Charleston Opera Theater planned to mount its first production, a staging of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s classic opera Don Giovanni, in March 2020. But then, for obvious reasons, that never happened.
“I wanted to do this back in 2020, and of course that just was not possible,” said Harold Meers, founder and executive artistic director of Charleston Opera Theater. The theater’s early life followed the popular refrain of changing plans to adjust performance abilities, a song sung by many performing arts organization across the world during the pandemic.
It held outdoor and socially distanced performances while biding its time. Two years later, Don Giovanni is finally coming to the stage October 20 and 22.
“What is unique about it is that, outside the Spoleto Festival, Charleston really hasn’t had a year-round professional opera producing company,” Meers said. “That’s what we’re attempting to change.”
Meers started his professional career with the Opera Theater of St. Louis before making a name for himself with performances at the Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles Opera, Glimmerglass Opera, and many more. He founded Charleston Opera Theater in 2019.
Another unique aspect of this production is its theme. Don Giovanni is frequently hailed as one of the most dramatic of Mozart’s stage pieces. First staged in 1787, the opera follows Don Giovanni, a nobleman and utter rogue. Giovanni is young, arrogant and sexually promiscuous, and his mistreatment of those around him leads ultimately to his punishment.
For this opera, which Meers said “highlights both the worst and the best in humanity,” he and co-director John de los Santos transplanted the action from its original setting of Spain, and dropped it right into modern-day Mexico. The show draws much of its inspiration from Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, the multi-day Mexican holiday that pays respect to friends and family who have died. Meers views this as the perfect parallel for Don Giovanni.
“The more I thought about it, the more I realized that there were a lot of opportunities to update and transport Don Giovanni to an interesting location,” he said. “Keep the heart of the story alive and not disrupt the narrative.”
Set and costume designs draw inspiration from the brightness and exuberance of Day of the Dead festivities. The holiday is not a somber one; many celebrations involve bright colors and lighter tones. The scenic design by Meers and Charlie Calvert will place several scenes in a graveyard. And masks, drawing from the iconic sugar skull designs, will be a central part of several scenes.
“From a practical sense, there are party scenes in Don Giovanni where everybody shows up wearing masks,” Meers said. “You can’t tell who they are. That’s a pretty typical thing for Mozart to do. Everybody’s in disguise. The Day of the Dead skull masks work perfectly for it. There’s a lot of energy and symbolism there that works really well for the telling of the classic Don Giovanni story.
“While it’s not our first production, it really feels like our inaugural production,” Meers said. “It’s the first time that we’re doing a full production with orchestra and sets and lights and costumes — the way opera was meant to be done.”
This Don Giovanni performance features a cast of nationally and internationally recognized talent. Baritone Craig Verm comes to Charleston to play the title role, one he’s played to great acclaim many times before. He’s joined by Rebecca Kyrnski Cox as Donna Anna and Brad Smoak as Leporello. But the cast isn’t just out of towners. Saundra Deathos-Meers, accomplished lyric soprano and head of opera at the College of Charleston, joins the cast as Donna Elvira. Recent College of Charleston graduate and post-baccalaureate artist Abigail Oldstrom will sing Zerlina, and another recent grad Brad Morrison plays Masetto.
In conjunction with the performances, Charleston Opera Theater is hosting a Festival de Don Giovanni from 3-7 p.m. Oct. 22. The street festival will feature food, vendors and live music free on George Street. It’s a big collaboration with The Charleston Hispanic Association, Latin Groove, The Latin Exchange Club of Charleston and the Historic Latino Club of the College of Charleston.
“The digital media can reach so many people and open their eyes to the art form,” said Meers, referring to the pandemic-era output. “But for those of us that are passionate about it, we know that hearing it live with your own ears acoustically is really what makes it special. I love the art form, and it’s an acoustic art form.”
Charleston Opera Theater is hoping this will be the start of a long life in Charleston, bringing the best of opera to the Holy City.
Don Giovanni runs October 20 and 22 at the Sottile Theater. Performances begin at 8 p.m. Visit charlestonoperatheater.org for tickets and information.
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