All Time Coloratura

Smartphones and the Opera

Posted in Thoughts on Opera by cToronto on July 30, 2010
Twitter Fail Whale

Twitter Fail?

I will soon be the owner of a shiny new smartphone, from which I will be able to (but will most likely refrain from) broadcasting various details of my life and activities. Announcing one’s activities, no matter what they might be, is growing more commonplace, and the opera is no exception. Take, for example, this piece in Wired describing the author Dylan Tweney’s attempt to live-tweet a performance of Die Walküre (flagrantly ignoring the pre-performance request that all electronic devices be turned off).

You might think that Twitter and opera (not the browser) don’t work together. On the one hand, you’ve got epically long, rich visual and auditory feasts for the senses that require significant education to appreciate. On the other, you’ve got a text-only medium that restricts you to 140 characters, is free to use, and currently reaches more than 30 million people, who use it to broadcast such prosaic items as what they’re wearing, whether its raining or if Ronaldhino has just scored a goal.

On top of that, opera is, well, old. I think the medium was last popular in about 1895, whereas Twitter is very much a child of the 21st century’s always-on, internet-saturated lifestyle.

But if you treat opera as an event, it sort of makes sense to integrate it with Twitter. After all, people have live-tweeted Steve Jobs keynotes, ballgames, breaking news events and even births. Twitter is very well-suited to giving people a glimpse of something as it happens, adding a communal (and even global) dimension to real-time events. So why not opera?

I have mixed feelings about this. It drives me nuts when I can see someone’s glowing smartphone screen from three rows away. If you’re really that bored, stay home, I usually think. And it’s been a while since I’ve attended a performance where at least one cell phone didn’t go off (followed by panicked attempts to silence it). The substance of Dylan Tweney’s tweets doesn’t do a whole lot to argue his case: he mostly tweeted plot details, which don’t really benefit from a live account (imagine live-tweeting the contents of a book). On the other hand, I think a new breed of discourse is emerging on twitter, and opera companies ignore it at their peril. Opera-listening can be enhanced by communal experience, whether it’s an appreciative nod to the friend sitting next to you after a particularly well-executed high note, or chatting with a fellow opera-lover while listening to a recording or watching a DVD. Vancouver Opera has found a way to live-tweet performances in an innovative and non-disruptive way: tweeting during the performance from backstage (here’s VO’s OperaNinja account).

Here’s a sampling of the comments, positive and negative, from the Wired story:

Dude, if you decide to be in a place where electronic devices are not permitted, then it is your responsibility to turn them off or, even better, leave them at home. There’s more to life than texting and tweeting, even if you write for Wired. You wrote an entire article detailing your own obnoxious behavior.


congratulation…you’re a cultural surrogate. an electronic replacement for hearing, seeing and thinking.
you also an alchemist, since you managed to transmute a complex cultural experience into some banal, pointless observations. you’re also a broadcaster, since you had the technology to transmit your observations to others. you’re a new world man…and i pity you


Allright, so your behavior (tweeting at the opera) seems to have ticked some folks off. Probably would have ticked me off a few years ago too, as folks around you paid a lot of money for their tickets…but I digress. I’m actually a big fan of using this medium in order to bring in a new audience to opera. We have to reach people where they are, and where they are is on twitter and facebook. Folks can either admonish you for your behavior, or thank you for spreading the word. As an opera singer myself, and as the director of a burgeoning regional company that embraces social media and technology, I feel that we have to find a middle-ground. I think we’ll reserve our back-row for twitter-heads this coming season. I, for one, would much rather see the word get out (in a way that doesn’t disturb others) than see the art-form that I love, die a slow and painful death as people lose interest.


I am a composer of operas, and a professor of music as well: one of my students from my spring course on opera forwarded your tweet about the Wagner performance — and I am still laughing so hard, it is almost impossible to type this….Power to you! The art form has a long and complex history, which most genuine opera lovers should know by now: for instance, Italian opera houses (until Napoleon) had exclusive legal gambling rights (which I assume helped to subsidize the costs); boxes were equipped with mirrors, so one could play cards or chess without missing too much of the action; food was served (of course, so no one would leave in your calorie-deprived condition). And so forth. Opera now is very little like opera as it has historically been– and, at best, tries to duplicate the conditions that prevaiied ca.1895. But what about opera in 1675? or 1750? Does anyone actually know the totally wacky stuff that used to go on, routinely? Does anyone read Casanova’s memoirs about castrati — and women posing as castrati, who (he claims) he can tell by intuition? As an ardent admirer and current practitioner of the medium, I support wholeheartedly any and all efforts to bring it back to the lively, low-brow, FUN genre it has been over the ages. Which means opera is not, and cannot ever be, outdated.

