Springfield Regional Opera has been rejuvenated this season by the additions of world-renowned tenor Michael Spyres--himself an SRO alum, originally from Mansfield, Missouri--as the company's Artistic Director, and Christopher Koch of the Springfield-Drury Civic Orchestra as the new SRO Music Director and Conductor. The opera company, which has been somewhat inactive in recent years, debuts its first new "mainstage" production in a couple of years: Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, Friday and Saturday April 1st and 2nd at 7:30pm in the Gillioz Theatre. Michael says "we're very excited about this production because it's been 17 years, I believe, since the last time Marriage of Figaro was produced here in Springfield." As it happens, that SRO production was the first opera Michael had ever sung in a foreign language (in this case, Italian): he played the gardener Don Curzio.
"The big thing we're doing with this opera is to try to reach out to people and make them realize that opera is a living, breathing thing. And so I've updated the entire idea, (though) we've been true to the commedia dell'arte (origins) of the piece, and very true to Mozart as far as his ideas about characterization." He says it's "very much a modern type of opera (production)"--but without straying into the tasteless and bizarre by-ways seen on many European opera stages. That's something Michael has seen plenty of in his own career over the past decade. "I've performed sometimes where I've looked at myself going, 'why am I doing this?!'"
One innovative element of this new Figaro production is SRO's collaboration with well-known local photographer Julie Blackmon. Michael Spyres approached her about the possibility of using her photographs as the show's main set pieces, "and actually bring her photographs to life." And that's exactly what they've done. "We ended up printing four of her prints for each of the acts," says Michael. They're on large (11 feet by 9 feet) panels, "just gorgeously done" by Colorgraphic here in Springfield.
The play on which Mozart's Figaro is based, a social satire by Beaumarchais, was banned in Vienna due to its supposed "licentiousness." Michael Spyres notes that "what most people don't realize is that Mozart put his life literally on the line to put this (opera) out, because it's a very racy subject. And any time that you're talking about class structure and class struggle--that's still a no-no in many, many societies." It was Mozart's "panache and beauty, with a comedic air", that got the work past the censors of the late 1780s.
Figaro is a story of servants versus masters--and Michael adds, "usually the masters end up looking like idiots! It's a really fun opera, and it pokes fun at many different class structures and ideas about love and jealosy. And I think it's very relevant for modern audiences. Opera's not this big, scary thing where huge fat people are in big horns and shouting in a foreign language. So we're actually doing all of the music [i.e. the main arias, duets and ensemble pieces] in Italian, but the recitatives"--the sung "dialog" portions, keyboard-accompanied, that propel the plot-line forward--"in English. It's our own translation." And when he says "our," he means it: he and the cast collaborated on the English translations, which include the occasional updated reference to hillbillies and Prozac "to keep the audience on their toes."
One of the major plot points in Figaro is the alleged practice, dating back to feudal times, of droit du seigneur ("right of the lord")--basically a privilege reserved by the (male) master, by which he supposedly could demand the right to "have his way" with one of his female servants/employees on the eve of her wedding. In this case Count Almaviva spends virtually the entire opera trying to seduce his servant Figaro's fiancee Susanna, who also works in the Count's household and is thus under his dominion. As Michael points out, we don't know definitively that this sort of thing was rampant in 18th-century Spain--"but that's the rumor. There's not a lot of historical evidience for it, but that's the basis for the entire opera."
The cast is almost exclusively local, drawn from the large talent pool of area university students and music department faculty. One import is a friend and colleague of Michael's, bass-baritone Ben Wager from Philadelphia, singing the title role of Figaro. And Michael's brother Sean Spyres is credited as Stage Director--though Michael admits it's been a collaboration between them that, among other things, has allowed the brothers to spend more quality time together than usual, what with Michael singing in Europe and elsewhere for up to nine months a year. "It's always been a collaborative effort with my family because we've done so many shows--we're basically the hillbilly Von Trapps! But I'm just so proud that (Sean) and I got to actually spend time together."
Mozart's music is said to be good for a singer's voice, but this is a three-hour opera we're talking about, and SRO's cast is singing it back-to-back, Friday and Saturday nights. But Michael Spyres has a strong understanding of vocal technique and what is required of opera singers. "We've assembled a really great cast, and one of my strong points is knowing, exactly, people's voice-types and knowing what they can do with them." He has to use this knowledge in his own career as a singer, because Michael specializes in some of the most wide-ranging, strenuous music in the tenor repertoire: the "bel canto" operas of Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini, Berlioz and Meyerbeer. And Michael is one of only a handful of major tenors in the world (think of singers like John Osborn and Lawrence Brownlee) who has mastered those roles. "There are about four or five of my friends, and we're all in it together. So if I'm not doing a William Tell or a Benvenuto Cellini, one of my friends is. And if they get, we'll talk to each other on Facebook and be like, 'Hey man, can you take this over?' So I really understand voices. And I think we did a great job of assembling some of Springfield's best."
Both performances will be preceded by a half-hour talk/introduction to the opera and its connection to commedia dell'arte. For more information visit http://www.sropera.org.