Ever interested in attending the opera, but the medium just seemed too daunting? The Marriage of Figaro might be just the show to get a newbie hooked. The opera offers a comedic romp of love (both the true and untrue varieties) and misdirection, as the Count tries to derail Figaro and Susanna’s wedding over the course of one madcap day. And it turns out this Mozart guy wrote some pretty timeless and stirring music to help propel the story along.
Seattle Opera's head honcho Aidan Lang gets hands-on to direct this rendition of The Marriage of Figaro. After eight years as the general director of New Zealand Opera, Lang took over the same post at Seattle Opera in September 2014, replacing the retiring Speight Jenkins. This production should offer a decent sense of where he plans to take the company in the long term The Marriage of Figaro opens this Saturday, January 16 and runs through January 30 at McCaw Hall.
For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we talked to Lang about the farce of Figaro, the opera's unique all-denim wardrobe, and trying to combat opera's stuffy stereotypes.
What is your favorite aspect about this production of The Marriage of Figaro?
First of all, it’s structured as a farce. It reads like a play and it has all the kind of intrigue and ever evolving plot which a farce has. As always, comedy is essentially serious; it’s about real behavior. It’s not about making people laugh, it’s about presenting situations where human beings are under extreme pressure or circumstance, and it is funny to watch. So we’re trying to make it very funny, but with a sting. It’s not funny to be stupid, it’s not being funny to get laughs, we’re trying to really play the farcical situation of this piece where the humor and enjoyment comes out based on reality, rather than being imposed on it. And that’s very important, because at the end of the day this piece is about forgiveness. We need to like these characters, however absurdly they are behaving. And what that then creates is this wonderful blend of understanding and seriousness conveyed through the manner of comedy, so it is both funny but also has a really warm and deep heart.
I recently saw a video Seattle Opera posted about how all the costumes in The Marriage of Figaro are going to be made from denim in an attempt to convey some modern artistic choices. Is there anything else about that or other interesting tweaks to the show’s traditional structure that audiences should know coming in?
What we wanted to do was not let a quasi-historical setting [dominate things]—i.e. we are in period because the action dictates we are master/servant time. When you go post-French Revolution, people could get another job. If they had been paid, then the action doesn’t really make sense, because it is all about that they have no option but to scheme their way out of it. So we decided to go in period, but at the same time, the last thing I wanted was a “period production” with all the kind of walking around on raised heals and that manner. It’s one way of doing it, but that’s not what I wanted. We give certain of the lower class characters Converses; we give them flat shoes, not heals, which means you walk in a different way. You’re much more agile to run around in a fast moving piece than you are if you’re in a court shoe, where inevitably your body moves in different ways. We wanted that lived-in feel, that these are real people and it’s taking place in a real environment.
This opera normally takes place in four acts, which means four sets. But we evolved a very complex structure for two of the acts, whereby we consistently change scenes. So that rather like a film, we’re not stuck with people coming and people going in the same place for 45 minutes. We actually have the ability to move around or see two rooms adjacent, so we can have an ironic split screen, as it were. So we felt for a piece which is so brilliantly plotted in a such complex—where it’s complexity is actually part of its fun—we wanted to plot it carefully so it doesn’t become as a blur. A film would introduce a new plot development somewhere else, cutting to a new character in another room. You don’t put them in the same space. We wanted to obey those rules, because we now have the theater possibilities to do that. So it makes a very unusual production, because I think we have 18 different locations as opposed to four. [Laughs] It has its challenges, but it also helps tell a story.
It’s a masterpiece of course, but its so engaging on so many levels. There is huge profundity of human emotion there. The beauty of this piece is there’s something for everybody, it really can be absorbed on multiple levels.
What do you see as your personal directorial style? What things do you stress when directing a production like The Marriage of Figaro?
On one hand, each piece had its own requirements, but I do really like every single moment to feel it’s inhabited properly by the performers. If you just came in at any one split second during the run of a show, you could say okay, I can see instantly that character there is under stress, that one is enjoying the situation… so we see, in this case, eleven people who have complete stories. And that demands a level of playing where the characters are completely immersed in what they do, who they are at every single moment. This piece, God knows, demands that more than most. [Laughs]
I spend a lot of time with the singers. We have two casts here for the main five parts, and actually they’re not identical. They’re different people, different physiques. So although the photos would probably look the same, what is fascinating is the way each cast has a very different. The pace of one is faster, but that’s not necessarily better than a slightly slight less frantic pace. It just suited that group, where a more precise measure pace suited the other group. I like that. I don’t want it at all to be identical, I like the ensembles to obtain a life of their own. So although though they’re absolutely guided along the dramaturgical like of production, they have a huge contribution to make as individual performers. It’s not being grafted onto them, its kind of drawn out of them.
