British-Australian bass-baritone Duncan Rock is soon to take on his seventh Don Giovanni for Opera Queensland’s upcoming new production, directed by Lindy Hume and set in Victorian England. One of his calling card roles, he has appeared in the part to acclaim around the world, most notably at Boston Lyric Opera in 2015, where one critic said, “From his fervently shaped Là ci darem la mano to his exuberant Fin ch’han dal vino, Rock’s Don Giovanni is a life force, comic, witty, intelligent, never mean-spirited.” Starting out as a chorus member with West Australian Opera, Rock has since sung at the Metropolitan Opera, Royal Opera House and English National Opera. This interview was given in the second week of rehearsals for Don Giovanni.

Duncan Rock in Don Giovanni. Photo supplied 

You obviously consider Don Giovanni a signature role by now. Was it always a natural fit for your particular voice?  

Actually, it wasn’t. I always thought I would sing the role of Leporello. His big Catalogue Aria is one of the pieces I sang way back in 2006 when I won the Australian Singing Competition, the Mathy Award, because my voice always sat in a slightly lower position which I always thought was more suitable for Leporello. And when I first auditioned for my first production of Don Giovanni, the first one I ever did in England, I actually auditioned for the role of Leporello and it was the director who sort of convinced me that I’d be better off singing Giovanni. And actually I think now my voice has become a little bit higher, which is more appropriate for Giovanni. But some people do sing both so hopefully one day I’ll get a chance to do Leporello as I do like doing comic roles. For now, this is my seventh Don Giovanni so I think people see me as that at the moment.

Do you remember your first encounter with the opera?

The first time I saw it was actually at the West Australian Opera. I sang in the chorus for two other pieces that year, I think it was Magic Flute and Nabucco, but it was Don Giovanni I really wanted to participate in because it was the one I was most interested in. But the production I think was brought over from Opera Australia and I was too big for all the costumes, so they said, look we don’t want to just make a new costume for this guy. I wasn’t able to do it simply because the costumes didn’t fit me! [Laughs] But I did see it as an audience member and was quite taken. It’s an incredible piece.

Did you seek out recordings after that experience?

I did but because I was so drawn to the story. I find the characters so vivid and I do love the slightly morally ambiguous nature of the piece. All the characters are entirely human and flawed, and I found it very interesting as a piece of theatre. But early on in my musical career I was initially taken with more of the verismo style opera. The Mozart, I guess I found the recitatives a bit strange as someone who didn’t really understand what was going on. But then after listening to a few recordings of Giovanni, I started to get more used to the sound world of Mozart, going from arias to duets into recitative, and started to love it. I do think the finale of Act 2, the scene with the Commendatore, is just one of the most incredible pieces of music ever written. And I remember I used to listen to it at the gym to get motivated!

Duncan Rock. Photo supplied

So do you have favourite interpreters of the title role?

I do. It’s such a chameleon style role that different singers tend to focus on different elements. I was singing at Glyndebourne with Gerald Findley. He’s probably my favourite singer so it was quite special to be able to see him do it – and particularly do it as a slightly older Giovanni, he was already well into his 50s when he it did at Glyndebourne – to see the different quality that he brought to it. But I think maybe my favourite Giovanni overall is the American baritone Rodney Gilfry. He was just the most phenomenal singing actor and had such a vicious, very dangerous portrayal of the role which I think is really compelling.

Do you always have an idea of who Giovanni is, or is that dependent on the production and director’s vision?

I think it has to be malleable. I’ve done productions that have pushed it in quite difficult directions, where we’ve almost made Giovanni a bit of a victim. I think in this production, I don’t want to give the game away, but I think we’ve been a little bit more unambiguous in this production. He’s a lot nastier, intentionally so, and I think a lot of it hinges on that very first scene and if he does indeed assault or rape Anna and then murder the Commendatore in cold blood – everything sort of flows from that. Whereas there is some space in the libretto for opening up interpretation – it’s possible that Anna was complicit in that first encounter and goes on to spend the rest of the opera essentially lying to cover up for her lost virtue. Once I did a production where the man who sang the Commendatore was a gigantic eastern European bass who looked like he could crush me with his bare hands, and so it almost became like he attacked me and I was acting in self-defence. So one has to be malleable.

This production sets the action in Victorian London. How does that affect your interpretation?

It’s very poignant putting it in that setting because I think it’s one we’re all quite familiar with. There’s a slight undercurrent of Jack the Ripper in this version of Don Giovanni because Jack the Ripper by all accounts was probably a man who was quite respected in society, who engaged in the sort of dark, underbelly of Victorian London where you have this facade of aristocracy but then opium dens on every street corner and prostitutes and murder. It was quite lawless, but you had to scratch beneath the surface to get there. I think that suits Giovanni very well. He keeps this facade of being a gentleman but actually what’s going on underneath is his true character.

Does the role still hold surprises for you?

I had the good fortune of being mentored by Thomas Allen, maybe the greatest interpreter of Don Giovanni, and he said to me: “I’ve sung this role in over 30 productions and every time I did it I learnt something new.” The character is so complex and interesting. Each time you do it you can find a slightly new character. I hope every time I do it becomes slightly better, slightly more interesting. I hope I can do it for the next 20 years, it’s a gift to be able to play such an incredible role.

You mention the first scene with the killing of the Commendatore as being key to what kind of Don Giovanni you present onstage. Are there other scenes that are just as important in helping you understand the character?

The only time you see Giovanni onstage alone is when he’s singing the Serenade. I always get the feeling that – I’ve sort of been mocked for this but I’m going to give it a go – I always feel that he has this tofu quality to him. He changes his flavour according to what’s around him. I think he’s a slightly soulless character. He’s always reacting to what he wants from those around him and as such he doesn’t have his own musical theme. Leporello does, Elvira does. He sort of takes the musical character of those around him, whereas in the Serenade he’s there by himself and depending on how you play it, it can be just a little ditty to seduce a maiden on a balcony or it can be kind of bleak if he’s there by himself singing a love song to which no one responds.


Opera Queensland’s Don Giovanni is at QPAC, October 19 – November 3

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Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine