Marriage a Golden Opera-tunity

By Steven Libowitz   |   August 2, 2018
Stage director James Darrah teams with conductor James Conlon

The endless inventive stage director James Darrah teams with conductor James Conlon for an all-new production of Mozart’s comic opera The Marriage of Figaro, the 220-year old opus on passion and commitment set against class struggles and obstacles. Darrah turned the Music Academy of the West community on its ear in early July with OperaFest, when excerpts from several new and recent operas were staged outdoors and in other unusual spaces on campus, upending years of traditional approaches to producing scenes from older classics.

He’s planning an equally ambitious approach to Figaro – which the Granada hosts Friday, August 3, and Sunday, August 5 – updating the period and setting from a castle in 18th-century Seville, to a country club in a hotel resort in the mid-1970s.

Q. How do you think the singers’ experience at OperaFest will inform their approach to Figaro?

A. An opera singer has to be able to communicate and tell a story without relying on props and costumes. They did all those scenes with almost nothing, and with stories that almost nobody in the audience knew anything about. So had to focus on the story, and what you need to communicate, and they learned how powerful they could be as actors, signers, storytellers on their own. Now we’re just adding all staging and costumes and props back in with the opera. OperaFest activated the idea of being fresh and interesting, which they can adapt to illuminating the characters (in Figaro) in ways that are new.

You have come up with a different angle on Figaro. Why?

I’m not interested in doing a normal-period Figaro that looks like all the others. I don’t want to do museum theater. There’s a place for that in the opera world, but doing a definitive version even at a very high level is very boring to me. What I care about is how it can communicate to audiences today. What I create is directly derived from the text and the music. But we’re creating something set in the 20th century that uses a power structure and environment that addresses class system. It’s not arbitrary. We’re creating characters that have clear motivations.

A place like the Ambassador in L.A. in the 1970s contains all the class structure, with an owner/manager, maids, other employees, and the battle of the sexes. The men of wealth and power and privilege, clashing with those of lower socioeconomic status. That’s what Figaro is about. Susanna is clearly the maid, the countess is a celebrity coming home to problems with her husband who owns and manages the hotel. The characters fit nicely into the context. Figaro is about real human beings who struggle, situations that have beautiful and problematic moments. Those problems that still resonate today, even if we put them in a more surreal environment. But it’s not about the production design. We don’t want you coming in thinking how clever it is, but rather be absorbed into the story, care about the characters, understand their motivations, follow the trajectory but not get held up by it being revisionist.

Singer Benjamin Dickerson talked about his concerns of tackling a role like the Count at age 25. Do you also see that as a challenge?

The Fellows come from all over the world, and they have all experienced poignant and dark things in their lives, even if they’re in their mid-20s. You don’t need to have the experience of age to play the roles. And they’re game to try to do new things because they haven’t been singing the roles for 20 years, so they’re coming with fresh eyes. For an audience that’s familiar with Figaro, there’s nothing better than seeing someone experiencing a famous role for the first time.


You might also be interested in...