HE’S no opera buff, Roddy Doyle, but he’s spent the last year translating Mozart’s Don Giovanni for a new ‘staging’ by Opera Theatre Company. “An awful word,” he says.
Famously a music nut, Doyle has been a classical listener since his early days as a writer, but is a relatively recent convert to opera. “I don’t go out of my way to educate myself about it,” he says. “I don’t do my homework, so when I go to an opera, I don’t have a clue what it will be about. I go to enjoy the experience. I probably go to far less operas than I go to rock gigs, but, on the other hand, there are far less of them, but I do enjoy it.”
So how does one go from being a fairly casual fan to rewriting perhaps the greatest opera of them all?
“One is asked to do it,” he says. “It would never have occurred to me to do it. It was the same three years ago. I got an email asking me to write a book with Roy Keane and I was [thinking] this seemed like an idea worth exploring, but it would never have occurred to me to do it. So, myself and Roy wrote the book. Same in this case. I got an email from [Opera Theatre Company’s] Fergus Sheil. I met him and, almost immediately, I thought: I’ll have a go at that.
“When I thought about the Roy book, I thought: What can I bring? And I thought, okay, I have an ear for how people speak. And that’s what we like about Roy Keane: What he says, the wit in which he says it, the conviction and the authority he brings to what he says. The way he talks is one of the reasons why we enjoy the press conferences, for example. He’s a born storyteller. So I said I’d hone in on Roy’s voice and create it as if I was making a fictional character on the page and I didn’t pretend to be anything other than a fan. I approached it as a fan.
“And it was the same with Don Giovanni. I thought: What can I bring that would make it less foreign to me? And I thought, there’s the love of music; that I’d written the script for a musical, which is a little way towards the job; that I’m going to try to make it contemporary, so there’s no reason to be intimidated.”
On second thoughts, Doyle admits there was one reason to be intimidated: The sheer scale of the task he signed up for, which amounted to translating a libretto for almost three hours of music, consisting of 73 pieces with lyrics. It was painstaking work, gradually moving through the words of Lorenzo de Ponte’s Italian verses, line by line, progressing a few seconds each day.
“It’s all about character,” he says. “When you start really listening, getting inside the music, listening to the three women, for instance, you see that musically they are so different, because psychologically they are so different. You start looking for words that they might repeat that others don’t. You try to be psychologically accurate, but you find that slowly. That’s why first drafts end up in the bin, because they are so vague, but in the end the story develops, as the personality of the characters develop.
“When you listen and get in under what’s been written, you pick up on things. If you see an opera once, you might not notice the particulars, there’s so much going on, and it’s relentless, but when I began to look at it more closely, it became almost novelistic, and the music does that. I had to remind myself this is Mozart’s Don Giovanni. He wasn’t writing the soundtrack to the thing; the music is the thing. The words must always serve the music.”
Mozart’s opera is a timeless tale in some ways, dealing with such universal themes as social hierarchy, power, love, and hate. That said, it is also curiously timely, both now and when it was first written. The opera opens with a servant pining for freedom — “Night and day I slave away” — and follows a rich, callous anti-hero exercising his droit de seigneur wherever he may. It was redolent of a sick social order and, two years after it opened, came the French Revolution.
The year 2016 has some echoes of 1787, and it’s easy to see Don Giovanni as a member of our contemporary bogeyman class: The 1% of popular derision. It’s a side Michael Haneke picked up on in 2006, when his Don Giovanni, a CEO, is thrown out a window by some downtrodden cleaners.
Doyle has eschewed such specific interpretations, though he does draw parallels between the opera’s curious and oft-excerpted epilogue and the punishment, or lack of it, doled out to powerful, white-collar ne’er-do-wells of our own time.
“The story is timeless anyway,” he says. “You could say we live in a more democratic age, but there are those who perceive themselves as superior to others, because of their education or whatever and there are others who seem to accept that. When you take away formality of rank, those differences remain, and are either accepted or rejected. So Leporello is not a servant, but he is a sidekick. He’d love Don Giovanni’s money, the prestige, to be sexually successful. He loves and hates him at the same time. Those things are always there. It didn’t take much thinking about, all that. It struck me as being modern.”
Doyle has made a contemporary story, and also relocated it to Dublin, with some familiar settings, but anyone expecting what he calls a “musical hop through the streets of Dublin” will be disappointed. “That would be terrible,” he says, though he does allow that he has added some local vernacular colour in the recitatives and the more comic moments.
“But I wasn’t going to go out of me way to have this group of amazing singers putting on Dublin accents,” he says.
Fergus Sheil will conduct the RTÉ Concert Orchestra for this production, while Gavin Quinn directs. It’s quite a trio, though for many, Doyle’s name will be the one to raise interest.
“If I was pointing people to see two operas,” he says, “they would be Don Giovanni and Nixon in China, for different reasons. If you like music you are going to love it. The music is glorious. If you loved Nina Simone, or Aretha Franklin, the great voices, then go to his production. It’s just great, great voices. Musically it’s a brilliant, relentless experiences.”
Dublin Theatre Festival highlights
These Rooms, 85/86 Upper Dorset St, September 27 to October 16: Make space for one more 1916 event. Anu and CoisCéim Dance Theatre collaborate on a project that explores the rebellion through civilian eyes.
The Seagull, Gaiety Theatre, October 5 to 16: The Corn Exchange promise to underline how contemporary and downright funny Chekhov’s classic still feels.
Ancient Rain, The Olympia, tonight: Camille O’Sullivan, pictured, has teamed up with Australian singer-songwriter Paul Kelly for a work inspired by WB Yeats and other great Irish poets. One performance only.