A Conversation with Eve Summer

Opera Grand Rapids welcomes Eve Summer back as the stage director for Don Giovanni. We asked her a few questions about contemporary stagings of classic operas, how Don Giovanni relates to current audiences, and her advice for first-time opera goers. Read on for her thoughts.

Don Giovanni
October 22 & 24, 2021
DeVos Performance Hall

What inspires you to create contemporary settings of standard operas?

Eve Summer Connection. When we release ourselves from the responsibility of recreating period appropriate movement we can focus on the essence of the story, and tap into the most direct way to communicate with our scene partners. For me, contemporary settings are primarily about removing barriers between the artist and the character – fully inhabiting them without a layer of period gesture, mannerism, carriage. Even just not having a bulky costume between you and your lover makes a huge difference.

The work we do in the rehearsal room is always so immediate and personal, and sometimes once we put that corset or those dress shoes on we lose just a bit of that natural vibe. I love feeling the connection to the characters onstage as vital and personal as they would have been then, and when singers are able to use their own world to express a story that was written in another, I feel that much closer to the spirit of the piece.

Honesty, warmth, and inspired truthful performances make me feel closer to the music than historical accuracy in production, and sometimes it is simpler and fresher to achieve that honesty without the layer of a period production, just people and their immediate response to being put in the situation their character is in.

We cut out a step—the suspension of disbelief to imagine ourselves in their situation, how might we feel? How have we felt? When the performers work inside characters they can truly see and know, the audience sees characters like people they see and know, we get closer to them. The experience is more personal. Perhaps that even makes it more dangerous, more reminiscent of our lives, and challenges us to see ourselves in their shoes.

Also there is something that just plain delights me about feeling the magnificence of grand opera pouring out of a world that looks like my own, it makes me feel like it’s truly for me, and I hope the artists performing it and the audience can get some of that good feeling too.

Can you describe Don Giovanni in the context of a contemporary setting?

ES Giovanni is the story of a person most of us know or have known – the story of a person whose relentless pursuit of instant gratification is characterized by a particular brand unrepentant narcissism without a drop of aversion to risk and how that affects him and every person he comes in contact with.

This person has always existed and probably always will. The story is absolutely the same, the characters are the same but in a contemporary context our artists, and in turn our audience, can use modern dress, props, and physical vocabulary to truly connect with familiarity and immediacy with all of the characters in the story.

What advice would you give to an audience member if Don Giovanni is their first opera or if they are considering going to the opera for the first time?

ES Go in with an open mind, just experience it, and ask questions if you have them! Opera can be SO many things. I think we tend to get either our first experience with opera, or worse, the skewed portrayal it gets in the media, in our heads and we use that to help us define what opera is and whether or not it appeals to us.

No one opera (nor no one production of any opera) can, nor should, represent the entire art form and if you are moved, entertained, or intrigued by any element of it, try it again! We all have our own tastes, and opera varies completely in period and musical style; in period and production style. Directing, acting, and movement styles, different visual aesthetics, and production design create vastly different experiences. Then there is the complete audience experience which doesn’t just vary from company to company, but even within the same company depending on whether you have an intimate up close event or a big show at a grand theater.

Consider your first opera your first opera, not an experience during which you have to decide whether or not you will be a lifelong fan. Let it wash over you—opera has a palpable energy that is like nothing else.

I would also recommend reading the synopsis first – even following supertitles and super clear staging, you can glance away and miss an important plot detail and start to focus on figuring out what’s going on, instead of sitting back and enjoying, so having a general sense of the story as a throughline I think is helpful.