As the orchestra dives into a bouncy, upbeat tune, the curtain rises on Edward Hanlon. He is crouched on his hands and knees center stage in what can hardly be called an ideal singing posture. But when Hanlon, a second-year opera specialist in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, opens his mouth to sing, his awkward posture doesn’t matter. The resonant opening of “The Marriage of Figaro” radiates from the stage throughout the theater, bathing all 1,400 of the Power Center’s seats in melody and vibrato.
University Opera Theatre presents “Figaro”
Tonight at 7:30 p.m., tomorrow and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m.
Tickets starting at $9
There are no microphones at work here — this is opera. That means it’s the performers’ jobs to project their voices all the way to the back row without electronic enhancement. And in Hanlon’s case, playing the title character in the University Opera Theatre’s production of “The Marriage of Figaro,” the material he has to project is more than 200 years old and written in a language most Americans don’t understand.
This weekend, “Figaro” premieres at the Power Center for the Performing Arts. And at $9 for students, it’s a great opportunity to see a group of talented singers before they graduate and join their peers — Michigan alumni have gone on to perform with the Metropolitan Opera, Chanticleer and the San Francisco Opera, among others.
Composed by Mozart with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte back in 1786, “Figaro” still resonates with audiences, particularly young people.
“Sexual tensions, love (and) betrayal” are elements that occur in “Figaro,” Hanlon explained, describing the interaction between characters in their mid-20s. Audiences can look forward to comic confusion, mismatched period-slash-contemporary costumes (one character wears a pinstripe suit over his classical-era tights) and hot makeout scenes between hormonal characters.
Director Robert Swedberg, associate professor of voice in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, is no stranger to this opera. He has directed several opera productions, the most recent in Germany. He also starred as Figaro at California State University, Northridge.
Swedberg places a particular emphasis on the politics behind “The Marriage of Figaro.” Premiering just a few years before the start of the French Revolution, this opera is sometimes assumed to be connected to France’s violent peasant uprising.
“(‘Figaro’) presented a perspective that allowed for (the representation of) the servant class just as the servant classes of Europe were becoming restless,” Swedberg said.
“Figaro” mocks the absurdity of extreme upper-class power, channeling political undertones that are even more meaningful in times of revolution and change. A main theme in “Figaro” is the Droit de Seigneur (a master’s legal right to sleep with his employee’s fiancée).
“(The Droit de Seigneur) can be compared to some of the corporate arrogance that we have (today) … you can still draw the parallel between Figaro and his master, and us and our masters,” Swedberg explained.
Revolution, excitement (in more than one sense) and love are all keywords for this work, which is often lauded as “the world’s most perfect opera” with its lush, multidimensional characterizations and its skillful balance of drama and music.
The plot of “The Marriage of Figaro” centers on its title character, a recently engaged servant whose fiancée, Susanna, has caught the eye of Figaro’s master, the Count, who is himself stuck in a rocky marriage. Figaro and Susanna must outwit the Count, who plans to execute his legal right to sleep with his employee Figaro’s bride-to-be on their wedding night.
The pair’s plight provides the opera with many laughs and ample subplots. One such story involves Cherubino, a restless teenager portrayed by Monica Sciaky, a second-year master’s student in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance.
Cherubino pops up unexpectedly throughout the show to cause trouble and is “filled with horny energy (and) sparkling daringness,” according to Sciaky.
A counterpoint to Cherubino is found in Bartolo, a crotchety old doctor bent on ruining Figaro’s plans. Midway through, though, Bartolo is discovered to harbor a secret that will transform his relationship with his nemesis. Figaro’s rich personalities are one of its many highlights — the characters rise above mere class caricature.
“The Marriage of Figaro” is a particularly fitting show for University Opera Theatre, which must find at least one operatic role for every voice performance major. In this production, two actors were cast for each role (they switch off each night), and the opera features a 21-person chorus, so plenty of students get their chance to shine. Rounding out the student participants are the University Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Kenneth Kiesler, Director of University Orchestras and Professor of Conducting in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance.
Most of the backstage crew is also made up of students, among them stage manager Mitchell Hodges and lighting designer Craig Kidwell. Both senior theatre design and production majors in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, Hodges and Kidwell are taking on jobs usually handled by University Productions staff members.
