The Mozart-Dunster makeover

by Andrew Chow '14

Anyone who produces Mozart’s 1790 opera Cosi Fan Tutte has to tread carefully. The story centers around a wife-swap and makes some dubious assumptions about the character of women along the way.

Maddy Bersin’14, director of the Dunster House Opera’s production of the opera, is fully aware of this and has worked with the DHO team to reinvent the story for new audiences. As a result, the creative team has turned the Mozart opera into a slapstick sex comedy. The production runs 7:30 p.m. Feb. 5-9 in Agassiz Theater.

Cosi Fan Tutte follows two men who, worried about their fiancés faithfulness, disguise themselves and seduce each other’s lover. "It’s a really fun challenge for us because it’s musically hard as well as unbelievably dated and really sexist," says Bersin after rehearsal a week before opening night. "We had to think really hard about how to make it palatable."

Bersin and her team decided to transport the action to a living room in the 1960s in an effort to emulate classic period sex comedies like Pillow Talk (1959) or Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). "This approach allows us to be tongue-in-cheek about the content," Bersin says. "We’ve recast it so that by the end, the joke [on the women] is not so funny anymore." They’ve also updated the costume and the jokes—whereas the men customarily return disguised as Albanians, for example, here they dress up as hippies, with paisley shirts described as "heinous" by cast member Eric Padilla ’14.

DHO has a lot more freedom and comfort now that they’ve relocated to Agassiz Theater from the Dunster Dining Hall. In previous productions, such as last year’s Cinderella, the cast and crew were forced to set up the whole stage after dinner, only to rip it down again and start afresh the next evening. The more stable home in an actual theater has allowed Bersin and set designer Heather Mauldin ’14 to get creative with staging. The set is dominated by colorful panels of pinks and reds, which doubly serve as revolving doors to backstage. "The doors allow scenes to move in and out of each other very quickly," Bersin says. "The slapstick is really key to this piece. It has to have a mad pace."

And of course, the opera is further propelled by Mozart’s masterful score. "This is some of the most sublime music that Mozart ever wrote," says music director Jake Wilder-Smith ’16. It’s also a famously difficult score, but luckily Wilder-Smith has an experienced cast of DHO veterans—led by seniors Padilla, Amelia Ross, Allison Ray and Levi Roth—to take on the challenge.

While Cosi Fan Tutte may be challenging for the singers, it’s not mean to be challenging for the audience. "People expect operas to be stuffy and excruciating," Wilder-Smith says. "We definitely haven't done it with an elitist vibe."