April 26, 2013

Figaro and me: life with Mozart's opera

Rehearsals have begun for Virginia Opera's production of The Marriage of Figaro, re-uniting me once again with an opera that has been a dominant presence throughout my life. I know this opera about as well as I know anything. I've known it for over fifty years now. Back in the days when I was an active pianist, I accompanied all the arias at the piano for various singers. I've heard it time and again on Met broadcasts and recordings.  And although I'm not an opera singer by training, inclination or profession, nevertheless I've had the experience of performing three different roles in three different full productions of Figaro. More on that in a minute.

Funny thing - Figaro is the first opera I remember listening to as a child, yet it wasn't the opera that turned me into an opera lover. No, that honor (I guess it's an honor...) falls to Puccini and Madame Butterfly. The Renata Tebaldi-Carlo Bergonzi recording hit me like a pleasurable punch to the solar plexus at age 12, leading me down the garden path of Italianate passion.

The recording that introduced young Glenn to Figaro
However, I have vivid memories of listening to my mother's album of Figaro highlights several years earlier. How old was I? Six, seven, eight - around there, in the first years of my piano studies. I can still see the album cover of that recording: it showed a white bridal bouquet against a pink background. It was a recording conducted by Vittorio Gui, with Sena Jurinac as the Countess, Rise Stevens as Cherubino and Sesto Bruscantini as Figaro, among others. The recording is still available, though that album cover has disappeared.

I still remember how the music sounded to me at that age; I listened to it over and over, though with no glimmer of a clue as to what the story was, who these people were that sang this music, or what they were saying. I can't say for sure that I understood what an "opera" was. But I could tell that this music, so compelling and fascinating, was about something important. These characters were grownups, singing about important, significant grownup things. Stuff that mattered; stuff they really cared about; important adult stuff. In particular I recall the Figaro-Susanna duet "Se caso a Madama" in Act I; I was delighted with the repetitions of "ding ding" and "dong dong". I sensed that these were nice people. I liked them without knowing why, except that the bell imitations were funny.

I wonder what that skinny, pint-sized little piano student would have thought if he'd been told that, many years hence, he would portray some of those grownups.

My first Figaro production as a cast member came in 1992, soon after I'd begun working at Virginia Commonwealth University's Department of Music as Director of a non-credit community arts school. VCU presents a fully-staged complete opera each spring. In those days they didn't have mature male voice majors capable of stepping into the "daddy" roles, so I was happy to help out when Melanie Kohn Day, Co-director of the Opera Theater, asked me to take on the role of Dr. Bartolo.

Of course, Bartolo's appearance in Mozart's opera amounts to a glorified cameo compared to his larger-than-life presence as Figaro's adversary in Rossini's Barber of Seville. But he still has some gratifying moments; his droll revenge aria "La vendetta", with it's mock-heroic conclusion; joining in on the frenzied conclusion of that miraculous Act 2 finale; and getting laughs in the Act 3 sextet as he dazedly acknowledges being Figaro's papa.

For me to play a principal role in a Mozartean opera was a fantasy come true: better than playing golf at Augusta; better than playing center field for the Cubs. We principals in the cast all got along. The conductor, Thomas Wilkins, was Associate Conductor of the Richmond Symphony and did a fine job leading his student orchestra. I wallowed in the sheer pleasure of preparing and performing this masterpiece. In the "La Vendetta" aria, I colored the line: "Do it my way; take the sly way" with a particularly malevolent color on the final two words that always made Maestro Wilkins chuckle from the pit. Would I ever be cast in this role in any other situation? Was I a credible Bartolo? Let's just say I held up my end and leave it at that. I'm told my diction was exemplary.

A dozen years later, my life had changed considerably. VCU's community arts program had been axed thanks to draconian budget cuts at all state schools on a mandate from then-Governor Warner. Out of a job, I'd spent a dismal year as a high school choral director and another looking for work before good fortune found me with my current position at Virginia Opera. Sometime in March of 2005 I received a frantic phone call from Melanie.

Me as the Count.
They were doing Figaro again, but a crisis had arisen: the faculty Artist-In-Residence cast as Count Almaviva had resigned his position and left the university. All attempts to re-cast the role, a process that exhausted the baritonal contents of Melanie's rolodex, had ended with no luck. She called me on a Friday; VCU's Figaro was to open in exactly three weeks and Melanie's back was to the wall. In tears, she said if I was unable to learn the role, the entire production would have to be cancelled and a large cast of students would have worked for weeks for nothing.

I went to my supervisor at Virginia Opera to ask for some leave time to devote to learning this huge role in a hurry. He agreed, and the next week was a blur of rote repetition of ENDLESS lines of recitative - good Lord, the Count does blather on! Fortunately, my wife is an experienced vocal coach; her assistance helped me pull off the challenge. Somehow, the blocking got learned, the music got memorized and I made it through opening night with only minor errors.