As a relative newcomer here, how would you assess Seattle as a city for opera?
From what I’ve observed in the year and a half I’ve been here, Seattle audiences are open to different experiences. We always offer an experience which is a hybrid of music and drama and design. Our point is that it’s open to everybody, because it is a very accessible art form. In other cities, that’s not necessarily the case. As I traveled around to certain cities, they are very strong in, say, symphony but not in theater. What has really struck be about Seattle is it’s strong across the board in all performing arts, and outside New York, San Francisco, Chicago—the bigger cities—that is unusual.
In many ways, this is a fantastic piece to bring in people who may be theatergoers but who are only casual opera attenders. At the heart of opera, it is a piece of theater. We’re busy getting a very technically complicated show up and running, and our energies are spent in making a piece of theater which speak through music, like a musical does. And this is a theater town. So this is an example of an opera which really should appeal to very wide range of arts attenders, because not only has it great familiarity and a lot of music, but also it’s lively and it is entertaining. It’s a really good opera for a first-timer to blow away those cobwebs of preconception.
Are there any aspects of Seattle culture that have surprised you since you’ve taken over the general director position?
When I came here in a transitional period with Speight, to me the purpose of that wasn’t particularly to see how the company operates, because that you can pick up relatively quickly. It was to understand where the arts set in Seattle. We put on these experiences for the community in which we are sitting. It’s wonderful we have so many out of state people coming to see our shows, but first up is to provide these experiences for residents of this area. To me, that’s what an art company is about it: finding a connection between what you do and your audience. And that dictates the way you do it.
Put in a very simple way, speaking as a director, you’re unwise to do the style of production might do in a German city and then try to do that in southern Italy. [Laughs] Because they have a very different experience of what an opera should be. Now that’s an extreme example, but the same applies even from city to city from across the States. So the trick is really to find a style and aesthetic and approach to opera which chimes to your core audience, which are the people who are curious enough to come to attend our performances.
There’s actually quite a similarity between the arts audiences in New Zealand and in Seattle. Both are very inquisitive; they’re not traditionally-minded. Were I in another city in the states, I maybe wouldn’t have brought this production. I may have done something which is a bit more conventional. New Zealand is really quite a with it, forward-looking country now in terms of design and culture. And so its a question of finding the right style, the right pieces to a certain extent, but also the right way of presenting it to your core community.
Seattle Opera just announced its 2016–17 season. On a personal level, is there anything you’re especially excited about on the slate?
Yeah, we have two pieces next year which the company has never done: The Wicked Adventures of Count Ory and Katya Kabanova, both very different pieces. Because I know the director and I’ve seen what we’re getting, we’re in for a spectacularly amusing show for Count Ory. It’s going to be very funny, perfect for summer. And Katya is very serious, concentrated, compact piece of drama. I think having two—in between pieces we know like La Traviata and The Magic Flute—gives the season pivots.
In between, we have a really interesting take on Hansel and Gretel. This isn’t’ a sugar-coated, Disneyfied version at all. It’s very much for Seattle. This one has much more of an eco message about consumerism and about nature being spoiled by waste.
You keep bringing up the idea of balancing operatic seriousness with a sense of fun. Is the stuffy stereotype of opera as a high art medium something that you consciously are fighting against?
Absolutely. One of our battles is just getting people to make the first step. We’ll see it with the students at our dress rehearsals, most of whom had never been to an opera. We know from our feedback that they all say yeah, I’d come again. This is not what I expected.
The days of large immobile people standing around in a large costume just singing are so long gone. And yet we still live on with the stereotype, which gets reinforced in comic movies and things, which doesn’t help manners. The reality is that people don’t get cast these days unless they are very adept actors. This piece more than any demands that. There’s no time to stand around in Figaro, they are moving all the time.
The Marriage of Figaro
Jan 16–30, McCaw Hall, $79–$259