This last comment appeals to history – in the past, opera audiences didn’t listen in silence, but rather chatted, ate, and even gambled during the show. The trouble with this kind of argument is – do we really want to return to those days? Even at the movies, still for the most part a populist entertainment, people generally prefer silence and attention from the other members of the audience. The benefits of this are obvious. While increased conversation about opera must always be a good thing, it’s also valuable to retain some experiences to which we are prepared to give our full attention.


The Operatic Orgasm

Posted in Thoughts on Opera by cToronto on July 28, 2010

Here’s a small operatic tidbit from internet/publishing phenomenon PostSecret:

They think I like opera because I'm proper.

I’m sure most opera-lovers can identify scores of operatic moments that remind them of this particular biological event. I know that I discovered opera and boys at roughly the same time.

Opera for Major Life Changes: Les mamelles de Tirésias

Posted in Thoughts on Opera by cToronto on July 19, 2010

I will shortly be beginning a new job, and in seeking out a thematically appropriate opera, was struck by how few operas deal with the question of work and vocation. I suppose this is a function of many opera plots featuring characters who are either divine beings or members of the nobility – none of whom “work for a living” in the usual sense.

Here is one of the exceptions, although its concern with “jobs” is rather oblique: Poulenc’s surrealist opera Les mamelles de Tirésias (English translation: The Breasts of Tiresias), a short, goofy opera dealing with gender politics and birth rate panic. The opera is partially a satirical response to alarm at falling birth rates in early 20th-century France, as well as the changing role of women in society. The principal character, Thérèse, is unsatisfied with her feminine role and announces early in the opera that she is a feminist. She rattles off a litany of male occupations that sound much more appealing than cooking and childbearing, then promptly dispenses with her breasts (represented by two balloons that she removes from her bodice) and becomes male. Later in the opera, her husband decides that he must make up for his wife’s unwillingness to bear children by having some of his own – and by the following day he’s given birth to over forty thousand of them.

It’s tempting to read the opera as attempting to subvert traditional gender roles, and that likely accounts for much of its renewed popularity – but it seems just as likely that it’s an attempt to point out what 1930’s traditionalists would have seen as the absurdity of the feminist project. I certainly prefer to see it as both silly and subversive, especially since the music has a tuneful vaudevillian lean and showcases Poulenc at his most hedonistic.

Here’s a YouTube performance from the Liceu Barcelona of Thérèse/Tiresias transition from female to male (nudity warning!). The sound quality is rather poor but the performance is exuberant. The 1999 Barbara Bonney recording is a staple of my listening.

Learning to Love Modern Opera

Posted in Thoughts on Opera by cToronto on July 11, 2010

Photo from Robert Lapage's production of Schoenberg's Erwartung. Photo by Michael Cooper, Canadian Opera Company

Like a lot of people, I learned to love opera by listening to Puccini. There’s a reason why people who rarely go to the opera will buy a ticket to La Boheme and bawl their eyes out at the end – Puccini was a master of isolating the “good parts” (i.e. immediately, popularly appealing) of opera, cranking them up to maximum intensity, and cutting back on everything else. This is extremely difficult for a composer/dramatist to accomplish – several centuries of operatic output have yielded maybe ten works that reliably bring in the crowds now that the form is outmoded. Shakespeare alone has a much better track record for longevity than all the greatest opera composers combined. But there are downsides to loving Puccini. He only wrote a handful of operas and a couple of those are duds. The good ones don’t have a lot of thematic variation (the plots of them could be summed up as, woman falls in love, suffers, dies). If you’re listening and going to the opera with any regularity, you’ll probably get bored of the big three (Boheme, Butterfly, and Tosca) pretty fast.

Of course, there’s Mozart and Verdi and Rossini and Wagner to explore, each with their own rewards and drawbacks. There’s the French and Russian repertoire. But even after exhausting these options, many people avoid “modern” (meaning, post-WWI) opera like the plague, despite the fact that, by definition, it’s the only site of new operatic production. And this is a shame, because it’s one of the most rewarding areas to explore, an entire branch of repertoire that can make you think about what opera should be and what it’s truly capable of when divorced from the popular appeal that used to sustain it.

Aversion to modern opera is easy to understand. The music, rather than being tuneful/romantic/charming, is often highly abstract and difficult to follow. A lot of post-WWI operas have unrelentingly bleak plots, and may also look drab on stage. The fact is that, in the 20th century, opera transformed from being popular entertainment to a niche interest, and opera composers are no longer bound or motivated by the desire to appeal to popular tastes. Alienation is therefore part of the territory.

