Così fan tutte is Italian for “Women are like that,” more or less. And that’s not meant in a good way. It’s like the 18th-century equivalent of that thing where men let out a long breath and say, exasperated, “Women.”
In a nutshell, the plot of this 1790 Mozart opera, being performed by Arizona Opera this weekend in Tucson, is about two engaged couples: Ferrando and Dorabella, and Guglielmo and Fiordiligi. Egged on by their pal Don Alfonso, who believes that women are never truly faithful, they decide to test the women’s loyalty. So Ferrando and Guglielmo pretend to be called off to war, but then disguise themselves as Albanians (of all things) and attempt to woo one another’s fiancées. Very mature and cool! The women do fall for the disguises and the wooing, because they are so gullible and fickle. Because they’re women, and così fan tutte.
“In 2022, that’s not an awesome story to tell,” says E. Loren Meeker, who is directing the Arizona Opera’s production. She set out to find a better way to tell it.
First, she looked at ways to reinterpret the source material. She started by looking at the subtitle of the show: La scuola degli amanti. This translates to “The School for Lovers.” Not, “the school for dumb, vulnerable women,” but for all lovers. Because everyone has something to learn when it comes to love, not least of all insecure men who dress up as Albanians to test their fiancées. She also considered how, when the show came out, arranged marriages were common among the wealthy. So the couples we meet at the beginning of the show might not have loved each other anyway.
“While the intention of Don Alfonso was to ruin those relationships, what if what happens is these lovers go on this crazy journey together, and what they actually discover is what their hearts want, and what they as young individuals would like to choose for themselves?” she asks.
Another important part of reinterpreting the piece, for Meeker, was working with a strong team. She started reaching out to different designers to get opinions on what could be done differently. She found the people with the most interesting ideas had one thing in common.
“It was all women who were willing to reimaging what the piece could be, and get excited by what the piece could be,” she says.
When it comes to having a knack for reimagining old works for new audiences, it seems women are like that. So, not by design, but just by the nature of who had the best ideas, the show’s design team ended up being all women.
Scenic designer Laura Hawkes said this is exceedingly rare in the world of opera. In fact, it is only the second time Arizona Opera has had an all-female design team-led production to the stage in its 51 years of existence (and the first was just last year). But a roomful of strong women was full of ideas about how to bring a story she describes as “plagued with misogyny” into the 21st century—without changing the signature dark humor and beautiful music of the original Mozart piece.
“We kept trying to figure out a way: ‘How do we crack this piece open and make it modern?’” Hawkes says. “I think the whole country, and the whole world, is grappling with, ‘How do you inherit a history and acknowledge that history and find a way forward that feels resonant today?’”
Hawkes designed a set that is a large rococo ballroom with intricate, period-appropriate detailing. But the whole ballroom is surrounded by a literal stark white frame. It’s designed to give the audience the sense that they’re watching the show through a window, or looking back into the past. In Act I, when the characters are behaving more traditionally, everything stays inside the frame. As they evolve, things start to spill over.
“My intention is it’s like a museum piece,” she says. “It’s off limits at the start. We’re just viewing this perfect little symmetry world. And as the world breaks down, and all kinds of things happen in that ballroom that kind of throw a little chaos into the situation.”
Meeker says another unique feature of the show is that, as the characters and plot evolve, so too do their costumes, moving from period clothing all the way through to modern dress
“We start in rococo, and by the end of the piece, we’re in, like, 2022 wedding looks, so the women are in pants,’ she says. “I hope that visual motivation allows the audience and the characters to have a journey together.”
7:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 16; 2 p.m. on Sunday, April 17
Tucson Music Hall, 260 S. Church Ave.
$30 to $125
The show is in Italian and features English supertitles over the stage. Visit azopera.org for tickets and more information.