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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 7, No. 5

Russell Braun encounters Don Giovanni

by Joseph So / February 1, 2002

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On the eve of his first Don Giovanni for L’Opéra de Québec, baritone Russell Braun gives LSM his thoughts on portraying the Anti-Hero.

At first glance, the character of Don Giovanni seems rather far removed from Russell Braun’s world. A devoted husband and father, Braun and his wife, pianist Carolyn Maule, live with their two sons in the idyllic countryside not far from Toronto. On a brisk December day over tea in front of his kitchen window, from which one can see horses roaming in his neighbour’s property, Braun was, as ever, mild-mannered, and almost shy–the antithesis of the macho, hormone-crazed womanizer of the Don Juan legend. Why Don Giovanni? To be sure, it is the lifeblood of all artists to grow and stretch their creative potential. And for Russell Braun, Don Giovanni in many ways represents the ultimate challenge: “It’s the character with the most layers I’ve ever come across. I like the opera very, very much. I can’t wait to sing it!”

Braun’s first encounter with the Da Ponte role came with a particular twist. In the summer of 1990, he sang in the chorus in a production of Don Giovanni in Ottawa, starring his father, the late Victor Braun, in the title role. “The director Bernard Uzan called for Don Giovanni to be onstage the whole time, so I was cast as his double,” recalls Braun. “My father would go offstage to change costume or rest, and I would come on, dressed in his costume and wearing a beard.”

Did he learn from his father? “Oh yes, absolutely!” Russell Braun said without a moment’s hesitation. “He was a great Don Giovanni. Once at La Scala, he sang the Champagne Aria and the audience went wild. He went offstage to change into his festive costume for the Act 1 finale, but the audience was still applauding so he was asked to get back onstage for another bow. Completely out of breath and half dressed, as he bowed to the audience he made a gesture of thanks to the conductor, who mistook it for a cue to reprise. My father had to sing the aria twice!”

In the last year of his studies at the University of Toronto Opera School, Russell Braun sang the role in a student opera workshop that went very well. In the audience was Brian Dickie, then director of the Canadian Opera Company, who was totally bowled over by the young baritone. “I was already singing in the COC chorus at the time, but with this, he got excited and took notice of me.” Sure enough, within two years, Dickie gave him the proverbial break, singing the title role in a main-stage production of Il Barbiere di Siviglia.

Now in his mid thirties, Braun feels he is at just the right age to tackle Don Giovanni: “Don’t forget–the original in Mozart’s time was twenty-three.” With today’s audiences placing so much emphasis on singers looking their part, the trend in recent years has been to hire young hunks for the role, the likes of Gilfrey and Hvorotovsky, and our own Gino Quilico and Gerald Finley. So far, Braun has been working alone, sitting at the piano and taking the text apart.

At this point in the creative process, he doesn’t want to work with a coach or listen to many recordings, preferring to develop his own ideas and make the journey of discovery on his own. One exception is the work of British baritone Thomas Allen, whose Don Giovanni Braun greatly admires. “ I’ve been watching Allen’s video from the Cologne production and reading the published diary he kept during the Mozart Centennial Year in 1991, when he did several productions of Figaro and Don Giovanni.” Before rehearsals start, Braun will have had a complete run-through of the part from memory. “For me, the appeal of the character is in his beautiful language–it’s a brilliant libretto. With Elvira, he speaks a refined language. To seduce Zerlina, he uses lots of beautiful images. And of course with Masetto, he musters all the force he can to terrorize him.”

For a singer who has made a specialty of likable characters–Barber, Pelleas, Billy Budd, and Papageno, Don Giovanni is a significant departure. How does he feel about portraying an antihero? “You know, I’ve been told I am too nice to play him,” said Braun with a laugh, “but to have someone who is not a nice person play anything is so boring. It makes you wonder why all these women are in love with him. We are actors, and anybody should be able–up to a point–to act! I don’t see Don Giovanni as a womanizer per se, but rather as someone who loves danger and challenges, someone who lives in the moment.”

What about the vocal demands of the role? “I feel it is right for me, although the role–it only goes up to an E–doesn’t show off my high range,” explained Braun. “When you think of Don Giovanni, you think of this masculine, macho sound. I can fake it, but it isn’t my voice. My idol Thomas Allen’s Don Giovanni always has an elegant sound, no matter what he sings. There’s a moment at the end of the opera when the Commendatore comes in and Don Giovanni asks the visitor to sit down and have supper with him. He is completely fearless–it is a very dramatic moment. I hope we’ll have real food and real wine onstage!” What about the high note at the end? “It’s a scream! I just saw a production in Vienna where the baritone was excellent, except when he decided to sing the high A flat. It should be a scream, not a note. I hope by the time I sing it, I will find that scream!”

Joining Braun in the Quebec production will be a fine cast which includes Lyne Fortin as Donna Anna, Monique Pagé as Donna Elvira, Nathalie Paulin as Zerlina, Joshua Hopkins as Masetto, and Gary Relyea as the Commendatore. Braun looks forward to working again with Bernard Labadie, a consummate musician whom he greatly respects. (Their recent recording of Apollo e Dafne on the Dorian label garnered a Juno Award). With hard work, dedication, and a bit of luck, Don Giovanni should figure prominently in Braun’s future repertoire: “I hope so. Vocally it’s a role one can sing for a long time, and it just gets better!”

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