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IU Opera Theater’s Don Giovanni: Conductor Louis Lohraseb returns to Bloomington

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Aaron Cain: I'm Aaron Cain for WFIU Arts. The Jacobs School of Music Opera and Ballet Theatre are presenting Mozart's opera Don Giovanni. It's directed by Jacobs faculty member Michael Shell and conducted by Louis Lohraseb, who is currently Assistant Conductor at Los Angeles Opera, and who was a student at the Jacobs School not long ago, working toward his doctorate. I recently had a chance to speak with Louis Lohraseb about this production of Mozart's timeless Opera. Louis Lohraseb, welcome back to Bloomington.  

Louis Lohraseb: Yes. Thank You. 

Aaron Cain: So, tell me a little bit about Yourself. 

Louis Lohraseb: Oh gosh. Well, I was born in 1991 and my poor parents had about two, almost three years of normality. I saw The Three Tenors on the TV. No one in my family likes music—classical music or opera—and something clicked for whatever reason. And my hero was Pavarotti growing up. I got to meet him twice in my life, once when I was five and once when I was nine. I actually got to sing for him when I was a nine-year-old. And those are the roots of my love of classical music. So my career really began as a little infant with opera. And then, more sort of relevant to the story now, is around middle school I got bitten by the Mozart bug and was very, very lucky to get to study in my teenage years with a great Mozart scholar named Robert Levin. And I sort of went on from there and started playing the piano when I was six, et cetera, et cetera, and realized that the best way to integrate all of that was to become a conductor. So here we are. 

Aaron Cain: And in your career so far, you've conducted a lot of operas and a lot of them have been Mozart operas. How does Don Giovanni fit in compared to the rest of Mozart's work? How is it similar? How is it set apart? 

Louis Lohraseb: You know, we use the word unique so much that sometimes it loses its value, but it truly is a unique work. It is a combination of so many different things I hesitate to go with this comparison too heavily, but the Bach b minor Mass comes to mind, because that is a towering work, but in it, it encompasses everything that Bach knew about. So it looks to the past, it looks to the future, and it certainly looks at the present. And Don Giovanni very much does the same thing. We hear music that is reminiscent of Handel. We hear music that looks forward to the romantic era in so many ways. And then there's music that is just music of the time, gloriously done, and so it really has this cosmopolitan feel to it. In terms of the language that Mozart tries to use, and what he does with his own musical language, which is cosmopolitan in its makeup, you know, Mozart was a person who, in his infancy, traveled around the world, got to play and improvise, and show his compositions to kings and queens and nobility from all over Europe. So his music absorbed all of that at a young age, whereas someone like Haydn was sort of more of a, shall we say, a hothouse plant. He had his one little area—and was great, and a master in his own way—but sort of a different feel. So there is music in Don Giovanni that you will not hear in any other piece. And it's not a coincidence that many, many people—Kierkegaard in his first, I believe, published volume, a whole chapter, basically, on Don Giovanni. I mean, many people have said it's the greatest opera ever written. 

Aaron Cain: What does Don Giovanni mean to you as someone who was once a student here at IU? 

Louis Lohraseb: Well, I played the recits here at IU the last time they did it, I was the harpsichordist. And, in fact, I had to leave, and I couldn't do the last two performances because I had gotten my first professional engagement to assist at the Los Angeles Opera. So it means a lot to me to be back here doing this work. Both of our Don Giovannis, the gentleman singing the title role, are 22 years old, which is very young in one way, but if you look at. 

Luigi Bassi, one of the first—if not the first, I believe, Don Giovanni—he was 19. So there's this idea that this work really thrives on youth and vitality. The orchestra. The orchestral writing is just superb. So, having the great students here at IU, being a part of that, on the instrumental side of things is also a treat. I mean, it's such a thrill. And it's great to get a chance to really sink my teeth into a piece that I love so much and be able to really help shape it with everyone in a fashion which I believe is…is…”right” is maybe not the word, but how I feel the piece goes. 

And that's so special about what we do, is that, you know, I think if you're doing your job as a conductor, you are trying to make the piece sound right for the moment. And that should change, in my opinion. Every day. But especially with different people. But even with the same people. And I think we need to find the truth of what Mozart wanted and how we can bring that to the public today.

Aaron Cain: What's true about Don Giovanni in our current times, in this historical moment, that maybe wasn't true 10 years ago? 

Louis Lohraseb: Well, with great works, they are flexible enough to have different interpretations, and that stems from the genius of Mozart. He is also unique in the fact that he presents his characters so often without judging them. We don't feel that he feels a certain way about this one or that one. I mean, certainly there are clues in the music, but, you know, when you listen to Rigoletto, you know exactly how Verdi wants you to feel about Rigoletto, right? 

Or we're supposed to cry when Mimi dies in Puccini. How Mozart thought of his characters is something that I like to think about a lot. But perhaps that thought process, which is so embedded in the Society of 1787, doesn't really work for us today. And I think the big question is, is who is Don Giovanni? Do we extol him? Do we hate him? Is he a rapist? Is he an assaulter, or is he not? And these are questions that really are particularly pressing at the moment, and I think that the way we look at his actions, today, we would definitely say at the very least he has assaulted women. And I think the very, very intelligent and engaging direction of Michael Shell for this production doesn't shy away from that. As he says, we're going to show the brutality of Don Giovanni, but also show how nuanced this opera really is. Even though so much has changed in these past two years, this piece still feels so relevant. It still feels so modern and, you know, the struggles that these people are dealing with are so real. I mean, taking Don Giovanni out of the equation, making choices about what do I want to do versus what can I do with the money I have? Do I want a better life? What is a better life? Do I want security in love? 

