Operatic History, Live, in “Don Giovanni in New York”

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Characters from "Don Giovanni in New York," an opera with a script by Andrew Bell. Courtesy photo

Almost two centuries ago, three musical icons joined forces in New York’s first Italian opera, “Don Giovanni,” at the long-gone Park Theatre on Park Row in lower Manhattan.

Sitting among the audience were Spaniards, Italians and, of course, New Yorkers — taking in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s famous score, Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto and the voices of Spanish bel canto Manuel Garcia and his daughter, opera diva Maria Malibran.

The date was May 23, 1826, and a few weeks later, they would reunite at the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Cathedral for a concert of sacred music — the same place that would stage the new opera “Don Giovanni in New York” 192 years later, to the day.

“It really felt, in a weird way, like we were transported to a different time period, because here we are in the very church where it all went down in the first place,” recalled Andrew Bell, who wrote the script. “The way the church was lit — and to have this massive altar presiding over this eerie ghost sequence — felt almost like this strange, spiritual but definitely eerie experience where you …”

“It’s like you were being judged,” interjected his sister, actor Ashley Bell. “You have, like, God looking down on you when these things are happening.”

“Yeah,” he laughed. “So that was weird. It was cool, but it was weird.”

The upcoming performance of “Don Giovanni in New York” at Bay Street Theater will certainly be less of a religious experience, the siblings agreed, but nonetheless an important one. On Saturday, September 22, the historical-based opera — in collaboration with Divaria Productions — will re-enact the events leading up to New York’s first Italian opera, while mirroring Da Ponte’s passion to spread opera in the New World.

Or, in this case, Sag Harbor.

“We both separately are in love with Bay Street and think this will be a little less creepy than the other performance,” Mr. Bell said, “but also just a great venue to hear opera.”

For four years running, Divaria has staged productions at Bay Street, with “Violetta’s Diary” in 2015 marking the first opera in the theater’s history, explained Ms. Bell, who founded the company.

“I feel like this is the most ambitious of the projects we’ve done before because it’s a whole original script by Andrew, and it took a lot of research and historical documents,” Ms. Bell said. “He came up with the over-arching concept that he wanted to portray, which hadn’t been clear to me. I had just been clear about the concept of Lorenzo Da Ponte grappling with ‘Don Giovanni’ and who he was, and wanting to look back at that.”

Blending selections from the music of “Don Giovanni” — which Da Ponte encouraged the Garcia family to present in 1826 — as well as an original script based upon Da Ponte’s memoirs and Malibran and Garcia’s letters, the Bells tell the story of the meeting of these three musical icons and their contribution to Italian culture and the arts.

“As a writer, I always felt like the librettists and the writers behind some of the great works of opera very rarely got spotlighted, except in the case of Lorenzo Da Ponte,” Mr. Bell said. “I think much of that has to do with the fact that, yes, he collaborated with Mozart on many of the great operas of all time, but also because as a person, he was uniquely fascinating. That came from this strange background that he had.”

Born Emanuele Conegliano in 1749, Lorenzo Da Ponte adopted his new name after converting to Roman Catholicism from Judaism while growing up in Italy. He became a member of the clergy and took a mistress, adopting an “almost Casanova-like existence” until he was exiled from Venice, according to Mr. Bell.

He landed in Austria, where he served as the librettist to the Italian Theatre in Vienna, and wrote the libretti for Mozart’s most popular Italian operas — “The Marriage of Figaro,” “Così fan tutte” and, of course, “Don Giovanni” — before eventually finding his way to the United States and bringing opera to New York.

“What I tried to do is take Da Ponte toward the end of his life, as he’s looking back at his legacy and creative process, and have him relive all the events from his past that led to his writing ‘Don Giovanni’ in the first place,” Mr. Bell said. “It’s almost like looking back at your legacy and trying to grapple with it. That’s what this play really deals with, and I think it in many ways goes above and beyond just opera.

“It’s really about why do we create the works that we create, what compels us to create them, and what are the consequences, what are the costs,” he continued. “It’s man, toward the end of his run, looking back at all of that and seeing some things through new perspectives, but also coming to terms with his past.”

From summering on the East End — where the siblings would put on theater performances complete with costumes, they reminisced — to now collaborating together professionally, the Bells are asking the same questions of themselves, they said, while striving to make opera more accessible from the perspective of a play and story.

“We hope that Lorenzo Da Ponte would be proud because his main aim in the end of his life was bringing Italian culture specifically through the form of opera to New York,” Ms. Bell said, “and we hope that by bringing this to the Hamptons that we are in some way following his footsteps and helping keep his legacy alive.”

The live opera “Don Giovanni in New York” will stage on Saturday, September 22, at 8 p.m. at Bay Street Theater, located at 1 Bay Street in Sag Harbor. Tickets range from $25 to $50. For more information, call (631) 725-9500 or visit baystreet.org.

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