The Challenge of Figaro

Tackling an Operatic Everest

by Robert Faires

Perfect, it's called. Sublime. A pinnacle of the form, in the quality of its craftsmanship, its appeal, and its artistic expression. That's how Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro is described, and with that great a rep, it can be a little daunting to artists who deign to give it life onstage. How do you do it justice? How do you even begin to approach such a monumental work? That's precisely what a team of artists at the University of Texas has had to ask themselves, as the UT Opera Theatre began work on a new revival of this operatic masterpiece. Director Noel Koran and his four lead performers -- David Dillard (who plays Figaro), Crate Herbert (Susannah), Stephen Barrick (Count Almaviva), and Suzanne Ramo (the Countess) -- shared their answers with the Chronicle.

Austin Chronicle: The Marriage of Figaro is one of the biggies, one of the Everests of the form. I was wondering what place you think it occupies in the operatic canon. Is it a Hamlet for opera? Is it that universal, in what it means both to the general public and those in the opera world?

Suzanne Ramo: Well, I think when the general public thinks of opera, the first thought is, you know, the woman with the horns. Wagner. Then Puccini and Carmen and things like that. I don't think Mozart operas leap to the mind of the general public readily. But for musicians, the Mozart operas are right up at the top. They seem simple in a way, but they're so complex, and the characters are very complex.

Crate Herbert: You said the Hamlet of operas and I'm awash. I don't think you can make a blanket statement like that about any opera. Every opera brings something so individual, so wonderful. There are the greats: Boheme, Aida, Figaro, Barber of Seville... but when you do one, you realize why it's great and still being produced. For me as an individual performer, this is an Everest because my role is really long, but I'm not sure the general public considers it an Everest.

Noel Koran: I find a lot of similarities between Shakespeare and Mozart. In Shakespeare, everything happens on the text -- as opposed to, say, Chekhov, where a lot of things are going on between the lines -- and I find that in Mozart. And it goes on so many levels, and the wonderful thing is that it can be enjoyed on every single level. You can enjoy this music on a totally superficial level and just listen to some of the prettiest tunes ever devised. But the more you go into it and delve into the music and characters, the more you find.

SR: Every time you listen to the music, you get a deeper understanding of it. You realize how much of the character is in the music and how much is going on underneath the singing, like in the first act, when Figaro and Susannah have their duet, she has one melody and he has another. She's saying, "Pay attention to me," and finally, he starts singing her melody, he does pay attention to her. Everything you need is there.

NK: I could probably spend 10 to 12 weeks on Figaro and still just barely scratch the surface.

CH: I feel the same way as a performer. Earlier today, Noel said, "How are you feeling about things?" and I said, "I feel really good, but this is only my first Susannah, and hopefully, if I am lucky, I will be able to do this role again and I will be able to bring more to it." Every time you do a role, you can bring more to it, you can understand the character more. I feel I'm just getting to know Susannah. It's extremely humbling, it's like having the great opportunity of being able to do this role and at the same time going, "Wow, in three years, I know I could do a better job."

NK: It's not gonna all be there the first time.

CH: Exactly. And it won't all be there the second time. That's the confounding thing as a performer: You can only be so anal and be realistic.

Stephen Barrick: This is the second Count that I've done. I did the Count at Baylor five years ago, and I think: How did I do it? There are so many more life experiences I can bring to this now. At that point, I'd been married six months. Now, I've been married almost six years. I've had so many more years to learn about marriage and what it can be and what it sometimes can't be.

NK: Figaro came rather late in my operatic awareness. I was in Wexford, Ireland, with the Wexford Festival and they did an evening of scenes, and two ladies sang the third act duet between Susannah and the Countess. All of a sudden, I was absolutely struck with what an incredible jewel that music is and how stunning it was. It's a short piece but it says so much in those few bars that I was just bowled over. I immediately went out and bought the whole opera and fell in love with it. That was my first experience with Figaro, struck by just the pure beauty of the music.

CH: I said to one of my coaches this semester, "When you listen to this, don't you think there's a satiation point of how much beautiful music an ear can hear? Don't you think your ear should get full, just like your stomach does?" Everything, even the recitative is beautiful. I mean, you go, "Gosh, everything is so beautiful, I'm gonna be sick." That made me remember Amadeus, which made an indelible mark on my young mind, and the Emperor saying to Mozart after Figaro -- and I don't know if he actually said it because they say all sorts of horrible things in the movie that weren't true -- "There are just too many notes."

NK: You know, Mozart's reply was, "Only as many as are needed."

AC: There's so much to deal with technically and emotionally, but there's also a historical burden a work like this has. Are there past performers or performan-ces you're aware of as you work on this?

David Dillard: I really like the idea of us being in the line of history of all these different people that have done this. But I try not to listen to a recording too much because then you start to sound like that person.

