‘It’s About Time:’ Director Michael Cavanagh on Making ‘Così fan tutte’ for the 21st Century

Michael Cavanagh

“I was always kind of a rebellious child,” Cavanagh concedes. But behind the Canada jokes and his quick, easy laugh, there’s a deeper discourse brewing: one about national identity and the forces that shape it.

That’s what brought him back to San Francisco. In November, he’s set to unveil the second chapter in a trilogy of his own making, weaving together the three disparate operas written by composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and poet Lorenzo Da Ponte: The Marriage of Figaro, Così fan tutte, and Don Giovanni.

But these operas are united by more than their authors. In Cavanagh’s trilogy, they share a setting, a great American manor house that rises and falls over the course of U.S. history.

It’s a meditation on identity, and identity was front and center when Cavanagh recently spoke to San Francisco Opera by telephone. The son of a German utilities worker and a trade commissioner from the United Kingdom, Cavanagh grew up steeped in music.

Both of his parents were amateur singers, and they encouraged Cavanagh to enroll in church and school choirs. Singing was simply a part of everyday life. “Of course everybody's in five choirs. Isn't everyone? That was just my reality. I didn't know what normal was,” he quips.

It was through choir that Cavanagh found his entrée into opera. He would be among the child choristers recruited to scamper around local productions of Tosca, Carmen, or La Bohème. “The very first three or four operas I ever saw, I was in.”

Cavanagh grew into what he jokingly calls a “necktie tenor,” touring with an a capella group called the Easy T’s and performing on the long-running Canadian TV series Hymn Sing. Performance was his career—and Cavanagh, then in his 20s, decided he needed to take it more seriously. He moved to Hamburg, Germany, to attend private lessons and refine his craft.

His nights there often ended at the same destination: the Hamburg State Opera. Cavanagh says he watched every opera he could. And while his singer-friends dissected the vocal techniques and vowel placements, Cavanagh found himself drawn to cumulative effect of each production.

“It slowly dawned on me over that season that I'm maybe in the wrong end of the right business,” Cavanagh recalls. He fired off a letter to Irving Guttman, a prominent Canadian opera director, asking for advice about how to be a director too. Guttman would ultimately serve as his mentor, shepherding him to opportunities.

In the early days, Cavanagh produced his own shows, hiring friends and performing at fringe festivals. “I even sang in a few of them,” he says. His path to directing came through practical experience, rather than a degree program.

“I love learning new things, but I'm not great at being taught. You just have to go back to my high school transcripts. I barely passed high school and I'm not embarrassed to say it,” he says.

But after a while, professional contracts started coming his way. After a lifetime under the thumb of sports coaches, opera directors and chorus masters, Cavanagh was finally in charge. It felt freeing. Soon, he was directing shows like San Francisco Opera’s 2012 Nixon in China and 2014’s Susannah.

Most recently, in 2020, Cavanagh was appointed the artistic director of the Royal Swedish Opera. He commuted from Stockholm this October to embark on the second chapter of his Mozart-Da Ponte trilogy, Così fan tutte.

His production is set in the 1930s, in an America at a crossroads: The United States is emerging from the Great Depression only to find itself on the precipice of World War II.

Against this geopolitical drama unfolds a comedy of manners. The story centers on a pair of soldiers who gamble on their fiancées’ fidelity. To test the women, the men disguise themselves and attempt a seduction.

The misogyny in its premise has dogged Così fan tutte since its inception. As he prepares to embark on his all-new production, Cavanagh shares how he plans to explore American identity through the work—and confront its challenging legacy.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Do you ever worry, as a Canadian, about being perceived as critical of the United States?

CAVANAGH: I can't say I was ever worried about it, in the sense that I thought I shouldn't do it, you know? Maybe that's part of my Canadian-ness as well. We’re used to being outsiders. We’re used to being from elsewhere, and the elsewhere-ness of our country is built-in.

