The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music interview: Mozart’s “Figaro” is still a radical comic opera about power — Part 2 of 2

November 2, 2010
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

This week, the big musical event in Madison is opera.

Specifically, Madison Opera opens its 50th anniversary season with two performances of Mozart’s classic comedy “The Marriage of Figaro” on Friday, Nov. 5, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 7, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall.

The production features an internationally acclaimed cast, with A. Scott Parry directing and Maestro John DeMain (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, conducting the orchestra.

“It was important for us to start this milestone season with a perennial favorite to really excite the community,” says General Director Allan Naplan, in a prepared press release.

There is a historical component as well: almost 50 years ago, a group of local singers known as the Madison Opera Workshop presented scenes from “The Marriage of Figaro” for the company’s second outing.

Today, the Madison Opera’s full production will feature a professional cast with credentials at leading U.S. and international opera houses, performing on the Overture Hall stage with a striking set design most recently seen at Glimmerglass Opera, Florida Grand Opera and Pittsburgh Opera.

“It just shows how much we’ve grown,” Naplan (below) adds.

Mozart and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte based “The Marriage of Figaro” on Beaumarchais’ play of the same title, and it premiered in Vienna on May 1, 1786.

Set in Seville, the opera follows the servants Figaro and Susanna on what is supposed to be their wedding day.  But they work in the Count’s household, and he, too, has eyes for Susanna, triggering a series of events full of laughs, heartache, and ultimately, reconciliation.

Starring as the charming Figaro is bass Jason Hardy. A leading American interpreter of the role, the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote that he “turns in a Figaro of charismatic allure, with an elegant bass.” Soprano Anya Matanovic returns to Madison as Susanna, having triumphed this summer at Opera in the Park. Soprano Melody Moore stars as Countess Almaviva, arriving in Madison directly from London, where the Daily Telegraph recently praised her “thrillingly red-blooded singing” in a new production of Faust at the English National Opera. Metropolitan Opera baritone Jeff Mattsey sings the role of Count Almaviva, and the young mezzo-soprano Emily Lorini, recently seen at the Santa Fe Opera, sings Cherubino. Michael Gallup and Melissa Parks are featured as Dr. Bartolo and Marcellina.

Madison-based artists Emily Birsan (below top), James Doing (below bottom) and Justin Niehoff Smith complete the ensemble as Barbarina, Don Basilio and Antonio, respectively.

Prices range from $16 to $114, with student and group discounts available.

Tickets are currently available online at, by phone at (608) 258-4141, and at the Overture Center Box Office (201 State St. in Madison).

Director A. Scott Parry (below) recently spoke to The Ear about the upcoming production. This is the second of two parts:

Is there anything special audiences should know about your production – setting, costumes, lighting, overall approach?

“Figaro” is a favorite piece of mine, which I’ve worked on a number of times.  I have also staged Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” a many times, which is the precedent to “The Marriage of Figaro,” and have in turn also adapted the third Figaro play, called “The Guilty Mother,” into an opera libretto that is currently being set to music. And so I approach this Mozart with a somewhat expanded view of these characters.

To me, they each have a very colorful past and a dynamic future. Thinking along these lines gives a depth to the presentation of their current situation.  Their relationships with each other have the weight of history carried with them as well as hindsight on certain events.

In this way, I strive to help the cast perform a very realistic story, however comedic their situations become through the many extensive plot twists and turns.  I am also a composer, and so approach the musical aspects with a respect and understanding that is not solely theatrical.  I think this aspect shows in my direction style.

As to the production itself, it is pretty much a unit set (bel0w) that originated at Glimmerglass Opera in upstate New York. There are variations within it to provide for four distinct locations, one per act, but it is a more or less a conceptualized idea of a palatial estate.

The costumes are fairly traditional period pieces (circa 1780s) from Utah Opera.  Madison has invested in building and procuring some additional items that I have requested to help put this production more specifically in line with Allan Naplan’s and my thoughts about the piece.  I am grateful for Allan’s support in allowing me leeway to take this rented production and add further elements to be able to present more clearly my own aesthetic viewpoint.

Lighting the show will be Jeff Harris, who I’ve worked with a number of times before. It will undoubtedly be a gorgeous evening visually in the theater. (Below is the final scene, courtesy of David Bachman of  the Pittsburgh Opera.)

You have directed around the country at some major opera venues and this is your Madison debut. Do you have any impressions yet to share of the Madison Opera and the Madison audience as well as of the cast?

The cast is truly amazing.  Utterly brilliant and talented individuals, but also warm and giving human beings.  It was been a pleasure working with such a group of invested people and working in such an artistically supportive environment as Madison.

I have enjoyed every minute of my being here in this city and each minute of my involvement in this production.

Was there a turning point — a particular composer or production or work (maybe even “Figaro”) —  when you knew you wanted to devote your life to opera?

In truth, I kind of fell into opera.  As a kid, my mom would occasionally listen to opera on the radio, and I blanched every time I heard it.  “What are all those people screaming about?” I’d ask.

I, the precocious child that I was, found my interest in “pure” music.  I began piano lessons at the age of 7 and before I had turned 9, I quit because I wasn’t playing Beethoven sonatas and Mozart concertos.  I found that I didn’t have the patience of practice or the focus for technique.

And so I began to compose my own music at the piano for myself.  I also began playing saxophone in junior high school band, then moved on to singing in choir, then added performing in plays and musicals to my list.

But what I decided I really wanted to do was conduct!  The mature masses and liturgical works of the great masters most especially filled me with the inspirational fire to wave the baton.

I began college with the intent of being a conductor, but was somehow convinced to audition for a Gilbert and Sullivan show (“The Pirates of Penzance”) and fell in love, finally, with performing onstage.  I performed in a number of operettas and musicals while edging ever so slightly into operatic repertoire.

Simultaneously, I found I had an interest in the technical workings of theater and started to pursue those elements as well.  I hung lights and programmed lightboards, ran follow spotlights, built sets, began learning how to sew costumes, assisted stage managers to see how to technically run a show, started stage managing myself — especially working in ballet — and eventually found myself being asked to assist directors.

I found that all my various interests merged together in Direction, and so, as people seemed to respond more enthusiastically to my direction than to my singing and acting, I pursued stage direction at Indiana University in Bloomington.

IU is a sort of opera mill, and so, instinctually the world of opera opened itself to me and with some slight trepidation, I walked in.  And really, I’ve not looked back since.  Perhaps the moment I finally knew that this was the path for me was during my time at IU, where in my second year as a Master’s student, I directed my first “Figaro.”

The singer playing Figaro was a student of the wonderful baritone Giorgio Tozzi (below), who I had idolized while initially pursuing singing.

Giorgio came to be at the end of the show and said, “Scott, I have been in and seen many productions of this piece which is quite dear to me.  This is the first time I actually saw the music on the stage.”

That single comment from such a storied performer brought the evidence home for me.

I realized I had found my profession.

Posted in Classical music

    Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 1,266 other followers

    Blog Stats

    • 2,383,822 hits
%d bloggers like this: