By Erica Miner
EM: Sounds like doing Figaro in Seattle after New Zealand was good synchronicity.
AL: It was, actually. It was more to say, this is how I think Mozart should be done within this aesthetic. It has a particular style, a very different scenic structure. I felt it was a good thing to show people.
EM: I find your Figaro character analyses fascinating. Are there universal themes you wish to capture in this production? Of those very complex characters in the opera, which one or ones do you find the most complex and/or intriguing?
AL: Every time you do this piece - and I lose track of just how many over the years (Laughs) - you really do find more. You can almost take any two characters in a room and there’s a story line between them. It’s what’s so fascinating about the opera. In Act 2 when the Count and Susanna are in a state, then when Bartolo and Marcellina come in and sing with the Count, and even the quartet When Marcellina, Bartolo, Basilio and the Count are all singing, “Heavens come to my aid at this moment,” they’ve actually each got a different reason for singing that text. The brilliance of this piece is if you have time to follow everyone’s story line logically you have a set of characters of infinite complexity, even if they’re only on for a relatively short time. There’s back history to them, going back to Barber of Seville. That’s really the huge pleasure.
EM: Do you have one particular favorite character?
AL: I love the Count, because his actions dictate the action of the piece. His decision to go back on his promise to abolish this ancient rite - which is of course a fiction anyway by that time in history - is the catalyst of the whole events. What we’re trying to get with both the Count and Figaro, is to echo notes Beaumarchais wrote to his actors. It’s really interesting. There’s a huge paragraph to the Count where Beaumarchais says that despite his devious actions he needs to be played with an elegance and charm. So often the Count gets played rather darkly, blackly, like a mini Don Giovanni. Actually the way the comedy works - what I’ve said to both those characters, the singers - is we have to want you to be forgiven at the end in order to have completion. The purpose of comedy, going right back to the Greeks, was to correct deviant social behavior. This comedy, this house, is a microcosm of society. You, the leader of this household, a young 19-year-old whose parents have died, are responsible for setting the tone of this castle. You are off the rails with your going after anything in a skirt. We try to get his wildly inappropriate behavior done with a charm, that when he is forgiven by the Countess we actually want that to happen. It’s quite hard to play that because it’s very easy to play the dark side, the anger, and lose the charm. So that’s why I like him. It’s fascinating, finding that balance - he’s a complete dork sometimes, but completely driven by what he wants to achieve, which is Susanna before the wedding (Laughs). If you’re really honest and get that balance between the Count’s intensity and a lightness of playing him - and don’t let it be goofy - but finding a balance of that lightness as well. I love the Count, he’s so complicated, a really fascinating character. He sets the tone of the evening.
EM: And he has to be redeemable.
AL: And you need to want him to be redeemable. That’s the key thing, that if you don’t like him because of his behavior, you think, why doesn’t she divorce him?
EM: Or send him to hell, like Don Giovanni.
AL: (Laughs) Yes. He isn’t Don Giovanni. It’s a very different play, a different purpose. With all these characters you really play the true situation. Some of the cast who’ve done the roles before, they say, “I haven’t really considered that before.” You have to play moment by moment as to what’s happening, what they know. The real difficulty is we know this piece so well we jump to the end of a scene. He doesn’t know that yet until that line. It’s fascinating.
EM: Yes, difficult to play because we think we know the piece. That’s why I find the way you analyze these characters and their relationships so intriguing.
AL: It’s a question of being honest and not taking the shortcut, “Oh, we do this all the time.” Really saying, in this circumstance how would you react. And we’ve gone into a period “look” but we’ve very slyly cheated - all the chorus costumes are made of old jeans. You don’t notice that detail, your seat is thirty feet away, but the fabric moves in a different way. We’ve given all the lower orders things like Vans or street shoes rather than period shoes. Only the Count and Countess have period shoes. We wanted people to behave in a normal way. If you’ve got flat soles you walk in a different way to an elevated heel. We wanted to get away with period acting, yet make the audience comfortable with who the characters are with a period look silhouette to the costumes, and still make the behavior, gestural language, modern. We’re playing kind of a deliberate “cheat” game, to allow the singers to walk in a contemporary fashion which is identifiable to our audience, but with that reassurance that the social setting is authentic.
