Q & A: Skylark Opera Theatre Artistic Director Robert Neu on ‘Così Fan Tutte’s’ Many Virtues

By David Salazar

Mozart’s operas are among the most complex, but few have quite the reputation as “Così Fan Tutte,” which is often placed under a very critical lens for its rather questionable treatment of women (which is underlined by its very title).

But Skylark Opera Theatre Artistic Director Robert Neu doesn’t feel that the opera warrants such a reputation. In fact, he’s a staunt champion of Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte’s third collaboration together and aims to showcase why with his upcoming interpretation of the opera with Skylark Opera Theatre. Neu, who directed a modernization of “Don Giovanni” last season, is bringing “Così” to more modern times to give audiences a chance to see its characters in a more complex light.

Neu, who has also directed “Naughty Marietta,” “The Merry Widow,” “On the Town,” “Wonderful Town,” “The Fantasticks,” “Candide,” “Putting it Together” and “Don Pasquale,” with Skylark Opera Theatre recently spoke with OperaWire about the upcoming production of the Mozart work.

OperaWire: Can you talk a bit about the concept for this production of “Così Fan Tutte?”

Bob Neu: We are updating the piece to the present primarily because I’m interested in exploring how to make the opera less sexist. “Così” is often viewed so negatively but yet it’s one of Mozart’s very best scores.  In actuality, the women (especially Fiordiligi and Despina) are extremely strong and I think the men end up looking like idiots.  Also – back to updating – I really like to update pieces as much as they can bear. Not every piece CAN (or should) be updated but there’s nothing in “Così” that fights contemporizing it.  I think the more “present” one can make a piece, the more the audience sees itself reflected.

OW: What is the greatest challenge of directing this particular opera and how do you overcome it?

RN: The ending of the piece is problematic, da Ponte and Mozart leave it unresolved enough for it to be malleable.  It’s a piece that can really withstand being viewed through a contemporary lenses. And as we know, directors have given all sorts of twists to the end and have tried many different permutations of the final pairing of the couples.  I find the trick is to make the women on a consistent equal footing with the men throughout.  It’s possible but one has to be mindful of that balance.

OW: How did you go about the casting process and why did you ultimately pick the artists that you did?

RN: “Così” is difficult to cast because it’s a true ensemble piece and all six characters have a LOT to sing.  And in this case – opera that is just a few feet away from the audience – we needed to be age-appropriate and we needed the performers to be contemporaries (Don Alfonso is not an older man in this production – he’s a contemporary of the other two men). All the singers are people I’ve worked with frequently or are people I’ve seen perform many times and have wanted to work with.  Obviously, they’re all good actors and have appropriate voices for Mozart.

OW: Last year, you directed a production of “Don Giovanni” with its own unique concept. How did directing a Mozart opera inform you in terms of developing this production of “Così fan tutte?”

RN: Mozart is like Shakespeare – he gives you everything.  It’s all in the music – sometimes in what is sung, sometimes in the accompaniment, sometimes in the key signature, sometimes in the tempo marking.  It’s the same with Shakespeare’s punctuation and his choice to use iambic pentameter or another meter or prose.  And working with the other da Ponte libretti confirms that he also knew what he was doing and that he always produces three-dimensional characters.  This, in part, is what gives me the belief that the “Così” characters are all complicated people and not just silly men and women.

OW: What is the key to an effective interpretation of a Mozart work, in your opinion?

RN: You have to listen to what the music is telling you and you have to pay attention to the complexity of the characters.

OW: Do you have a favorite Mozart opera?

RN: I do adore “Così” for the reasons I’ve already said.  And weirdly enough, it was the first opera I ever experienced.  My other favorite is “Le Nozze di Figaro.”  That ending with the Count and Countess – it kills me!

OW: Looking at the Skylark Opera Theater at large, how has the style and identity of the company changed over the years?

RN: Skylark started out focusing primarily on operettas.  The organization eventually moved into music theater and some operas as well.  But there are already a lot of organizations in town that cover that rep; when I was named Artistic Director it struck me that the Twin Cities have a large traditional orchestra, a chamber orchestra, theater on a grand scale, theater on an intimate scale, large traditional opera – but no opera on a chamber-sized scale.  So we moved into that aesthetic in order to fill a niche in an already vibrant arts scene, and because I personally have become more and more interested in how opera remains viable in today’s world and I think that offering audiences a highly-personal experience is one way to achieve that.


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