WNO Don Pasquale – Andrew Shore (Don Pasquale, Harriet Eyley (Norina) & Nico Darmanin (Ernesto). Photo – Jimmy Swindells
DON PASQUALE – JUNE 20 AND 22
A classic comic opera is set to be brought bang up to date as the Welsh National Opera present an exciting new version of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale.
The title character runs a successful kebab van and needs an heir to leave it to, but some of his family want to seize control of it and transform it into a vegan-friendly falafel takeaway.
Ahead of the production’s arrival on June 20 and 22, Norwich Eye caught up with conductor Stephen Higgins to find out more.
Why did WNO choose Don Pasquale in particular?
I think that David Pountney and WNO wanted to maximise on the success that they had last year with Rhondda Rips It Up!, which went really, really, well and excited everybody. They wanted to do something else that wasn’t a main stage, big house production, but was something tourable and, most importantly, up-to-date. Daisy Evans, who I have worked a lot with in the past, got in touch with me and said that she had this mad idea about Don Pasquale. I honestly think that the idea came from the fact that ‘Don’ sounds a bit like doner kebab. That’s the sort of ridiculous thought that starts in your head as something that could be amusing, and then just grows.
How did you approach reworking the opera for a contemporary audience?
I’ve worked on Don Pasquale a few times, and I think Daisy has too. It’s slightly dated if you do it in the proper Italian style. It’s a little bit cruel, with younger people being mean to an older person so we didn’t want to do that. We wanted something new, and so we came up with ideas that completely messed up what Donizetti originally did. Once we had made that decision, we felt that we had carte blanche and got a lot braver.
So the sets, music, narrative and characters have all been updated?
We went through the story to try to work out all of those gear changes. In the original, Norina decides to redecorate Don Pasquale’s house, getting new chandeliers and paintings and taking on 20 new servants. In our 21st Century version, we have Norina taking Don Pasquale’s doner kebab van, which sells nasty, greasy meat to drunken students late at night, and she turns it into a vegan empire selling falafel wraps. Our Ernesto is a wannabe singer/songwriter who wants to be Ed Sheeran and appear on X Factor so all of his arias and songs sound like slightly bad imitations of Ed Sheeran songs.
How was the show scaled down for a tour of smaller venues without compromising on the audience’s experience?
Obviously, a full-sized orchestra was not an option, so the first discussion we had musically was what to do about that. Would we only find venues that had an orchestra pit and just do it with a piano and a couple of violins – which is the classic way of reducing opera to fit the budget and the van – or did we do something else? We didn’t want to do a ‘oh, this will have to do’ opera, so we decided to integrate the musicians into the dramatic action.
How will that work?
The way that Daisy and I work is to integrate music and dramatic ideas together. We wanted to think of a scenario where it is actually believable that people would be playing instruments as part of the drama. We came up with the idea of people busking, musicians jamming together on the street and so on. The next question was what instruments and musicians would you find getting together on the streets of a large Welsh town like Cardiff or Newport after the pubs had closed? We came up with piano accordion, tenor saxophone, a couple of strings and a Miles Davis style trumpet, so that’s what we have.
Obviously, we have no big chorus to take on tour, but there are two big chorus numbers in the show, so the players are going to be the chorus as well. It’s a big ask, and suddenly we had to find musicians that were not only bloody good violin players, but that were happy to be in costume and act on stage while also holding a tune.
How do you think that such a radical departure will be received?
I wouldn’t have the balls to do this with The Marriage of Figaro, for example. Don Pasquale is a frothy, light-hearted, moralistic story, so I don’t think opera purists will cry ‘What have you done to this masterpiece?’. I think it will be slightly unexpected and a little bit shocking, but in a good way. Opera doesn’t have to be old-fashioned and stuffy. We all talk about the beauty of opening opera up to a new audience and finding a new, younger demographic, but if you don’t do things to shake it up, it will never happen so we’re shaking it up.
Don Pasquale, Thursday 20 June and Saturday 22 June at 7.30pm. Tickets £20-£23. Discounts for Under-25s and Students.
To book, log onto www.norwichplayhouse.co.uk or call the box office on 01603 598598.