The trilogy is presented not in any way as a criticism. It's actually not even a series of statements but a series of questions. Where do we come from? Where do we go from here? And what happens if we ignore the consequences of our actions, right?

My job as a storyteller is not to provide answers but to present the most pertinent questions about a piece. There’s gonna be—I don't know—how many seats in the house? Thirty-two hundred?

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Something around that. [The War Memorial Opera House currently holds 3,006 seats.]

CAVANAGH: Let’s call it thousands. So there are thousands of people in the audience. There's going to be thousands of opinions about what they're seeing.

People who are presenting productions and who try to package a message and say, “This is the way the world is”—I’m not going to say they’re doomed to failure, but they lessen the experience. Because you're dictating to the audience.

I'd much rather gently nudge the audience into pondering things. What were the founding values of this great national experiment? And how has it affected our way of organizing ourselves into this new version of democracy? What does it mean for everybody in our society?

And then in Così fan tutte, what’s the difference between what I think I'm supposed to be doing and what I really want? That's what these individual characters go through in Così. It's the push and pull between private desires and public obligations.

America in the late 1930s was emerging out of the Depression, the winds of war swirling in Europe. So there was a big debate in the U.S. Does it retreat into this kind of nationalistic shell? Or does it reemerge out onto the world stage and try to actualize its potential for world leadership?

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: There are so many threads that connect these three operas, even though they're separate operas. There’s the satire. There’s the class discussion. But perhaps less obvious is that there's a thread of misogyny that goes through each one.

[In The Marriage of Figaro, a count tries to coerce his maid into a sexual relationship. The opening of Don Giovanni, meanwhile, is often depicted as an attempted rape, followed by a murder.]

You have to tackle these very heavy topics, oftentimes in comedic form. How do you do that as a director?

CAVANAGH: How many hours do you have for me to talk about that? Let's start with Figaro. Figaro and Don Giovanni are similarly easier. I'm not going to say they're easy, but there's easier to deal with because of the comeuppances.

The count [in The Marriage of Figaro] was never portrayed as any kind of a hero—and the way we presented him was like a big baby for comedic effect. He is definitely held to account.

Don Giovanni is all about consequence, and it's all about finality, the repercussions of your choices. And Don Giovanni’s choices are unacceptable to us. And sure enough, he is removed from us. So there's a little bit of justice in there.

As a director and as a storyteller, you can present these things unflinchingly, knowing that, by the end of the narrative, balance will be restored in the world. Così fan tutte, on the other hand—that’s where it gets tricky.

Now, unfortunately, many of my colleagues—directors, in other words—kind of skate over the misogyny of it. They pretend it's not there. “Oh, it’s just fun.” That's one of the most toxic attitudes that we have still in our world as whole. “Boys will be boys,” and “It's all in good fun,” and “locker-room talk,” right?

In Così fan tutte, the boys never do pay the price for their misogyny, for their choices to humiliate these women. There's no other way to put it. I lay the blame for that treatment in the story at Da Ponte’s feet. Interestingly, and actually tellingly for Da Ponte, Così is actually his only original story.

For me, the only way to do it is to face it head-on. It's to take a directorial choice. I’m certainly not changing any of the music or words, but I can change the tone and tenor of the piece.

The way we do that is we empower the women and that we make them increasingly aware that there's something weird going on. By the end, they're in on it. They know what's happening to them. And they are going to flip the script.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: As a director, you have this centuries-old script and score that a lot of audiences know by heart. And you're talking about tweaking that happy ending that people expect.

CAVANAGH: Do they though? I'm not sure people see that as a happy ending anyway. I think basically all I'm doing is shining a brighter light on the feeling everybody has at the end, which is: “I need to go take a shower. Because that was ew.”

Everyone's standing around and hugging and going, “Oh, I forgive you. Will you forgive me? I'll never do it again.” We don't buy it. It's too perfunctory.

