Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Marriage of Figaro at Lyric Opera Chicago

This is the paper I wrote for my final Encounter for the Arts and the City Seminar. We were told to think of something we had not encountered before and I chose opera. I interviewed members of the Lyric Opera Chorus and did some research on my own. This is the culmination of all those experiences. It's long, but I could go on and on about this incredible experience. Just ask me, I dare you ;)

On Wednesday, March 24, I attended the 7:30pm performance of Lyric Opera’s “The Marriage of Figaro.” It was a night I will never forget. The atmosphere, the music, the talent of the singers and the beloved characters they portrayed were of excellence that I have never encountered before. I cannot wait until I encounter it again. So writing about it will be close enough for now.

The evening began with meeting Martha outside the stage door to begin a personalized tour of the Lyric Opera backstage. We were able to see the dressing rooms, the prop department and wig making department. All the designers were in the shops and willing to show us around. The wigmaster, Richard Jarvie, showed us each of the stages of wig making and told us most people are trained in one of the steps, but everyone on his staff knows how to do all the steps; fitting, placing the hair and styling the hair. It was incredible to see how they did it! The costume shop was huge! The ladies in the costume shop showed us around the halls of costumes, the lines of mannequins and the wash rooms. They wash all the clothes that touch skin after every performance. That’s a lot of work! Martha also showed us some of the rehearsal space for the dancers and singers. Someone was in the middle of an audition! As we walked around, we could hear people warming up in their rooms. No one was in the dressing room yet, so we wandered a bit and saw all the fun stuff they had on their mirrors. I liked how they had the costumes in hung on bars in the middle of the room. It was an ingenious set up.

Next, Martha also showed us back stage. We walked where everyone in the cast was going to be walking, waiting and performing a few hours later. What an exhilarating feeling! It really made me miss performing. We had to crane our necks as we tried to see through the seven floors of ropes, curtains and backdrops! The set blew my mind at how simple yet effective it was. Usually in our high school productions it was a miracle if we could make a set floor straight, but this stage set was made to tilt up on purpose so that every character could be seen as they walked around. Brilliant! To change the rooms they left the main floor and moved in up to four pieces to make the rest of the room with windows, furniture and other important features like the closet and gazebos. It was mind boggling to see those up close and then see them from the audience a few hours later.

As we left the backstage area we saw Joyce DiDanto, who played the boy Cherubino, coming in to prepare for the show. She is considered one of the best American opera singers today. I was surprised to see her with a boot on her foot! She had previously been in a cast but now she’s on the mend. I have a feeling she jumped out the window (which is what her character does trying to escape the Count’s wrath!) and injured herself. But being that close to her was like being next to a movie star for me. And I hadn’t even seen her on stage yet and I was already stoked!

Before the opera began there was a short lecture held on the main floor. We just had to show our tickets and we could sit on the main floor as the director told us an overview of the story with some sound clips of the music we were going to hear later. This was really helpful! I would recommend that anyone going to an opera for the first time, or any time, should go to a lecture like that so that they know what they are going to see and hear.

Our seats we in the uppermost balcony, but this was the perfect spot to be. We could see everything from a bird’s eye view. The way they had the stage set up, we were always looking in from a corner of the room. We could also read the ‘supertitles’ above the stage and watch the action without having to move my head much at all. The only thing that was lost was some of the facial expressions.

The opera itself was a magnificent display of music, singing and acting. The story was a very close second to the music. The storyline is this: It is Figaro and Susanna’s wedding day. They both serve the Count and Countess as their personal servants. However, the Count is trying to prevent the wedding because he wants Susanna for himself. Of course, the Countess knows all about his floundering nature but loves him and wants to please him herself. So Figaro, Susanna and the Countess come up with a plot to trick the Count, but it falls apart because Cherubino is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Figaro denies knowing anything and that leaves the women to plot on their own. Their plan actually works as they switch places to catch the Count in his own trap. Of course it ends happily like a Shakespearean comedy. There are many pranks, misunderstandings and comments on the relationships between men and women which are still true today and very amusing.

The heightened drama as expressed through the music and the performers was almost overwhelming, but in the best way possible. Every performer was able to make their characters very three-dimensional, very human; imperfect and fun to watch. One big surprise for me was the recasting of the Countess. The original Countess fell ill and went home to Germany so Nicole Cabell took over the part. I had seen her in a televised version of La Boheme as Musetta so I was flabbergasted that I would get to see her in person! Joyce DiDanto was the perfect teenage, lovesick boy. She had the swagger down and everything! She and Nicole Cabell sang with such conviction, control and beauty that they both brought me to tears. I could hardly believe that their voices could fill up the entire gilded theatre! I kept thinking, “Am I really here? Am I really experiencing this?” My favorite character turned out to be the Count because he is someone you enjoy seeing him get fooled. He was slightly over the top, but that made his character redeemable. I surprised that the solos were pretty even among the men and women. I also appreciated that the solos were not about the soloist, but about what the character is feeling at that time. Some of my favorite songs included Cherubino’s love song, Figaro’s solo as he “rails against womankind” (direct quote from the program!), and the sextets where up to six people are singing at the same time; perfection! I remember in the Mozart movie Amadeus, when he explains to the original soloists how the song will play out and they can’t believe it will work. It does work! It’s incredible to hear. Joyce DiDanto admitted in an interview that she always has to stand in the wings and hear that part because she always notices something different. Coming from her, that’s an incredible compliment to the music.

Although the opera ended up running almost four hours, it certainly didn’t feel that long. It was a fulfilling evening! That’s what I call entertainment! Seeing opera for myself has answered the question I asked at the beginning of this project; “Why is opera still an essential part of our culture?” It is the epitome of why we go to the theater, why we listen to music and why we love movies. Opera brings all those elements together for an evening of ultimate escape and pleasure. Experiencing this cultural treasure has certainly raised the bar for everything else I will experience. I highly anticipate attending other operas in the future.

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