By this time, I was no longer a performing pianist; nerve damage in my cervical spine had caused minor muscular atrophy in my left hand, resulting in just enough permanent weakness to render me unable to play difficult works. While composition helped to replace keyboard gymnastics in my life, it was especially gratifying to have an opera role as an outlet, limited though my aptness for the role of Almaviva clearly was.

My biggest weakness was a problem of vocal technique I was unable to surmount. I found the F sharp at the end of the Count's Act 3 aria very difficult to sing in the context of a staged performance. I could  usually crank it out standing in the curve of the piano in recital fashion, but the added stress of moving about the stage and, well, acting left me without the resources (and let's face it: the technique) to manage it. That F sharp comes after a page of impassioned coloratura during which that brat Mozart provides only nano-seconds of time to breathe. I sang the D above middle C instead. No one asked for their money back.

Looking back, I realize that I played the Count too much as a comic character; too much mugging in facial expressions; too much going for laughs. The best portrayals of this character never lose sight of his dignity and noble bearing, however assinine his attitudes. But hey - considering I started the role from scratch three weeks earlier, I had no reason to hang my head.

And let me say this: I am blessed to have had the opportunity to deliver one of the most touching and magical lines in all of opera: the moment when Almaviva, remembering his better nature and humbled by his foolishness, sings "Contessa, perdona; perdona, perdona" to music so simple yet so devastating that not one other composer could have set it as well. That. Was. Fun. As fun as a date with Jennifer Aniston. (Did I really write that out loud? Forget I mentioned it.)

But Mozart and Figaro weren't done with me yet. One year later, Virginia Opera concluded the 2005-2006 season with a production of the opera directed by Lorna Haywood.  Somehow I was cast as the cover artist for Antonio, the Count's boozy gardener who has a truly amusing role in that Act 2 finale in addition to a smattering of recitative. Whereas both VCU productions had been sung in English, of course, now I was learning the original Italian, which is no small matter in the role of Antonio. When he bursts into the Countess's boudoir complaining about his flowers he does so spewing syllables of Italian like one of those assault weapons the NRA thinks I have the right to keep in my bathroom. It's a miniature patter solo that would earn a thumbs-up from W. S. Gilbert. Fortunately, I was now an old hand at Mozart in Italian, having sung the complete role of Don Alfonso in a 1999 festival production of Cosi fan tutte in Rome. (How do I keep getting into these situations?! HELLO, I'M NOT AN OPERA SINGER!)

Unlike many cover artists, I did get a performance under my belt in a special student matinee. I still have the spiral-bound booklet I made of the role of Antonio, containing just his lines. I fashioned a cover for it, re-naming the opera as Il Coraggio d'Antonio ("The Courage of Antonio"), with a photo I found on the Internet of some bass carrying a flower pot. I showed it to Lorna, who cracked up and asked me to email her a copy. Good times.

And now, here comes Figaro again. I'm not singing in this one, so feel free to purchase tickets! Will this be my last Marriage of Figaro? Who knows? One thing I've learned is that, for musicians, the future is awfully hard to predict. I suspect I will continue to re-visit and re-study this sublime masterpiece before I'm done, and that on each future occasion Mozart will continue to reveal his genius to me in ways that had somehow escaped my notice in the previous fifty-four years. It's that kind of opera.

And what of Butterfly? It's a really good opera. I haven't listened to it in years, however.

By the way - despite having played three characters all of whom appear in the Act 2 finale, mind you, nevertheless I found that in teaching the opera in a recent series of lifelong learning classes, I can STILL get confused explaining all the plot twists that unfold before Act 2 comes to an end. Oh well, I'll bet Groucho Marx would have had a hard time giving a blow-by-blow synopsis of the "hard-boiled egg" scene in A Night at the Opera.

My book THE OPERA ZOO: SINGERS, COMPOSERS AND OTHER PRIMATES is available from Kendall Hunt Publishing. Order online or by phone from customer service: 1-800-344-9034, ext. 3020. Also available at www.amazon.com


  1. Two questions if I may:

    1. Would you agree with me that Debussy's 'Pelleas et Melisande' is the finest and most addictive of all operas?

    2. Does it mystify you that it has never had the impact of Mozart, Wagner, Verdi or Strauss?

  2. My answer: I have to nominate Verdi's Falstaff as the finest opera. Its combination of humanity, consistently high musical inspiration, sharpness of musical characterizations, the composer's self-awareness in his parodies of himself, the brilliance of orchestration and other traits put it in a peerless category.

    It does not mystify me that Pelleas has not ascended higher in the public's favor than it has. In the past decade I've interacted with tens of thousands of opera fans from beginners to dedicated aficionados; I have observed that the larger portion of opera fans have difficulty appreciating operas that require an ear for subtle musical gestures. Even my beloved Falstaff is under-valued by the public, lacking as it does a juicy soprano aria with over-the-top emoting.