Kidwell describes the show as “an honor because of the challenges of opera and working in a large venue.”
The backstage crew has its hands full with props, blocking and an unusual set piece. The University Opera Theatre’s production of “Figaro” uses a rotating set, which spins around between the scenes in Figaro’s bedroom, the Countess’s boudoir, the Count’s study, a garden outside and all the stops in between. The rotating set adds more dimensions to the action.
“You can play in different areas,” explained second-year specialist Nicole Greenidge.
This set design means a lot of work backstage, but it pays off in the added action and excitement of the finished production. The rotating set also means actors will be prancing and clambering on a veritable moving obstacle course, all while singing their hearts out.
Developing the kind of lung capacity required to belt out a song while on the go is a daunting task. Swedberg recommends a movement class like ballet or yoga for his cast and for anyone who wants to succeed in opera. Opera’s big departure from other singing styles is its lack of microphones, and the hardworking “Figaro” cast promises to fill the Power Center with pure human-made noise for the entirety of its three-hour running time.
Opera can be considered “an athletic kind of a procedure,” according to Swedberg. Vocal endurance doesn’t come easily, and most professional companies take at least a day off to recover between shows. Since it’s double-cast, “Figaro” will be able to realize four back-to-back shows while still giving each cast member some down time. Double-casting also allows actors sharing a part to interact, commiserate and learn from one another.
Besides being microphone-free, opera is also set apart from other genres by its structure. Operas are “through-composed,” which means that the music isn’t broken up by stretches of dialogue, as in musical theater. A sort of middle ground is found in operetta, which has some dialogue but often eschews mics.
Important plot turns in “Figaro” use recitative, opera’s version of dialogue, accompanied by harpsichord. These lines are projected in an operatic style, on one pitch and in rhythm, but sound closer to speaking than singing.
Recitative is among many opera-specific skills, but the School of Music, Theatre & Dance doesn’t have a specific major for opera — rather, operatic courses exist within the vocal performance major. And for operatic hopefuls, the vocal performance degree is only the beginning. After completing their undergraduate studies, singers take on a two-year master’s program, then have the option of choosing a two-year specialist degree focusing exclusively on opera.
What this means for “Figaro” is that many of the actors are graduate students — the youngest cast members are undergraduate juniors or seniors in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance. There are more undergraduates in the orchestra and crew.
In addition to their vocal studies, operatic hopefuls receive instruction in opera, acting and foreign languages like Italian, German and French.
“Figaro” is performed in Italian with English supertitles projected overhead as the actors perform. This means major cramming for those students who aren’t proficient in the language. Hanlon, for example, took intensive Italian at the University over the summer to prepare for his role as “Figaro.” And just saying “bon giorno” isn’t enough — it takes extra work to perfect “singer’s diction,” that wide-voweled enunciation used in song, in a foreign language.
“(Expressing the) nuance of the words, the attitudes and emotions and subtexts behind (them),” explained Swedberg, is the eventual goal of foreign-language opera singing.
Emotional and musically intellectual, opera seemingly lacks the mass appeal of other theatrical genres. It’s true that opera is expensive in production, long and large-scale, not to mention plagued by stereotypical portrayals of fat ladies singing and “wabbit”-killing “Looney Tunes” characters.
But in the last few years, opera has been experiencing a sort of revival. One important innovation is high-definition broadcasts — performances at the Metropolitan Opera in New York can now be seen across the country, even at Ann Arbor’s Regency 16 on certain Saturdays, for regular movie prices. This makes opera more accessible for the average person who doesn’t live in New York and isn’t likely to shell out $200 for one show.
Opera’s recent resurgence affects the University’s programs too. The University Opera Theatre has expanded its repertoire to include several experimental pieces. These will be performed in the spring, along with “Armide,” a more rarely produced French opera. The music library on North Campus is also a great opera resource, with many DVDs that students can check out.
Still, there’s nothing like seeing an opera onstage, the way it was meant to be. The ability to fill a theater with just one person’s voice while simultaneously kneeling, jumping or dancing is something that has to be seen to be believed. At its most basic, opera is a celebration of the human voice and the things it can do without electronic enhancement. And for those unfamiliar with opera, “The Marriage of Figaro” is the perfect place to start.