EM: At the same time you’re giving the audience more to think about, the universal details.
AL: That’s right, the universal thing you mentioned, but these are people we should identify with. I’ve just come up from a run of acts one and two, and my final note to the singers was that the way to make it real is not to let the music dictate what you do in a diamond-like precision, but the kind of acting that responds to each sharp moment in the score. In Rossini it kind of works that the music dictates the action. This is 40 years earlier, close to Gluck, and actually they need to act in a way that makes the music come as a natural consequence to what they do and not the other way around. It’s a subtle difference, but other than a few moments it should just feel that it’s in continual motion. Most people on stage do a stage turn so their body is always front, always facing the audience. I’ve told them if in doubt make a full circle, do a complete turn. That smoothes out the rough edges. They’re always on the go. It creates momentum to the whole action, especially in Act two, which is 45 minutes of non-stop.
EM: Indeed. No one knows that better than I do. Now I’m going to take a leap, if you’ll forgive me, from Figaro to Wagner. Is there a new Seattle Ring cycle in the offing? We’re all dying to know more. Anything you can reveal yet?
AL: (Laughs) As Figaro says, “My face lies but I don’t lie.” We’re not quite ready to do our reveal. We’re hoping to make a statement around Flying Dutchman in May. A few ducks are being put in line. We’re very mindful that we’re renowned as a Ring house (http://www.seattleopera.org/tickets/the-ring-cycle/), and we’re not betraying that legacy.
EM: Your answer was absolutely perfect. I hope you will keep me somewhere close to the front of the line.
AL: (Laughs) I will, yes.
EM: To wrap up, what are some of your ultimate goals for Seattle Opera, and how do you see the future of opera in general?
AL: Those are key points, really. I think if you went back to the glorious period of opera, which is from Handel through to 1920s - Puccini and a bit later to Strauss - in that period before film and TV, opera was the theatre of its day. Audiences in the 19th century saw no difference between going to an opera and going to a play for their entertainment, in a way that today they see no difference in going to a Broadway show, a musical or a play. When all these great operas were written that was the condition of the day. So really my vision - the unattainable vision (Laughs) - is that opera-going here in Seattle should just become a normal thing. “The opera’s on, so I’ll go to that. I don’t know the title, it’s Katya Kabanova, I have no idea what that is, but I know that Seattle Opera is doing it so I know it will be good.” That’s really where I want us to be. And to get there, when you look at all the entertainment options, the way opera is suddenly perceived now, I think we get there by giving this wonderful integrated theatrical experience. There’s a point of difference for each thing we do, we make people think a bit, but without lecturing, that people go away from our shows having an experience which is emotional but also thought-provoking. And each piece has its different level of being thought-provoking.
EM: Has opera changed in this century?
AL: I think it has. I was talking to a journalist yesterday about how a lot of Italian singers are now all around the world rather than just in Italy. The world has shifted. The implosion of the CD industry, which had poor consequences, was followed pretty swiftly by the Met going to the HDs, the videos, the camera technology. Rather than having to rely on TV companies to record an opera performance, which is hugely expensive, companies can now form in-house teams with portable cameras, which they can do much more efficiently. So there’s a move away from opera being perceived as just a vocal, aural experience. I think that’s really timely because that kind of understanding helps to break down those age-old barriers we struggle with in opera. When we get young people in, they think, “Oh my God, I really enjoyed that, it’s like a play.” That’s what I want people to feel. This shift in the industry has helped it anyway, and it’s important that we lead in that way. Some people are pessimistic, but I think if we get enough entry points to people of today, without cheapening or losing the resonance, to make that presentable in a way that people understand. Not let productions be straitjacketed by the historical context, just allow it to breathe and make the modernity and relevance of these pieces - make something that is fascinating to people and they want to see what we’re doing. That’s really where I want it to go. In a way, the shift in the industry should help that rather than it being a barrier. Does that make sense?
EM: It does. A lot of people say opera will see a resurgence. In the context you just described I think that’s entirely possible and doable. That’s a wonderful concept, and I thank you for sharing that and for your great insights. It’s been a delight to speak with you.
AL: It’s my pleasure. Thank you so much indeed.
Photos used by permission of: Philip Newton, Rick Dahms
Erica can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org