“A little still she strove, and much repented,
And whispering “I will ne’er consent”—consented.”
— Lord Byron George Gordon (Don Juan: Cantos 1 through 3)
Yes, dear friends, opera’s bad boy is back in Baltimore. Don Giovanni, the seductive rake, will be wooing from the stage in Chesapeake Chamber Opera’s performances this weekend in Bolton Hill. Mozart’s masterful setting of the Don Juan tale is both dark and melodic given to lavish musical gestures and yet playful at times. Jessica Lennick, soprano, plays the lively and flirtatious Zerlina. A peasant bride, Zerlina is one of the many love interests of Don Giovanni throughout the show.
I have asked Jessica to be a guest here at the Sybaritic Singer this week. Today she shares with us the process of creating her interpretation is this famous soubrette role. Later this week she will give an update on the process of putting the show together. Finally, early next week, Jessica will give us a wrap-up post about the whole experience.
Preparing for Zerlina – Jessica Lennick
I always tend to have this moment when I’m preparing a new role: I ask a colleague an idle question about either the character I’m preparing or the work it’s from. I ask something quite innocently, expecting a thoughtful response, and in return I get a scathing, “Oh god, I hate that character.”
It’s always an awkward moment—my response to this tends to be to seethe inwardly while gritting my teeth in a smile and saying, “Really? Why?”
I identify with the characters I play, and somehow I can’t find my way out of feeling personally insulted by this response. Hate them? How? These women are with me all the time. I sang Adina 4 times last year alone—she was the company I kept for fully half the year. It would be like hating a roommate, a recipe for total disaster.
I’m preparing my first Zerlina for the Chesapeake Chamber Opera production of Don Giovanni next weekend and I’ve had a barrage of these negative responses to various characters in DG. It doesn’t get less bewildering.
Don Ottavio is nothing but a doormat? Donna Anna does nothing but whine? Zerlina is a brainless sexpot?
I will never understand how a singer can sing a role without, if not loving the character, then finding something in them that they identify with. Frankly, it’s our job.
I come at creating a character in various ways, but my main goal always is to ferret out what the major beats are. In some ways, this completely circumvents whether I “like” my character or not. I don’t create a character, I create a journey. It’s my job as an actress to discover all the different things that might necessitate that journey. Out of that, I get a timeline for the character that will always serve me, no matter how far in one direction or another the characterization gets skewed or how far removed that character seems at first from my own personality.
With Zerlina, I don’t know yet quite which way we’re going in this production (though I know I’ll be a modern girl, which shakes things up as I’ll explain in a later post) but I do know that, no matter what, I have four beats I have to hit.
- I have to be willing to go with Don Giovanni
- At some point I have to be aware that the Don is playing me
- At some point I have to resolve or address what my feelings are for Masetto
- I have to address at some point what I feel about my fate.
If this seems vague, good. It should be. In fact, it should always be. As a matter of fact, looking at that (extremely arbitrary) list, it occurs to me that even this is mutable. But it is my first time creating this character, and those moments are a good place to start.
There are four places Zerlina needs to get to, and so many ways of showing it.
Take what is, for me, the most problematic moment. Zerlina has to go with the Don—likely to marry him. There’s no way around Là ci darem. As a modern woman, this can be a little problematic. I want Zerlina to be tough and no nonsense and uncomplicated. I want her to be moral! Falling for the bad guy is an evil thing to do to Masetto, plus it’s unutterably stupid from my omniscient standpoint as an actor reading this libretto.
Clearly, the Don is bad news. What is she thinking?
There are so many answers to this. The easiest is the historical point of view-a landless, asset-less peasant female is essentially worthless in the time period where Zerlina was created. Whether or not she has a genuine affection for Masetto is irrelevant. He just happens to be the best she can do. The Don shows up and, hey, who cares if the street-smart Zerlina knows he’s a skeeze. The slightest of chances that he might be telling her the truth about marrying her is enough. A life of back-breaking labor and poverty and an early death with a man you love, or luxury, money, ease, and longevity with a guy you may or may not be able to stand? I find choosing the second option completely understandable.
There is another school of thought that the Don is just so physically overwhelming women can’t refuse him. I find that to be simplistic and completely ignorant of the other class and sex based dynamics going on in the libretto, but it sure makes my job easy. Just be overwhelmed. Done.
An idea I have been toying with lately is that Zerlina does it to protect Masetto. I like this reading in a completely superficial light because it makes Zerlina “good”. But I also like it because it makes her conflict more pronounced, longer lived, and easier to play. The support for it is somewhat flimsy—the Don definitely threatens Masetto in front of Zerlina, but after that there’s nothing explicit until the Don actually beats the crap out of Masetto in Act II. But, take the implication of violence from a man with all that wealth and power, and you are a woman of the peasant class with nothing to offer but your body…
Well, it certainly makes for a lot of drama and a lot of decisions.
Bless you, all of this will all depend on my colleagues and how they conceive their characters, and the work we do with our director, Jake Feldman, over the course of the week. But these options give me an arsenal of decisions to make and places to go on my journey as Zerlina. I can go anywhere with my colleagues in the next week, because I have already thought of multiple ways to get there.
Look for another post later in the week which will include: fun with drugs, collaboration anecdotes, and general rumination on Don Giovanni.
Soprano Jessica Lennick prides herself on being able to stay busy. She is looking forward to her role debut as Zerlina in Don Giovanni with Chesapeake Chamber Opera in April 2011 and just finished premiering the role of Angeline in Mike Dutka’s Crowded House at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival in September 2010. Information about other events and her varied career can be found at www.jessicalennick.com