‘The Barber of Seville’ gets a trimmed-down, pandemic-friendly San Diego Opera production
Like last fall’s ‘La bohème,’ this Rossini comedy about a love-struck count will take place in the Pechanga Arena parking lot
Last October, San Diego Opera became one of the first opera companies in America to return to production during the pandemic, with a well-attended “La bohème” presented for an audience of 4,200 people seated in their cars in the Pechanga Arena parking lot.
Next weekend, the company will return to the Pechanga lot for its spring opera festival, with a pandemic-inspired “One Amazing Night” concert on Saturday night, followed by a four-night run of Gioachino Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville,” April 25 through May 1.
Like last time, the festival will feature a cast of singers from around the country, the San Diego Symphony, video screens throughout the parking projecting close-ups of the singers and English translations of the libretto and high-definition audio streamed through the car radio.
But festival conductor Bruce Stasyna said this “musical double-header” is far more ambitious, and it will benefit from what the company learned about presenting parking lot opera the first time around. He promises lots of musical surprises in the all-genres opening-night concert, and a “Barber” production will be very different from “La bohème.”
“The repertoire is 180 degrees separation between the romantic tragedy of ‘Bohème’ and the comedy of ‘Barber,’ ” Stasyna said. “Comedy requires a lot more rehearsal because it’s all about the timing. And musically, ‘Barber’ is a completely different kettle of fish. Rossini is all about articulation and orchestral chops and trying to find that sparkling champagne-like quality of the Rossini crescendo and accentual details.”
Making his San Diego Opera debut, baritone David Pershall will play Figaro, the wily title character in “Barber.” Pershall said he can’t wait to get in front of an audience of cars to perform his signature role.
“I’m ready to be out there in San Diego and get back to my life’s calling,” he said. “It’s going to be different. People will bang on their car horns and people will holler. It’s going to be a fun show. I think it’s exactly what ‘Barber’ needs: to be fast-paced and in your face so you can laugh all day.”
‘Unmasking the music’
The festival will kick off Saturday with the company’s annual One Amazing Night recital, with a 90-minute program that Stasyna said was inspired by the pandemic. The Canadian-born conductor, who is San Diego Opera’s chorus master and music administrator, said he got the idea from the prisoners’ chorus in Beethoven’s opera “Fidelio,” a song of hope and joy when the prisoners are briefly freed from their confinement to walk outdoors.
“He created this musical ray of sunshine and that became the concept of the evening for me,” Stasyna said. “Here we are at the end of April, people are getting vaccinated and performing artists and the audience are beginning to explore how to receive and interact with the arts in this new world.”
Working with Alan Hicks, who is director of opera theater for San Diego Opera and San Diego State University, Stasyna created the concert program, titled “When I See Your Face Again: Unmasking the Music of Notorious Pandemics.”
Although Stasyna is keeping the song list under wraps, he said it will range from opera and classical music to modern-day musical theater and rock. It will begin with Black Death-era music by medieval English composer John Cooke and German composer Johann Sebastian Bach, and European music written in the tuberculosis era of the 18th and 19th centuries, including the consumptive Violetta’s “Libiamo” aria from Giuseppe Verdi’s “La traviata.” There will also be music inspired by the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918 and the AIDS pandemic in the 1980s and ‘90s, including music from Jonathan Larson’s Broadway musical “Rent.”
The concert will feature San Diego singers Angelina Réaux, Allison Spratt Pearce and James Newcomb, a 16-member ensemble of singers from the San Diego Opera Chorus and two young singers, ages 13 and 15.
“People who are expecting it to be pure opera will be in for an amazing surprise, and people who maybe don’t gravitate to opera as their prime source of musical inspiration will find a lot in the program to feed their soul,” Stasyna said.
A ‘Barber’ like no other
Over the past 56 years, San Diego Opera has presented “The Barber of Seville” eight times. But it’s ninth production this month is testing the company’s limits like no other in its history, Stasyna said.
The work involved months of planning and rehearsal. Unlike “La bohème,” which is sung through, Rossini’s 1813 “Barber” score is a mix of arias (songs) and recitative, which is where the singers sing-speak dialogue that explains the plot. Stasyna said it took a lot of work to trim the score down to 90 minutes to ensure there’s enough plot exposition without eliminating any of the opera’s famous arias.
The streamlined and colorfully surrealistic production is being directed by Keturah Stickann, who directed “La bohème” last fall.
Set in 17th-century Seville, the opera tells the comic story of Almaviva, a wealthy but lovesick count who has disguised himself as a poor student (Lindoro) to win the heart of the beautiful Rosina, a young woman kept under lock and key by her elderly guardian Dr. Bartolo, who hopes to marry her himself. To woo Rosina, Almaviva hires Figaro, the town’s factotum (a jack-of-all-trades) who is the doctor’s barber and wig stylist. Figaro disguises Almaviva as a drunken soldier, and later as a music teacher, to sneak into Bartolo’s home and secretly win Rosina’s hand before revealing his true identity.
