Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre gets sexy with 'Don Giovanni'

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About the photo: Veronica Mitina is fitted for a costume for the role of Donna Elvira by costume designer Janie Westerndorf for the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre’s production of “Don Giovanni” at Sinclair Auditorium on the campus of Coe College in Cedar Rapids on Monday, December 29, 2014. The performances will be on Friday, January 16th and Sunday, January 18th at the Paramount Theatre. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

Mozart’s take on beguiling bad guy comes to Paramount stage

The Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre is getting its sexy on.

That lothario Don Juan is about to seduce the spotlight in Mozart’s Italian spin, “Don Giovanni,” being staged Jan. 16 and 18 at the Paramount Theatre. The action will be sung in Italian, with English supertitles projected above the stage.

Seldom do audiences really need to read the lyrics to figure out what’s happening, especially with a story as well-known as the tale of Don Juan, a man who beguiles and betrays every woman who captures his fancy.

Don Giovanni is not a nice guy, but Christopher Burchett is exploring every facet of this character he’s portrayed twice before.

“You always have to find – even in the worst kind of people – something you identify with and then also something that can make the audiences like you, even if you’re really, really bad,” says Burchett, a baritone and Kentucky native now based in Appleton, Wis.

Even when he played the Devil in another opera, he says, “There’s something about the bad that everybody wants to have a little bit of. … But I think more than that, everybody in this, except for Giovanni, they’re kind of wishy-washy” as they struggle with their attractions and loyalties.

“Giovanni does not budge. Even in the face of death, he does not make compromise. If nothing else, you have to respect that. … He knows what he wants, he makes no apologies, and there’s something you’ve got to respect about that.

“That’s what I try to keep in mind while I’m going after all these women onstage.”

Veronica Mitina of Manhattan plays one of those women, the aristocratic Donna Elvira. Mitina describes her as “complicated, tormented, conflicted and very dramatic,” just the kind of character skin she enjoys donning.

“She’s a very interesting character to portray,” says the soprano who studied voice in her native St. Petersburg, Russia, before earning her master’s degree at the University of Northern Iowa in 2000. She arrived in Cedar Falls on an exchange program in 1998 and says she has “such warm memories” of her time there.

She auditioned for the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre in New York, and is thrilled to be tackling this passionate role for the first time.

“There are difficulties in the vocal part, and I’m excited to work on that,” she says. “I’ll be stepping away from my comfort zone.”

She says she’s more used to singing the big lines of Puccini and Tchaikovsky, noting that Mozart requires a different approach.

“But I’m up for a challenge,” she says.

Her role in “Don Giovanni,” however, is not unlike the title role in “Tosca,” which she has performed several times in the United States and France.

Both women are “very strong, strong-willed, determined and in some ways, emancipated,” she says. They “fight for the rights and the truth – I can relate to that.”

Daniel Kleinknecht, who will conduct nearly 40 Orchestra Iowa instrumentalists as well as about 50 performers onstage, calls the music “fascinating.” He says Mozart’s genius and “meticulous thought process” are displayed in his compositional styles, vacillating from peasant to aristocratic scenarios.

“It’s totally clear and feels like it fell from Heaven without effort,” says Kleinknecht, founder and executive director of the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre, established in 1998.

“Cedar Rapids should be very proud to have an opera company like this,” says stage director William Ferrara, director of opera at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Okla.

He has helmed several productions in Cedar Rapids, from “Rigoletto” in 2000 to last season’s “Carmen,” and loves having a rehearsal period long enough to “make something really vibrant, fiery and passionate.”

“It’s a fascinating story,” he says. “We’re doing a kind of edgy production. Don Juan, in search of sin, commits every blasphemy you can think of in order to get the Divine to show its hand. We have period costumes, but we’re doing sort of a surreal, modern take on that, with the spirits of the dead – his sins – pursuing him throughout the opera.

“We have wonderful masks and dancers, so it will be very theatrical,” Ferrara says. “It’s going to be much more like watching a really intriguing play – very active, very dramatic, funny, sexy (and) a little disturbing.”

He likens the title character to “this coked-up rock star” and a “vampire/party animal with no boundaries.”

“He’s like a high-wire act. He’s funny and he’s dirty and rapacious, but we love our bad boys. We are intrigued by him and we want to enjoy his sins with him,” Ferrara says. “He’s a very entertaining character. He’s fun as well as evil.

“I think combining the historical moment with a more modern take on some of the things makes it fresh and come alive.”

EXTRAS: Free preshow talks with stage director William Ferrara, 7 p.m. Jan. 16 and 1 p.m. Jan. 18, Paramount’s Encore Lounge

FOR KIDS: “Billy Goats Gruff,” free 30-minute performance by the Opera Theatre’s Young Artists, 10:30 a.m. Saturday (1/10/15), Whipple Auditorium, Cedar Rapids Public Library, 450 Fifth Ave. SE

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