Our interview with Don Giovanni director John Ramster – violent, beautiful dinosaurs and opera psychos

John Ramster is Don Giovanni’s Designer and Stage Director. An award-winning director, teacher and writer, he has performed and published work stretching from opera to novels to stage-works.

He began his operatic career assisting the late Clare Venables, then joined the Glyndebourne Festival as an Associate and Revival Producer, working on many productions including Peter Sellars’ acclaimed Theodora.

He took time out from his aria-filled schedule to chat to us about The Merry Opera’s upcoming performance of Mozart’s masterpiece at The Elgiva and to explain why it’s a must-see experience – even if you’ve never seen an opera before.

The Elgiva: What made the Merry Opera Company choose Don Giovanni over one of Mozart’s other operas – The Magic Flute or The Marriage of Figaro, for example?

John Ramster: Merry Opera very recently staged The Marriage of Figaro – it was a fun show but we like to stage a new show every year to take on tour. Also I’ve directed Figaro three times in the last two years and enough is enough! I love The Magic Flute too, but Don Giovanni is quite simply the best opera of all written by the best composer of them all – it’s got it all – drama, comedy and all that devilish supernatural stuff as well. It doesn’t get any better.

The Elgiva: What are some of the challenges in bringing opera to an audience with little or no experience of the medium?

John Ramster: We have to tell the story really clearly – but I like to do that anyway, for all my audiences. Opera at its best enters people’s hearts not their brains, giving them direct access to raw emotions, so audiences need to be comfortable, and for that they need to know exactly what is happening moment-to-moment. Audiences are very sophisticated with narrative now – they can sniff out the illogical instantly – so we need to be super-precise in our story-telling for opera’s magic to get to work.

The Elgiva: Do you think using an English translation makes opera more accessible?

John Ramster: Definitely – the communication is instant, there’s no barrier, it doesn’t feel like hard work, the audience instantly understands subtext, wordplay, jokes when everything is in their own language. An opera is a fantastic story set to fantastic music, there’s nothing strange or mysterious or inaccessible about that, and an English translation helps get a new audience to understand that all the more quickly.

The Elgiva: We love the image on your poster so much we used it for our brochure front cover. You’ve chosen to show the Don in the reflection of Donna Anna’s sunglasses, perhaps emphasising how there are two sides to his personality and how the audience realises these through his interaction with and effect on those around him. By putting a woman centre-stage, are you making a statement about the true hero of Don Giovanni?

John Ramster: The female characters are always front and centre in opera – as an art-form have always been very forward-thinking like that! How Anna, Elvira and Zerlina – three very different women – react to Giovanni is critical to our understanding of him, that this chameleon can be exactly the man each woman needs him to be. The poster is that moment of a man and woman seeing each other for the very first time, choosing each other, that intoxicating moment of instant chemistry when you know something fantastic might be possible.

The Elgiva: There’s a disturbing ambiguity at the core of Don Giovanni – he’s a womaniser, a rapist, a cold-blooded killer, but he is so beguiling and witty, the audience is encouraged to side with him. This brings great acting as well as singing challenges. How are you tackling these?

John Ramster: It’s bizarre and yet not at all strange how we are still attracted to these violent, beautiful dinosaurs- Giovanni might as well be James Bond, and the world still loves him. I think the Japanese know Bond as Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – and that exactly captures his appeal, representing both Love and Death, just as Giovanni does from the first minutes of the opera. Such men ignore all the rules, they do what they like and they are incredibly charming and seductive with it. We love these men despite ourselves. If you cast the part correctly, 95% of the job is done – and we have two truly splendid and devilishly charming Don Giovannis sharing the role on this tour.

As one of the women says in the opera: “I want to be with you, but I don’t want to be with you.” In loving characters like this, we learn about ourselves, Giovanni forces us to question our beliefs, even if only for us to reassert them. It’s not our job as performers to supply answers. We have to ask all the right questions and the individuals in the audience will discover their own answers, maybe very surprising ones.

The Elgiva: Can we expect any surprises from this production?

John Ramster: You can indeed! We have a few tricks up our sleeve, but I wouldn’t want to spoil them…

The Elgiva: Don Giovanni is famous for having several wonderful bass roles – is this a challenge for a smaller opera company? Don Giovanni is one of the few bass/baritone characters with a leading role, rather than the usual tenor. Does this, and the two other bass roles, give an added colour and tone to the music?

John Ramster: Mozart wrote brilliantly for lower male voices – the first Figaro was famously the first Leporello and there is a little musical joke at the end of the opera that has great fun with that. We have been so lucky to find some fantastic singers for these roles, but young singers want to have a first or second run at these famous characters so I think the opera itself attracted some of the UK’s finest emerging performers, all keen to cut their teeth on these fabulous and frequently-sung roles.

A tenor Don Giovanni would feel unquestionably like a hero – the baritone colours add some valuable ambiguity to his character. The two big scenes for all three bass voices are among the most thrilling in all opera.

The Elgiva: What can Don Giovanni teach a 2020 audience?

John Ramster: I’ve directed Giovanni a few times now and what I learned from it this time, more than ever, is that people are infinitely complex, that friendship can sometimes count for far more than romantic love, that the most confident people are rarely as confident as they seem, that everyone has secrets, that everyone has fears. I think I found out how weirdly vulnerable they all are, including Giovanni himself. And for Mozart to have all that contained within a piece that is so funny is nothing short of a miracle.

The Elgiva: It is a challenge keeping The Catalogue Aria funny and frothy for a #MeToo audience?

John Ramster: This is the aria where Don Giovanni’s servant tells one of his conquests that she’s not special, that he has had literally thousands of lovers from all over Europe of all ranks and physical types. I’ve never found it frothily funny, I think it has a lot of cruel humour, I think audiences might hate themselves for laughing. Classics get reappraised by every generation, Mozart is as contemporary and relevant now as ever he was – this aria was always cruel, and at least half the audience always knew that!

The Elgiva: If you were to be cast away on a desert island with a character from an opera, whom would you pick?

John Ramster: Well, there is an Offenbach operetta of Robinson Crusoe, so he might have a few tips to share! Or maybe one of the few operatic decent sorts, easy to live with – for example Masetto in Don Giovanni is just an ordinary guy in a weird situation. Or the Doctor from La traviata – he could be very useful, and hopefully his full medicine bag was washed up with him. None of the operatic psychos though – I need to survive on this island!

The Elgiva: Which opera star would you have liked to direct and why?

John Ramster: I work a lot with young singers – let me direct and guide the best of the new upcoming generation and I’m happy. But then, Maria Callas, one of the best singer-actors ever – to have worked with her would have been incredible. Chaliapin too, the great Russian bass from the turn of the 20th century – he inspired the great director and acting teacher Stanislavski to rethink completely what acting could be, a revolution which led to everything we think of as great acting today. How fascinating to have worked with him.

Don Giovanni is on at The Elgiva on Thursday 5th March. More info here.

13th February 2020