Was Mozart a feminist?
Reading Così fan tutte, where two young sisters are duped into betraying their fiancés in a seedy ploy to prove all ladies are infidels, it might not appear so. (The opera is often translated as “Women Are Like That.”) But if there’s any company that can dust off a passé story while still retaining its comedic sensuality, it’s LoftOpera.
“It’ll be different than your typical opera,” said Sarah Nelson Craft, the Park Slope-raised mezzo-soprano who’s playing Dorabella. “I’ve always been interested in what Loft’s doing, so I was really excited to be hired by them.”
Equally excited is Così’s second leading lady, Megan Pachecano who plays Craft’s onstage sister Fiordiligi. “Sarah and I actually met a few years ago here in New York working with the Caramoor Festival,” Pachecano said. “When I found out she was Dorabella, I was so excited because we’d each understand where the other was coming from with our approach to the music.”
But mastering Così’s exquisite score is only part of what makes this physical comedy taxing. “I consider myself a strong woman, and Così at first glance doesn’t seem to uphold contemporary values,” Pachecano said. “That’s something I’ve found troublesome in wrapping my head around the characters and the plot.”
Così’s examination of fiancé swapping is essentially the (naughty) grandfather to present-day swinging, except in this opera Fiordiligi and Dorabella aren’t really in on the fun. Instead, their partners — egged on by the conniving Don Alfonso — test their ladies’ fidelities by trying to woo the other’s fiancé while incognito.
“Without having delved into this piece before, I’ve been offended by so much in the plot and libretto,” said Pachecano. “This meddling guy Don Alfonso is so frustrating to me. Why is it your job to destroy the illusion of these young men? Is this some sort of sick humor? But in our scenes I’ve already started to see a little more humanity in this man, he’s just tickled by this thing — oh teenagers, young love. But in the libretto I found him revolting.”
Even in comedies, sensitive subject matter requires sensitive direction. This Così fan tutte, running September 16-25 in an East Williamsburg warehouse, will be set in the 1990’s, a raucous time for teen culture and just before the dawn of smartphones.
“The director Louisa Proske wanted it to be as modern as it could be without being exactly in our time,” Craft shared. “She’s bringing a lot of honesty to the performances, which you don’t always get. She’s trying to get away from caricature-ish operatic acting and get real authenticity out of us.”
Authenticity, and sensuality. “I’m reliving my teenage years,” Craft said with a laugh.
Così’s youthful characters (and physical hijinks) help keep the show — now over 200 years old — relatable despite the plot’s moral misgivings.
“We are playing these roles as true teenagers,” Pachecano said. “That is going to help with the dated plot. These experimental teenagers are trying out love for the first time: seeing what does this feel like and what does this look like, imitating something they see in movies, or from an older sibling, or what they hear about in the hallways at school or read about in a magazine.”
“By the end,” she added, “it’s been their first lesson in dating.”
And then, do the sisters’ nuptials perfectly unfold? “It’s not going to be tied up in a neat package at the end,” Craft said. “Louisa wants questions to remain. Have the girls been liberated, or have they been damaged?”
This sense of moral ambiguity and teenage volatility spills into Così’s after-party where the warehouse will transform from opera venue to nightclub complete with black lights, body paint, and music by DJ ShiftyKID following both Saturday performances.
“These are teenagers left to their own devices,” Pachecano said of the four young lovers. “They’re not thinking about cleaning up, they’re not thinking about behaving properly, they’re just sort of going wild.”
Then, she pondered the fate of her Fiordiligi once the curtain falls and the cyclical rage-recharge-rage nature of youth. “It’ll lead very nicely to an all-out party after the show, whether we’re celebrating the fact that these couples get back together, or whether it’s ‘Forget about those dudes, let’s go dance and get some new guys.’”