over women. That's sort of my angle in working with the character, is really from addiction. …
It is interesting that you describe his behavior as addiction. How did this understanding evolve?
McKinny: I think a lot of that has come from our director, Loren Meeker. I've done this role a few times in different situations, and it's always interesting because it's a great opera. Her concept for this production is, just from the tech standpoint, how does it change what we do with our staging if we believe the women, if we always believe the words that they say? Which you'd be surprised that most of the traditional productions really assume, a lot of the time, that women are not telling the truth.
For example, Anna, in the beginning, describes being assaulted by Giovanni, and often the productions show her as actually really wanting to be in a sexual relationship with him rather than it actually being assault. I thought that was a really interesting way to approach the whole thing and obviously very current; what happens if we treat the whole thing from the perspective of “We believe the text that the women say?” So that kind of led me down a path of, "OK. Well, if that's true and he does these things in many cases without consent, where does that come from? Why is he doing it?" So, it seems to fit well playing it as a kind of addiction mentality.
Here, we took the conversation to Director Loren Meeker.
I learned from Ryan that you inspired the idea of understanding the character of Don Giovanni as an addict.
Meeker: So there's a couple of different ways that I think every director and actor, in this case, Ryan, can approach a role. And fortunately for both Ryan and myself, he has not only performed the role of Don Giovanni several times, and quite successfully, but this is also my second encounter with it as a director. And one of the things that we both agreed to very early on is that this kind of opera, this particular opera really needs a specific viewpoint on why the story resonates today, and within that, who Don Giovanni is. Some people have approached it over the years as a classic Don Juan, meaning that as a character, the women that revolve around him in the piece are more easily susceptible to his charms than maybe other interpretations. Some interpretations have looked at the character as almost sociopathic, that there's no sense of sympathy for anybody, and he's just in a mental state that is beyond comparison.
Ryan and I were not necessarily drawn to either of those opportunities, but rather in creating a character who we thought really resonated within today's society, and who also should be held accountable for his actions. So rather than saying Giovanni is sociopathic, which in some ways feels like there's no empathy, and therefore almost to some extent he has no self understanding of the outcome of his actions. We wanted to create a character that was more destructive, that maybe was an addict, to use your word, but someone in fact, who was very aware of the implications of his actions, and therefore helped to justify literally what Mozart and Da Ponte wrote into the piece, which is his final rejection of repentance, and his comeuppance, and therefore creating a world and an environment where we were justified and dragging him off to hell.
Can we compare Don Giovanni to Harvey Weinstein?
Meeker: So, interesting in terms of how to answer that question, which is to say for me, I think there's a lot about the character of Don Giovanni himself, but also of his victims in the piece that do resonate and have a lot of similarities to headlines that we're reading in the news today. I think he is a greater archetype of a predator, and therefore there is importance to me as a director that we created a production that did not single the character of Don Giovanni into any one person who was in the headlines or in the news today, but rather that we created a production that could be compared or contrasted to anybody that you're reading about. And certainly the judgment coming down for Harvey Weinstein does resonate with all of us, and of course impacts the way we view the production. But we were looking at many, many cases that have been in the news, people that have been brought to light by the Me Too Movement, and saying, "How can we create a production that shows that there's been a history of this kind of abuse throughout time, and allow it to breathe and feel historical and yet modern?"
Because I think the danger is always, say for example, if I were to do a production that just was fully modern and we costume people like Harvey Weinstein, and said, "This is who these people are," that the production in fact becomes dated quite quickly. Or it becomes too much of a pointed finger at a specific entity rather than allowing it to say this is more of a global, and more of a human issue that we have been dealing with certainly since Mozart wrote the piece, but that we have not found a resolution or answer to still in 2020.
So again, is Don Giovanni’s behavior predatory and based on addiction?
Meeker: So, I do think it is predatory behavior, and what I am fascinated by is … I'll use Don Giovanni's scene with Zerlina as an example. Their famous duet, “Là ci darem,” most typically is Giovanni entering in the midst of wedding festivities for Zerlina and Masetto, and cornering her, and then saying he will give her everything she wants including marriage. And typically, her character, if he's being played as a Don Juan, comes to that rather easily. She does text that says … “I want to, but I don't want to.” But generally speaking, the way the scene and the characters are directed is that often she becomes, over the course of the duet, a young woman who is seduced by him.
