I missed the sold-out premiere of ¡Figaro! (90210) last November (though that didn’t stop me from blogging about it), so I am extremely excited about attending the limited run next week.

Note-for-note the music is Mozart’s from The Marriage of Figaro, but with an entirely new English (and Spanglish) libretto by writer Vid Guerrerio. The opera recasts the opera’s title character as an undocumented worker on a present-day Beverly Hills estate, with the debate over immigration reform taking center stage plot-wise.

I caught up with Vid to ask him a few questions about the show:

What was the inspiration behind this rethinking of Mozart’s work?

“It’s funny, but the original inspiration for this piece probably goes all the way back to when I was 12 years old, and had my first experience with theater, which just happened to be as a member of the boys chorus in a production of Carmen at Opera Theatre Saint Louis. What’s really special about the company is that they present all of their operas in English so, not having been schooled otherwise that opera was some kind of rarified, inaccessible artform, I just saw it as really cool theater with great music. From that experience I went on to perform in a number of different musicals and really fell in love with the marriage of theater and music, eventually landing at NYU where I studied musical theater writing as part of the graduate program at Tisch.

“I realized at that time how special my experience at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis had been, in that all of my other colleagues had this view of opera as something that was alienating, academic, and totally antithetical to the populist impulses of musical theater, no matter how hard I tried to convey my enthusiasm for my favorite operatic works. Even when I exposed them to English-language versions of the classics, especially The Marriage of Figaro, which has long been one of my favorite operas, they just complained that the language was stilted, the drama unconvincing, or that everything was just simply too long and drawn out to really engage them.

“While there are certainly a lot of other ideas that have made their way into the show, ultimately the desire to help inspire the same love of opera, and in particular this specific opera, is what drove me to create ¡Figaro! (90210). My primary objective has been to honor not only the music of Mozart, but the original intentions of both Pierre Beaumarchais and Lorenzo DaPonte, so that contemporary theatergoers, even those unschooled in the conventions of opera, can experience the emotions that those creators wanted to inspire in their audiences.”

Can you tell us a little about your involvement with the project?

“In putting together both the original workshop last November, as well as these concert performances, Morningside Opera has been an ideal collaborator. In some ways, it’s almost as if this project was tailor-made for them, with their mission to develop new audiences for opera by bridging the gap between the new and the traditional, even though we really had no contact with each other until after I had finished writing the entire show.

“As far as my involvement is concerned, I imagine it is quite typical of theater writers working with their producing company on a new work of any kind… or at least the positive examples of that kind of collaboration… and what has emerged really is a shared vision.

“I think the greatest contribution that Morningside Opera made was to assemble a creative team right from the outset that included music director Raphael Fusco, who has the musical knowledge and skills to protect the original intentions of Mozart’s music, as well as stage director Melissa Crespo, a newcomer to the world of opera, who has leveraged her experience in creating accessible and culturally-relevant theater, as well as her own Hispanic heritage, to fully realize the intentions of the new libretto.

“Throughout the production process, I certainly have given input on decisions such as casting, and I really could not be happier with the roster of singing actors and musicians that we have onboard, but the real joy of seeing the concert performances come together has been handing over the reins to Raphael and Melissa (as well as our crackerjack production stage manager Elizabeth Goodman) and seeing them build something both wildly entertaining and deeply moving from the blueprints that I adapted from Mozart, Daponte, and Beaumarchais.”

What are you most proud of about this second production?

“I view the shows this coming week as the full incarnation of what started the workshop last November, and the process has really felt like a continuation rather than a second iteration. That said, what I am most proud about is the fact that as a team we were able to put the concert performances up so quickly.

“As I mentioned, my original intention in writing this was to share the joy that Mozart’s opera inspires in me with a broader audience than typically attends original-language operas. At the same time, there definitely is a secondary objective for the show, which is to engage audiences in a dialogue about cultural shifts underway in America, stemming from this country’s increasingly diverse population, and the tensions (both dramatic and comic) that this creates.

“I feel this shift directly mirrors the dramatic change that European culture underwent in the late 18th and early 19th century, and that the unique blend of humor and heart, and wisdom that the original creators managed to infuse into The Marriage of Figaro can really speak to people today as we navigate our way forward.

“The debate over the immigration reform bill currently pending in Congress provides a unique opportunity for us to engage in a larger dialogue about the changing face of America, beyond simply the status of the 11 million or so unauthorized workers living in the United States. I am thrilled that we have been able to put this show up while that debate is still underway, and I hope that audiences will experience ¡Figaro! (90210) as the kind of popular entertainment that I first started envisioning as a 12-year-old watching Carmen dance across the stage.”

Performance details:

Morningside Opera presents ¡Figaro! (90210) at The NSD Theater (151 Bank Street, west of Hudson) in the West Village.

June 11, 12, 14 and 15 at 8:00PM and Sunday, June 16 at 3:00PM (performances last two and a half hours, including a fifteen minute intermission). More information and ticketing can be found at www.morningsideopera.com. All tickets are $30 in advance, $35 at the door and $25 for students and seniors.

Amber Youell of Morningside Opera

Amber Youell of Morningside Opera

New York City is full of surprises, like the event I attended last Saturday afternoon at Jimmy’s No. 43 in the East Village. I always know to expect a good show from Morningside Opera, but I had no idea how entertaining a lecture recital on the history of the art form could be.

MO company member Amber Youell (who recently received her PhD in musicology from Columbia University) schooled us with a slide show and recruited fellow MO members Brittany Palmer, Michael Shaw, and Brett Umlauf to sing some fantastic musical examples.

