Clas­si­cal gui­tar mu­sic meets the poetry of By­ron in an un­usual union, writes Emily Ritchie

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature - Don Juan

Amu­si­cian and an ac­tor are ex­plor­ing un­charted ter­ri­tory and pi­o­neer­ing a whole new genre of live per­for­mance. The only prob­lem is, they don’t know what to call it. “It’s not quite a poetry read­ing, nor a mu­si­cal, nor a play, so I don’t know how to de­fine it,” says ac­tor, writer and direc­tor Tama Mathe­son. “It’s a unique the­atri­cal event, does that work?”

Mathe­son and clas­si­cal gui­tarist Karin Schaupp have cre­ated Don Juan, a show based on By­ron’s poetry that com­bines gui­tar mu­sic with di­a­logue and act­ing. “In the first in­stance I would prob­a­bly call it a play with mu­sic,” says Schaupp. “But it’s very hard to cat­e­gorise.”

Mathe­son, artis­tic direc­tor of the Bris­bane Shake­speare Fes­ti­val and a reg­u­lar direc­tor with Opera Aus­tralia, wrote the script and in­hab­its the role of By­ron, who fluc­tu­ates be­tween his own world and the world of his poem, Don Juan. Schaupp ac­com­pa­nies the per­for­mance on gui­tar, play­ing pieces by the likes of Tar­rega and Yradier, mu­sic that is rhyth­mi­cally and the­mat­i­cally in di­a­logue with the words. “I don’t just sit down and read while Karin sits down and plays mu­sic,” Mathe­son says. “The drama is ut­terly de­pen­dent on the mu­sic and the mu­sic is ut­terly de­pen­dent on the drama. The two tell the same story and in­ter­act in a very dra­matic way.”

The Don Juan project be­gan af­ter Schaupp saw Mathe­son per­form with Bris­bane-based cham­ber or­ches­tra the Cam­er­ata of St John’s in 2014. “He was play­ing Bach in a show he had writ­ten that was in­ter­spersed with mu­sic and I just thought it was a work of ge­nius … I just had to work with him,” she says.

Schaupp ap­proached Mathe­son straight af­ter the show to ask if they could col­lab­o­rate: “Luck­ily he agreed.”

Af­ter a few brain­storm­ing ses­sions, they de­cided a Span­ish-in­spired story was the way to go, es­pe­cially given the vast reper­toire of Span­ish mu­sic in the clas­si­cal gui­tar canon. “We tossed up a cou­ple of ideas from Span­ish lit­er­a­ture, ob­vi­ously Don Quixote came up and a cou­ple other more ob­scure things,” Mathe­son says. “And then I said, ‘You know, Lord By­ron wrote a Don Juan.’ ”

Ac­cord­ing to Mathe­son, the 19th-cen­tury English poet was “the most in­ter­est­ing char­ac­ter in all of lit­er­ary his­tory per­haps”. He sug­gested By­ron’s poem, not only be­cause of the Span­ish in­flu­ences but also the in­trigu­ingly satir­i­cal na­ture of its adap­ta­tion. By­ron’s Don Juan, which is based on the fic­tional lib­er­tine whose name has be­come syn­ony­mous with wom­an­is­ers, re­verses the myth, por­tray­ing Juan as a man eas­ily se­duced by women. “We im­me­di­ately re­alised that if we were able to marry By­ron’s ex­tra­or­di­nary life with his ex­tra­or­di­nary poem, then we would have a su­perb struc­ture for a mu­si­cal-the­atri­cal entertainment,” Mathe­son says.

For Schaupp, whose mother was a gui­tarist and who has col­lab­o­rated with the likes of David Wil­liamson, Genevieve Lacey and Katie Noo­nan, ac­com­pa­ny­ing an ac­tor isn’t too dif­fer­ent from ac­com­pa­ny­ing a singer. “Tama is very, very mu­si­cal, and when he is speak­ing the Don Juan poem, it has a rhythm to it … it’s a re­ally mu­si­cal in­ter­ac­tion,” she says.

Schaupp also plays a few act­ing roles through­out the show, in­clud­ing the ghost of By­ron’s mother. “Karin is a ge­nius,” Mathe­son says. “She can do any­thing on the gui­tar and on top of that she gets up and acts in the mid­dle of the show. She is so ver­sa­tile.”

The pair are tour­ing Don Juan across the coun­try, first at the Aus­tralian Fes­ti­val of Cham­ber Mu­sic next week in Townsville, then the In­ter­na­tional Gui­tar Fes­ti­val in Ade­laide and var­i­ous re­gional venues.

The duo says the show has been well re­ceived by au­di­ences so far. “The most com­mon thing is that peo­ple say, ‘I didn’t know what to ex­pect but I re­ally loved it,’ ” Schaupp says.

While the mar­riage of mu­sic and words is hardly new, Mathe­son and Schaupp be­lieve they have cre­ated an ex­cit­ing blend of two wellloved per­for­mance styles. “The mu­sic en­hances the words and the words give the mu­sic a nar­ra­tive con­text that peo­ple can re­late to,” Schaupp says. “I think that’s what makes it so special.”

will be per­formed at the Aus­tralian Fes­ti­val of Cham­ber Mu­sic in Townsville on Au­gust 6, then in Ade­laide on Au­gust 12, Nowra on Au­gust 18 and Grafton on Au­gust 21.

Tama Mathe­son and gui­tarist Karin Schaupp

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