We looked at that same music, that same text given to us by Da Ponte and said, "OK, wait one second, let's look at the given circumstances. He is a man who is in an incredibly powerful position at a higher social class than Zerlina is, and in fact he threatens Masetto in order to make Masetto and the wedding guests leave. And he essentially corners her alone and says, "Here's my status. Here's my power. Here's what I can offer you." And then her text says, I had and now interpret “I want to, but I don't want to” as what I think many victims today are feeling, which is not knowing how to get out of a situation when they're with someone who is more powerful, and has their future in their hands.”
So I think he's manipulative. I do think he's predatory. There is a sense, I think, that could be gleaned from that, that there is an addiction to having that kind of power and that kind of presence over someone. So we have approached scenes like that through that telescope of looking at how the predator of Don Giovanni interacts with all of the women he meets, and makes some choices that are based on listening to the truth of what his victims in the piece are saying. And then directing, or enacting the scenes from that perspective.
The ending of the play, I thought, was confusing, because I saw that Giovanni was punished at the end by a man who he murdered, not by the women he abused. So, how do you view this scene?
Meeker: So I think that in our interpretation, the killing of the Commendatore in Act I, we all agreed was the first time that Giovanni had committed an act of murder. Up until that point, we think there have been lots of victims. I mean, you could use Leporello's catalogue aria alone, which says he's slept with over 3,000 women, as a list of victims to turn to. Although there are also, I think, male and female victims like Leporello himself, or Masetto later in the piece. Giovanni really is over the course of the opera increasingly more violent towards everyone around him, male and female alike. And so, with that in mind, there are a couple of things that we did specific to this production.
One, I wanted to give the production a sense of the history, or trail of victims that Giovanni has left behind. So we actually open the opera, and we are introduced to 12 women who are clad all in white, as if they are entities of his past that travel with the characters throughout the piece in order to help us get to Giovanni's final demise in the Act II finale. And what that meant for us was that here we are in Don Giovanni's world, which is male dominated, and that in fact it takes Giovanni having committed an act of murder for the first time, and the fact that it's a man who he has killed, that the Commendatore's death then becomes essentially the gateway to opening up this comeuppance, that we're still living in an era ... and actually, in some ways I feel that that's true of 2020 as well, where it takes a really powerful figure, sometimes a man, sometimes a woman, but it takes a really powerful figure to stand up and say, "This is not right. You can no longer act in this way."
And so in Giovanni's world, it's the killing of the Commendatore that then propels the Commendatore to open up the victims of Giovanni's past to force him to his final end. Now also because the commendatore and his killing happens within that first scene of the opera, we then get to see these women of his past also marry into things like the catalogue aria, or we get to see them explored as Giovanni is dealing with Donna Elvira, or Donna Anna, or Zerlina, or any of the women that he's encountering over the course of the opera itself.
So, we've tried to gear the production towards the death of the Commendatore being the spark that sets everything else into motion. So, we'll see them go to the Commendatore with those women, for example in the graveyard scene, or we see them in the catalogue aria. And we see them all come together in the Act II finale to help drag, essentially, Giovanni to hell when he refuses to repent or pay for his actions. So it's as if the Commendatore, yes, who is the spark for all of that, is essentially the guiding force through which all of Giovanni's past victims can hold him responsible.
Very interesting. You made me realize now that all of his actions ... it looks as if there's a buildup of crimes that led to the bigger crime of murder.
And this led to the ending of his existence.
Meeker: Yeah. It's sort of like, and I don't know that everybody sees the piece this way, but for me, what Da Ponte and Mozart have written is a dramatic action that takes place in 24 hours. When we meet Giovanni, his first action is to kill the Commendatore, and by 24 hours later, he is then being brought to hell because of the actions that happen subsequent to murdering the Commendatore. So, we use this 24-hour period, or the action over the course of the opera to literally be his last and final hours of comeuppance, that he's had a long history of abuse up to this point, and this is the turning point, or the trigger evening that catapults him from the death of the Commendatore into his being dragged off to hell.
And in fact, the reason I think that's important is because in the action that you're seeing over the course of the opera, it's clearly a Giovanni's worst day ever, or worst night ever. He is completely unsuccessful with any attempt to whatever vocabulary you want to use, his perspective would be to seduce. My perspective would be to put power over, or be violent with any of his victims. But he's completely unsuccessful in being what we are told is a Don Juan-like figure. And I think that's because this is really icing on the cake last ditch day for him where his world and his actions are unraveling before his eyes, because of the years of buildup that has been leading to this.
Wow. I can see it now. I can see it clearly.
Meeker: Great, great.
I feel that this is a message to all men that even the smallest crimes of sexual abuse are not something you can ignore because they will build up and lead to crime on a larger scale. It’s the start to a path you can’t escape.