Saturday, January 30, 2021

Meet Stage Director Brenna Corner

Brenna Corner, stage director of Don Giovanni

Seattle Opera checked in with stage director Brenna Corner to explore her vision for our upcoming Don Giovanni. Learn more about her artistic choice to film this streaming opera in black-and-white, and why these very human characters are so irresistible to her. The Canadian artist has worked as a director, actor, singer, choreographer, and fight director across Canada, the United States, and Europe. This is her Seattle Opera debut.

Content warning: rape; sexual assault.

Welcome to Seattle Opera, Brenna! You had originally conceived of this Don Giovanni for the stage. Now, you’ve recalibrated and envisioned something new for streaming. What has that process been like?

The medium of how we’re delivering this opera has changed. What hasn’t changed is the work itself, or my opinion of the character arcs and the story. We may have been forced to pivot. But now, there are elements of this opera that we’re able to highlight that would not have been possible before.

Tell me about some of those more intimate details you’re excited to show?
The audience will be able to more clearly see facial expressions, gestures, props, rings—and things that usually need to be the size of a small car in order to be recognizable from the back of an auditorium. In this new platform, we can explore Don Giovanni through close-up shots. We will be able to go on much more of a psychological journey than is typically possible.

My hope is that this production will capture what it feels like to be in the rehearsal room the final day before we would typically move into the theater, when the space is small and the action and setting is more intimate. This special view of opera is typically only something that singers, stage managers, directors, and other members of the creative team get to see.

Tell me more about the choice you made to film the majority of the opera in black and white.
I was inspired by a 1964 Hamlet on Broadway directed by Richard Burton. This production was filmed in black and white. It’s an extraordinary piece that really went back to the basics. The set gives a sense of place, but nothing too specific, as do the costumes. This allows the drama of the piece to be center stage and the journey of the individual characters. Giovanni also lends itself to this approach.

The one thing that live theater cannot do is black-and-white. With live theater, you also don’t have as much power to control what an audience sees. So we are choosing to lean into the unique elements of both opera and theater, and what they do best. Cinematic photography has a unique theatricality of its own.

I think this has the potential to be an extraordinary storytelling opportunity. With film, the viewer has the opportunity to become the statue who appears to Don Giovanni. The viewer can become any character. You’re not confined by the fourth wall. It’s exciting.

During the recording for Don Giovanni at Seattle Opera. Doug Provost photo

At Seattle Opera, we’ve discussed the idea of opera as historic “museum pieces,” and as living, breathing works of art. What are your thoughts? Most importantly, why present Don Giovanni in 2021?
I think there have been—and continue to be—productions where the audience is meant to be on “Team Giovanni”: He has lovely and charming music. The Don is charming and suave. In those productions, we’re meant to root for him, as the anti-hero, and we often laugh at the women in this story. For example, audiences often chuckle when Donna Elvira enters the stage and is very upset. But the thing about this masterpiece by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte is the humanity of these characters—there is growth and change for each one of them—except for Don Giovanni. I take that as a huge clue. This story isn’t really about him; he doesn't change at all. It’s about the people who are impacted by his behavior. It’s an opera that speaks to our grief, coping mechanisms, and responses to abuse. And this is exactly what I hope to explore in our production. We want to challenge the audience. Rather than getting the viewer to be on “Team Giovanni,” we hope to illuminate the human damage he leaves in his wake.

One of the tricky parts of presenting this piece is that our society has less of an appetite for comedy at the expense of women. In that way, our current times may play a role, but it doesn't mean we change the story itself.
I don’t want to overemphasize your gender. However, you are a woman at the helm of a story about a man who rapes and sexually assaults women. In reality, we know that women and femmes do carry the burden of sexual violence in our society.

Does it make a difference who is interpreting these stories?
I don’t know if it really matters that I’m a woman. However, I will say that it’s sent me through the roof when I’ve seen Don Giovanni, and they play out that Donna Anna wanted Giovanni to sleep with her, and then cries, “rape.” Particularly in a post #MeToo world, the idea of having a woman onstage who lies about being sexually or physically abused is not really acceptable any more. Mozart and DaPonte wrote depth and humanity into these characters. What’s at play with Donna Anna is PTSD. It’s fear. It’s not a woman who is lying.

At least at this moment in time, we need to make sure we are supporting the idea of women speaking out. I'm not saying people don't lie, but right now, we can't be peddling that sort of thing in our art which is meant to challenge and engage us.

Is there anything redeeming about the title character in Don Giovanni?
I think there is something. At the end of the opera, the statue who asks Don Giovanni to repent shouldn't feel like a demon. Instead, he’s more like Jacob Marley from Dickens’ A Christmas Carole: the ghost who asks Scrooge if he is willing to change his ways. In the opera, we have to to believe that Don Giovanni might say yes. That’s immensely important, otherwise, the statue is an idiot. Mozart would not have given the Don this option if there wasn’t at least a chance for redemption.

What do you personally love about this opera?
For me, it’s how beautifully Mozart and Da Ponte wrote heroic and flawed traits into these characters. The opera is so rich with the interplay and consequences of what it is to be human. There’s so much to explore to fully understand the type of grief of Anna or Elvira. In the beginning, Anna has at least been assaulted, and the fact that she’s not catatonic is a statement to her strength. It’s almost an obsession to defend her father, and to not be defined by what Don Giovanni has done. Ironically, by wanting revenge so much, she ends up being almost entirely defined by those events, and it takes her until the end of the opera before she has any peace. Elvira, who at one point, screams like a banshee from hell, is very similar. She’s immensely rational and immensely powerful. She’s there to throttle him. And, while she doesn't want Giovanni back, she still loves him and wants him to continue to live. That’s an incredibly mature journey to go through. This opera is also, of course a comedy and not just a tragedy. But I want to make sure that the comedy is at the expense of the men in power, not these women.

During a recording session for Don Giovanni. Paula Podemski 

What have you been up to during the global pandemic, and what are you most looking forward to about working on this Don Giovanni?
To be honest, I am so excited to get to Seattle to start delving into the story. I have been working on this production for three-and-half years: first I was hired for it. Then we dreamed it up as a beautiful, traditional stage production. Then we were unable to perform it at Glimmerglass (it was originally a co-production). It is so remarkable to be given this opportunity. During the pandemic, I have also produced a socially distanced film about the Canadian experience during World War I, and have been working with Kentucky Opera on their reimagined season.

What’s the art, music, or storytelling that’s been sustaining you during this time?
I am truly enamored with Hadestown, (a Broadway musical with music, lyrics and book by Anaïs Mitchell). It tells a version of the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, where Orpheus goes to the underworld to rescue his fiancée Eurydice. It was one of the last shows I saw before COVID-19 shutdowns and one of the most amazing shows I’ve seen. The interplay between the music, text, and characters’ humanity is so deep. I’m continually engaged by this piece. I’ve been listening to it a lot.

Don Giovanni at Seattle Opera streams March 19–21, 2021 for $35. Learn more at

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