SR: It's hard, especially as a young singer, not to get a performance in your ear since we have these CDs and records to draw on. But you don't want to start imitating them. You want to make it your own. That's been difficult for me, to try and sing it like Suzy instead of Elizabeth Schwartzkopf or somebody. I have the Schwartzkopf recordings, she's one of my idols, but I listen to Lucia Popp sing it and it's totally different and it's beautiful, so it can be done. It's been hard for me but thank goodness, finally I'm saying, "Stop that now. You're Suzanne Ramo and you're singing the Countess, and you're gonna do it like Suzanne Ramo and not Leontyne Price or Kiri Te Kanawa..."

SB: And it'll still be beautiful.

SR: Thanks. Yeah. It's different, but that doesn't mean it's lesser. Bring what you have to bring to the role. Make it yours.

CH: I find that's the only way it works. I was told, "Oh, go see this video, this one's really great," and I didn't do that because I knew that if I saw a gesture in the second act that I liked, I might try to appropriate it, and it needed to come from me. I have a coach who says, "Crate, the best Susannah you will ever do is the best Crate on stage." That doesn't mean Crate Crate, but Crate as Susannah. That means my Susannah is going to be fundamentally different from everyone else's. No one is going to do Susannah the way I do Susannah. And people's decisions about whether they like that or not is, in a lot of ways, out of my hands.

SR: If you get on the stage and you do your best, there's always going to be that little stinker in the audience who doesn't like it. Well, if they can't listen with a fresh ear, then too bad. We can only bring ourselves to it. And do our best.

AC: What things have you needed to do differently technically in approaching these roles? Anything?

CH: Yeah. Well, I haven't actually counted the number of measures that I sing, but Susannah is the second longest role in the history of opera. It's really huge. It's made me get really serious about the technique just because I have to make sound for so long. My voice can't get tired. My body can get tired but my voice can't, and that means that I have to sing correctly all the time. If I do one thing wrong in the first act -- and it can be very small -- there may be repercussions in the second, third, and fourth acts. I have to be on my toes the whole time. I've had to become ultra-coccooned, going over every note and passage and making sure that it's all in my voice. It's been a tremendous amount of work but I've learned so much.

DD: I feel like for me, at my point, Figaro is a pretty forgiving part. I've worked on two of his three arias for years, so I feel like it's just a good chance for me to do something real solid and not have to worry too much about technique and be able to explore other areas of the character.

SR: You have to pace yourself, like an athlete would. This opera's long. Hours long. And Mozart has these amazing finales at the end of the second and fourth acts. A 20-minute finale... whoa!

CH: We actually thought about ending it at the end of the second act.

SR: That was our idea.

SB: We could do the third and fourth act in the spring.

CH: It might work. Leave 'em in suspense.

SR: You want to leave them wanting more, right?

CH: To be continued.

SB: I'm more into my character than last time. The anger and frustration -- the Count is either yelling at people or conniving -- I'm angry, I'm hitting people. Emotionally, I can get so into it; it starts affecting me technically. Then I have to go, "No, I can't be doing that and killing my voice."

DD: Yeah, whenever you're emoting, especially anger, it's hard to keep that from having a manifestation in the voice, which is bad news. Drama has always been a challenge for me because I'm a really laid-back person, so finding that Beavis-type thing is hard for me.

[Laughter]

DD: I mean, Figaro's not like Beavis, but that sort of energy.

CH: No, he's not like Beavis. That's Cherubino.

AC: Part of what I get from Mozart and this opera is effervescence and joy, and I'd think that in addition to being a challenge, it's also a great deal of fun.

SR: It is. It's very fun. We're having a really good time with it.

AC: Which leads me into the second act finale.

SB: It's an opera itself.

AC: For an audience member, it's like a Christmas present within a Christmas present within a Christmas present. You open it and here's something wonderful and, oh wait, there's more wrapping underneath, and you keep going and going. What's your experience of performing it?

CH: It's like a Christmas present within a Christmas present within a Christmas present. But sometimes the wrapping is a lot more difficult to get off. There are times it feels great, it sounds great, everyone is clicking, and it moves and it moves and it moves, and there is an excitement, there is a high that you get. Then sometimes, it's like, "C'mon, voice, go up there, c'mon voice."

SR: I'm so amused by it. It makes me so happy, I'm on stage thinking, "This is so fun."

CH: And the momentum makes all of us perform better than we think we can. That energy takes us all further than we could get on our own.

SB: When everything clicks and we're all in the groove together, it is really just incredible.

NK: The vocal excitement when things do click -- and they have several times in rehearsal -- that's truly exciting for me as a director. When they do, I feel like a little child again. When they click, that is the magic of opera, a magic no other performing art form can even come close to matching.

CH: That's why we perform, for those clicks. That's what it's all about, getting lost in what you're doing, and when it's over, just going, "God, that was good."

NK: It takes on its own life.

SB: We're opera junkies.

CH: And there ain't no cure. n

The Marriage of Figaro will be performed Nov 3 & 5 at the McCullough Theatre, UT campus.

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