The opera’s most famous song is Figaro’s self-descriptive and fast-patter aria “Largo al factotum.” Pershall has been singing that song to acclaim all over the world for the past decade, including at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and at Vienna State Opera.
“There is a lot of pressure on you for that scene, but in a way, as an artist, it’s kind of foolish to feel pressure. It doesn’t help you at all. Three years ago, I did a ‘Barber’ and realized, what am I so worried about? I have sung this for 10 years professionally, and I’m really good at it. Get out of your head and have fun. What a difference that made.”
Pershall said he models his Figaro after comedian Andy Kaufman’s over-the-top Elvis impersonation: “It’s a ‘get out of the way, here he comes to do it all’ kind of thing. He’s a happy-go-lucky guy, as long as he’s active and the center of everyone’s attention.”
Pershall lives in the upstate New York town of Manlius with his wife and fellow opera singer, soprano Katie Horn-Pershall, and their three children, a 6-year-old son and 4-year-old twin daughters. Except for a handful of performances he squeezed in during a brief pandemic respite in Spain last fall, Pershall and his wife have been out of work for most of the past year. All of his concert and opera engagements in 2020 were canceled, including a much-anticipated move into the heavier Mozart repertoire at the Metropolitan Opera as a cover (understudy) for the title role in “Don Giovanni.”
On top of the loss of work, Pershall said all of his family got COVID in January, though fortunately the symptoms were not too serious. The couple spent the year home-schooling their son, finding creative ways to make ends meet and eagerly anticipating the return of opera. He flew out to San Diego with his family earlier this month to start outdoor rehearsals on April 5.
“We’ve got to stay positive,” he said. “The world is always going to need art or we’ll devolve. We need art to educate ourselves.”
Starring in the production as Rosina is mezzo-soprano Emily Fons, who returns to San Diego Opera after playing Zerlina in “Don Giovanni” in 2015 and Cherubino in “The Marriage of Figaro” in 2018. For those wondering about the Figaro reference, both Mozart’s 1786 opera “Marriage” and Rossini’s “Barber” are based on Pierre Beaumarchais’ 1775 French play “The Barber of Seville.”
Like Pershall, Fons saw all of her concert and opera work evaporate last year when the pandemic arrived. The first to go was a concert engagement in Tokyo in late February 2020.
“I took it really personally because nothing else had been canceled, but it didn’t take long before the dominoes started falling and I realized this wasn’t just about me,” she said.
Fons lives with Lupita, her rescued German shepherd mix dog, in Cudahy, Wis., a small town just outside Milwaukee. She said the loss of work was devastating. As a self-employed artist, she couldn’t afford health insurance and struggled to pay her mortgage. Fortunately, she was able to find a part-time sales job at a furniture store last year.
To keep herself creatively engaged, Fons said she embraced technology and began donating her services for online concert gigs. She also built a loyal following of fellow singers on her Instagram page (instagram.com/singwithfonsy/), where she recorded many videos of herself practicing new songs and arias she was learning in her downtime. Rather than fly out to San Diego for “Barber,” she and Lupita did a cross-country drive that she chronicled on Instagram.
“Barber” will be her first time in front of a live audience in 14 months. She’s grateful to be doing it as Rosina. The character of Rosina sings the second most-famous aria in the opera, the dazzling coloratura piece “Una voce poco fa,” where she sings about her new love, her anger at being locked up and her desire to be free. Every mezzo soprano sings the aria in her own unique way.
“Rosina is a part of me, and I’m definitely growing to enjoy her more,” Fons said. “The role is so iconic. Everyone knows the music. When you’re young, you feel the pressure of comparison, but the older I get, the more I try to look at it with fresh eyes. Every time I play it, I write new ornaments and try new things.”
Like Pershall, Fons said the thing she is most excited about in returning to the stage is reuniting with opera friends she hasn’t seen in a long time, including past co-stars Pershall and tenor Carlos Enrique Santelli, who is making his company debut as Count Almaviva.
“I can’t imagine not having all these people in my life,” she said. “They’re all so special and their personalities are so big and generous. I can’t wait to laugh with everybody, create art and be inspired by everybody’s hard work.”
San Diego Opera Festival
“One Amazing Night: When I See Your Face Again: Unmasking the Music of Notorious Pandemics”
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Tickets: $100 and up (cost is per carload, up to the total number of seat belts)
“The Barber of Seville”
When: 7:30 p.m. April 25, 27 and 30 and May 1
Tickets: $200 and up (cost is per carload)
Where: 3500 Sports Arena Blvd., San Diego
— Pam Kragen is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune
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