In 2010, director Atom Egoyan was wandering through an art gallery in Los Angeles. At the time, he was struggling with a concept for his latest commission, the Canadian Opera Company production of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte.
Before him was the famous self-portrait by Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, The Two Fridas, an examination of the pain of heartbreak painted as her marriage to Diego Rivera was collapsing. It depicts what might be two sisters, hand in hand, linked by arteries connected to two hearts, one whole, the other ripped open for examination.
In that moment, the production that will open Saturday night in Toronto flashed into being. "A huge avalanche of ideas was loosened by that painting," Egoyan remembers. "It's an investigation of change, how so much can change in such a short time. It's an examination of visceral displaced emotion, of pain, but presented in something of an academic style. And that's the subtitle of Cosi – 'the school for lovers.' That's when I decided to place the production in a classroom, with the lovers acting out their story for a chorus of students."
Egoyan's ideas for Cosi fan tutte are original, but ever since the opera's first appearance in 1790, audiences have felt that something was needed to make full sense of it. The story of two soldiers who, on a bet, successfully woo each other's sweethearts to prove that "cosi fan tutte" – essentially, that "all women do it" – has been condemned as cartoonish, cynical and misogynistic for 200 years. Everyone from Constanze Mozart to Beethoven has considered the libretto (by Mozart's great collaborator, Lorenzo da Ponte) beneath Mozart's consideration. For most of the 19th century, it was simply rewritten.
But Egoyan senses a central tension in Cosi that he thinks explains its ambiguous, simplistic surface. "The piece was written at the height of the Enlightenment, at a time in European history where everything was thought to be explainable by reason, where everything from the laws of human attraction to the laws of magnetic forces could be dissected and proved. But the laws of the human heart cannot be reasoned; they obey their own gravity," he notes.
"Both Mozart and da Ponte were in the grip of this contradiction," he adds. "Da Ponte was a friend of Casanova, and projected himself into the character of Don Alfonso [the roue who sets the wager, directs the action and 'schools' the lovers]. Mozart suspected his wife, Constanze, was engaging in an affair as he wrote the piece. The work is full of the very intense personal feelings of both of its creators."
Egoyan doesn't know of any other Cosi production that approaches the story from his point of view, but he's comfortable with the path he's chosen. "It's something of an experiment, something of a risk. But it's a piece that invites reinterpretation and experimentation … And if people want a more classical approach, they can find many on DVD and YouTube. New audiences need to have these classics reinterpreted."
It may surprise some that Atom Egoyan, so completely identified with darkness in his film work, is directing a "comic" opera, although Cosi is hardly a laugh a minute. "I'd love to direct a comedy," he says. "Comedy is about spontaneity, and I have great respect for actors who can bring that sense of spontaneity to the calculated world of film, where an actor has to give up so much of the control of his or her performance to the director, the editor, the film's composer, and so many others."
Opera, to Egoyan, is an art form where control stays very much with the performer. It's one of the things that attracts him to it. "It's basically presented in a single frame. It's done live. And it's about the otherworldly experience of hearing a human voice, unamplified, make that sound. That's the primal experience of opera. … It's intoxicating."
Film directors, from the late Ingmar Bergman to the current Michael Haneke, have long been fascinated with opera, which in some ways was the 19th-century progenitor of film, or at least of its scale. Egoyan seems to belong comfortably within that group.
Saturday's Cosi marks Egoyan's third collaboration with the Canadian Opera Company. He did a Walkure when the Four Seasons Centre first opened, which will be reprised next year by the COC. His Salome was revived last season. Now he's bringing Mozart's most modern opera to contemporary life.
The Canadian Opera Company's Cosi fan tutte runs at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen St. W., Toronto, Jan. 18 to Feb. 21.