Some highlights for me included Amber’s comparisons of the various eras of opera to modern day cultural phenomena: Opera Seria was compared to the superhero genre (think castrati, whose, er, natural state had been altered to secure phenomenally powerful voices), Opera Buffa was compared to the sitcom (Seinfeld), and the 19th century to sweeping epic films (LOTR).

Amber also pointed out that, until Wagner came on the scene, going to an opera was quite a different experience than it is today. There was a much more relaxed atmosphere during the performance (her analogy was to a ball game), with people eating and even chatting during the less eventful stretches of music, and paying closer attention during the vocal gymnastics of the arias. What struck me when she said this was how much her lecture recital resembled parts of this description. Throughout the lecture, even during the singing, people were being served brunch, drinking wine and coffee, and exuberantly reacting to what was happening on the stage.

Brett Umlauf, Amber Youell, Kelly Savage

What happens when a group of music scholars/singers get together to produce and perform Pergolesi’s 1736 setting of Stabat Mater? I learned the surprising answer to this question on Thursday, courtesy of Morningside Opera.

Performing at the Lower East Side’s Dixon Place, a venue which encourages “challenging and questioning work,” MO’s no holds barred staging definitely felt more like performance art than a typical opera production. This combined with projections of the two singers’ semi-nude bodies at intervals throughout the show prompted the audience member sitting next to me to whisper “oooh, it’s like art.”

The singing, as always with MO, was both beautiful and true to the style, Brett’s visceral soprano juxtaposed with Amber’s velvety alto. The staging, on the other hand, while equally well done, did its best to parody the style. Each phrase of the stabat mater hymn (which describes Mary’s suffering during Jesus’ crucifixion) was intricately choreographed, and had Amber and Brett doing a kind of reverse striptease, going from barely dressed to wearing ornate dresses and wigs, as seen in the photo above of a scene about three-quarters of the way into the performance. As Amber–a card-carrying musicologist–puts it in her program note:

“…several aspects of the motet present immediate problems to the interpreters…some of the music clashes inexplicably with the text; cheerful, almost comic melodies and jaunty accompaniments set words like ‘he mourns and suffers, while his mother watches the anguish of the dying son’…Also problematic for a sacred setting…is the sensual nature of the music…Religious worship becomes an act of passion and pleasure in listening to Pergolesi’s setting. Is taking pleasure in a woman’s suffering an act of violence?”

Thusly, MO’s interpretation mirrors the mood of the music, not the text, creating a combination of coquettish humor and melodrama (for some of Pergolesi’s music does reflect the horrors of the hymn). In a particularly moving moment, Amber picks up an apparently dead Brett and lays her on the floor, the end of Amber’s phrase melting into sobs as she kneels over the body. Next minute, the music is bright and dance-like again, so Brett pops up from the floor and she and Amber wave enthusiastically at each other in greeting and embrace.

One of my favorite aspects of the performance was the emphasis on how much discomfort really went into being a fashionable lady in the 18th century. As Brett and Amber pulled on tight stockings and garters, pranced around in 3-inch stilettos, and laced each other up in constrictive corsets–not to mention the mile high wigs and cumbersome underskirt hoops–the link between the perverse pleasure-in-pain of the music and the women’s clothing of the time became apparent.

Be sure to catch MO’s next production, Weimar Flute, this spring.

Morningside Opera is fast becoming NYC’s most innovative company for the interpretation of Baroque vocal music (see my review of their Handel concert earlier this year). I recently caught them in the act at a sold-out show at Jimmy’s No. 43, an East Village bar/venue. The work was The Judgment of Paris–check out Steve Smith‘s excellent overview of the piece in his New York Times review of this performance–in which Paris holds a pageant to determine whether Athena, Juno, or Venus is most deserving of the top prize, in this case a gilded banana. The company took Paris’ line “When each is undress’d I’ll judge of the best, for ’tis not a face that will carry the prize” and ran with it: about halfway through the show each of the goddesses stripped down to lingerie and attempted to seduce a befuddled and excited Paris.

As always with MO, the singing, acting, and staging were superb, all of which are crucial when performing in spaces that don’t typically host operatic events and are therefore lean on extravagant sets.  Throughout the concert I felt like I was experiencing this particular opera in the perfect setting, where the humor and innuendo could be uninhibitedly appreciated.

And you’re in luck! Morningside Opera will be giving a special repeat performance of Judgment at Jimmy’s No. 43 on Tuesday, October 11, at 7:30 p.m. This will be followed by their second “Diva Search” in which attendees can sing their favorite arias karaoke-style.

Say hello to the bright young artists from Morningside Opera, who presented their fourth production last weekend at the Ailey Citigroup Theater in Manhattan.  A pasticcio of Handel arias, Atra, ossia, l’amore ricordato (Atra, or, the Remembered Love) was collaboratively put together by the members of MO, resulting in a plot that centers around a love-triangle: Atra and her ex-girlfriend, Amelia, reconnect in the wake of Amelia’s marriage to her new girlfriend, T., while Atra’s husband, Rocco, dryly watches the drama unfold between the three women (watch a short clip of the opera here).

Combining powerful voices with cogent acting, the quartet of singers brought off the  plot seamlessly, backed by a lively orchestra that made effective use of period instruments like the theorbo and violone.  Though the story itself is not a happy one—Atra lures Amelia away from her new wife only to desert her after a one-night stand—the production had its humorous moments, as in the live projection of a Gmail message being written (and rewritten) by Amelia, asking Atra to speak at her wedding.  Ultimately, Atra taps into the heart of relationship trauma, using songs of joyous infatuation and stormy jealousy written by Baroque drama king G.F. Handel, and even giving visual representation of the inner turmoil of the characters with the use of dancers dressed in black.