It does happen that people apologize for things and don't really mean it. And they say, “I'll never do it again. I'll change. Oh baby, I'll change.” It's one of the oldest tropes in the dysfunctional playbook, promising that you'll never do this horrible thing again. But you know what? You can apologize all you want. The damage is still done.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: How do you make the decision to mine that ambiguity or even perhaps change the text of something that's so calcified in the opera canon?

CAVANAGH: Here's the thing: I’m not changing a word. I refuse to. But a line reading? Hey, I'm a director. I can have an actor say, “I love you,” in a way that makes you think that you are despised.

In discussions with colleagues and looking at Così, the so-called happy ending—no matter how much jubilation and joy and real genuine hugs they have for each other—there's something about it I’m not buying. So all I'm going to do is expand on that and dig deeper into that feeling.

The subtitle for this show to me is: It’s a lot of fun and games until it isn’t. It's supposed to be a comedy, and Da Ponte’s idea of a laugh was to make these women look like fools and to rub their noses in their humiliation.

And you know what? For a modern audience and for me personally, I'm not going there. It's the much lesser of two evils to turn the tables on the guys at the end and maybe change Da Ponte’s specific intentions but bring Mozart's subtleties to the fore and give a more satisfying conclusion for the audience.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: When we just look at the last—let's say—50 or 60 years of history in North America, we've seen a huge shift in how we look at violence and gender.

CAVANAGH: It’s about time.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: And you’ve had to deal with this. You’ve also directed Susannah here. In the 1950s [when the opera premiered], I don't think that [composer] Carlisle Floyd necessarily termed what happens to Susannah with Reverend Blitch as a rape. But certainly now, we are understanding lack of consent and coercion as violence, even if they don't have the hallmarks of what many people think of as violence: bruises and scratches, et cetera.

CAVANAGH: Gender-based violence or sexual violence does not need to be literally violent to be horrendous and to be described as violence. It's violence against the soul and violence against another person's agency, over their own bodies and over their own choices. So to trick someone and fool someone into having sex with them is rape. It’s straight-up rape. It's sexual violence.

I think we recognize that more and more now. Many people have always recognized these things. These crimes were always crimes. The difference is—again, going back to the Figaro and Don Giovanni examples—unfortunately certain sections of the audience find that sort of thing risqué and exciting. As long as the perpetrators are punished for it, they accept the depiction of it on their stages and screens.

I'm a steward of an old art form. But I'm also a citizen of today. And my job is to make these pieces not just palatable, but I want a modern audience to embrace all the complexities of what these incredible masterworks have to say.

There's so much going on in Così that is so interesting and illuminating, as well as entertaining to ponder. And we have an opportunity at the end to bring an awareness to these women, to what's happening. They become an active participant in it, knowing that they're going to turn the tables on the men at the end.

For certain, there are going to be some purists in the audience who go, “Hold on a minute. That’s not Così fan tutte. That's not the way it's supposed to go, where the women know what's going on and they decide to participate actively in it as well.”

But you know what? Those are the kinds of purists that I actually have no problem offending in this case. Those are the kinds of purists I'm happy not to have, the ones who insist on celebrating the misogyny.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: If you had the chance to speak to a new audience member about Così, what would you tell them to maybe pique their interest?

CAVANAGH: One of the great barriers to getting people into the theater to watch opera for the first time is that they think they have to do homework. It’s good for them, right? Like eating your vegetables or something. “In order to really enjoy the experience, I have to go to the website, I've got to research who these people were, I've got to listen to the tunes over and over, and I've got to read the synopsis.”

As opposed to a movie: You watch the trailer. You go, “Hey, that looks cool.” And off you go to the movie. You don’t even think about it. That’s what I would suggest for Così, for people who either are new to the piece itself or new to the art form.

It is just fine to pay your money and sit in a chair and let it all wash over you. You're going to be treated to things that you will love to hear and love to see that are just immediately entertaining. And that's fine. That's plenty.

To learn more about director Michael Cavanagh’s work, follow him on Twitter or see it on stage live: Così fan tutte opens November 21, 2021.