Do I want security and finances? How do I deal with someone who has hurt me? How can I still want to be with someone even though they have shown themselves to be untrustworthy? 

Or is this person the right person for me? All of these things are so, so well presented to the audience. So I think that we can see these characters today with our modern eyes and see something in them that can help us, as society, be better. And I think that's what makes this piece still so important: we can use it to try and better ourselves as human beings. 

Aaron Cain: You mentioned that one of the things you like to think about as you're working on this piece in particular, but maybe Mozart operas in general, is how Mozart feels about his characters. So even though you may give a different answer tomorrow, and maybe gave a different one yesterday, how do you think Mozart feels about Don Giovanni as a character? 

Louis Lohraseb: Mozart was a very interesting human being. He was a man who had a great sense of duty and also a great sense of saying no to those duties and not doing what he was supposed to do. He famously wanted to not be in the service of the Archbishop of Salzburg, and so he got himself kicked out the door. But he still also had this sense of what was right and just. Raised Catholic, and those religious leanings are found throughout his writings and in his work. 

And this piece, we call it Don Giovanni, but it's the first title, is Il dissoluto punito, ossia il Don Giovanni [The Rake Punished, namely Don Giovanni]. So from that first title we understand that this is about someone who was wrong and got what was coming to him. And there's great debate in the community about the final scene, the scena ultima. Many people like to say that after Don Giovanni is dragged to hell, that should be end. Done. And there is some evidence that perhaps when Mozart mounted this production in Vienna—this was originally written for Prague in 1787 and then brought back to Vienna—did he cut the final scene or not? And I don't believe he cut this final scene. Or if he did, it was only because the tenor at the time was terrible and couldn't sing the final duet. And we know that because he couldn't sing the Il mio tesoro, and that's why we have Dalla sua pace, but we also see Mozart revising that final scene and trying to make it shorter, and cutting that part out so the tenor wouldn't have to do it. 

So clearly Mozart thought it was important. And not only that, the whole opera ends with all of them singing, “this is what happens to people who do evil.” So you can see that Mozart is trying to make a point, and yet he creates for his society a character which is very, very multifaceted and very charming. And if you read source material from how people viewed the portrayal of Don Giovanni, it wasn't as a villainous person, or wasn't as an abuser or an assaulter, but someone who was very charming. And people like to make the argument that in the very beginning, Donna Anna is chasing him out. He is not chasing her; sort of saying he is not keeping her there. And this has sparked lots of debate. But I think, at the end of the day, Mozart wanted to make a point with Don Giovanni about morals. 

Aaron Cain: Mounting a production of Don Giovanni must be kind of like performing Shakespeare in that it's so beloved, but also so familiar. What sorts of things would you say to folks in Bloomington—who’ve seen a Don Giovanni or two—to get them excited about this particular production? 

Louis Lohraseb: Let's talk in two separate categories: the musical and then the dramatic. 

First, let's start with the dramatic, which of course I'm not as well versed to discuss. Michael would be. But it's a brand new production, so no one in town has ever seen it, I believe. It is taking Don Giovanni from the 1787 realm and bringing it to the film noir of the 1950s, and Michael has made a great point that this works so well because some of the societal issues and ways of dealing with one another that were present in 1787 really work for that period of time in the 1950s. And I am a person who's often a fuddy duddy. I like what the composer said when he said it, and I think we can still gain a lot from that. But, that being said, it's been really rewarding to see how correct Michael is and how great they work together. So the production is going to be exciting, it's going to be new, and definitely you don't want to miss it. Musically,

I think and I hope people will be excited to hear it being played and sung with new life. I think what happens to Mozart so often is that, like you said, Shakespeare, we sort of embalm him and put him on a pedestal. But Mozart was gritty. Mozart was exciting. Mozart improvised stuff. You're going to hear improvisations. You're going to hear really raw music making. Come and hear it, it's going to be a blast. And to hear these great, great talents in the pit and on stage, I mean, you won't want to miss it. for sure.

Aaron Cain: Louis Lohraseb, thank you so much for stopping by and telling us all about Don Giovanni. 

Louis Lohraseb: Thank you. It's been a pleasure. 

Aaron Cain: Mozart's Don Giovanni, conducted by Louis Lohraseb and directed by Michael Shell. It starts Friday, September 16th at the Musical Arts Center. More information at operaballet.indiana.edu. For WFIU Arts, I'm Aaron Cain. 

Conductor Louis Lohraseb

Conductor Louis Lohraseb (Courtesy of Louis Lohraseb)

Not long ago, Louis Lohraseb was a student at the Jacobs School, working toward his doctorate. At the time, he was involved in a production of Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni, but a big opportunity fell into his lap while he was seated at the keyboard. “I played the recits here at IU the last time they did it, I was the harpsichordist,” said Lohraseb.I had to leave, and I couldn't do the last two performances because I had gotten my first professional engagement to assist at the Los Angeles Opera. So it means a lot to me to be back here doing this work.”

IU Opera Theater is presenting Don Giovanni, beginning this Friday, September 16. The production is directed by Jacobs faculty member Michael Shell and conducted by Louis Lohraseb, who is currently Assistant Conductor at Los Angeles Opera.

In his notes about the production, Lohraseb says that since its premiere in 1787, Don Giovanni “has entertained, delighted, stimulated, scandalized, horrified, perplexed, frustrated, or flummoxed almost everyone who has experienced it. By later musicians, intellectuals, and philosophers, it has been deemed the best opera ever created, and its influence and inspiration have been spread through many works and media.”

Recently I had a chance to speak with Louis Lohraseb about Mozart's timeless opera.

Listen to the full interview above.

More information about the production can be found at operaballet.indiana.edu.

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