Some people assume that you need to be musically educated to appreciate this style of music. I think there is some truth to this, but not in the sense that formal or “book-learning” is necessary. I think what’s required more than a study of the principles of twelve-tone music (or whatever) is the willingness to listen widely, and with an open mind. Modern opera won’t get you drunk and sweep you away the way Puccini does, but it can inspire devotion just as intense. So, here are my tips for dipping into opera post-WWI.

1. Give it time. If necessary, wait until you start getting bored with the standard rep. If you put on Bluebeard’s Castle and hate it within the first ten minutes, don’t try to force it and don’t start complaining to everyone within earshot that no one knows how to write pretty music anymore. Put it back on the shelf and go back to Verdi; in a few months you might surprise yourself by giving it another shot and loving it.

2. Look for works “on the border”, or works that wear their classic influences on their sleeve. Salome and Jenufa are examples of the former, and Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress is an example of the latter. If you’re already an opera lover, you’ll have a good grip on the roots of these works and a good basis for exploration. Give Benjamin Britten a listen, save Alban Berg for later.

3. Listen to more baroque opera. This might seem counter-intuitive, but a lot of modern opera is inspired by a desire to return to the relative austerity and technical complexity of the pre-Mozartean era. If you have a good ear for Montiverdi, Gluck, and Handel, you’ll have a better idea of the kind of effect many modern composers are going for.

4. Relish works in the English language. If you’re an English speaker (which you must be if you’re reading this), the English-language repertoire has gotten much vaster and richer in the last century of opera composition. Not only that, but the literary quality of opera libretti has gone way up, and enjoying the textual element of opera is much easier and more rewarding now. This is what struck me about listening recently to Nixon in China – hearing lines sung like “I want to hear the sound of industry borne on the wind” reminds me that opera isn’t only a musical experience.

5. Attend live performances when possible, or rent a DVD. Public libraries often have an excellent selection of opera on VHS and DVD, and something that may not immediately make sense aurally may become easier to understand when put in its proper stage context.

6. Some modern works are actually comedies! Not all of them are about the bleakness of existence. The Rake’s Progress and Les Mamelles de Tiresias are both excellent and lighthearted.

Underlying all of this is one basic principle – try to stay open-minded. If after several listens you hate Richard Strauss, that’s fine, but that’s no reason to also write off Bartok or Carlisle Floyd. If you subscribe to the local company’s season, don’t go to Barbiere but sell your ticket to Lulu because you assume it will be no fun. No one has to like everything, but cutting yourself off from a whole branch of the repertoire does no one any favours, especially not the composers, directors, and singers who are looking for ways to keep opera vibrant and living.

Sometimes Blogs Lead to Good Things

Posted in COC, Thoughts on Opera, Weirdness by cToronto on July 3, 2010

So, back in January, I finally started an opera blog after many years of thinking about it. I was a bit insecure about this endeavour, and wasn’t quite sure how I’d fit into the online opera world, but went ahead with it anyway. I wasn’t really sure what would come of it, but I thought at least it would lead me to learn interesting things. My first post ever was about an Opera 101 event hosted by the Canadian Opera Company.

Then I wrote a post about Opera Atelier and that led to volunteering for them and making some new and wonderful opera friends. I encountered other interesting bloggers. I felt like writing All Time Coloratura was making my life better in some very direct ways.

Then, when the Canadian Opera Company announced a job opening for a Social and Interactive Media Coordinator, I took the plunge and applied, thinking that even if I didn’t get hired it would be a chance to meet people at the COC and perhaps raise my own profile. Last week they offered me the job. My work will involve maintaining a blog, managing the COC’s presence on various social networks, and cultivating relationships with other people in the online opera community.

It’s possible, I suppose, that I could have been hired without the blog, but I’m sure that it would have been considerably more difficult to make my case without being able to point to All Time Coloratura. So, thank you to everyone who stopped by, linked to me, left a comment, or encouraged me to keep writing. I honestly feel as though I’ve become part of a real community.

I start working for the COC a couple of weeks from now. I intend to keep blogging here, in a non-official capacity. Some aspects of the blog may need to change given the change in my circumstances – particularly the coverage of COC productions – but I hope you all keep reading. And, if you have any thoughts on how an opera company can engage its audience online in a way that’s warm, exciting, and innovative, please get in touch with me (alltimecoloratura at gmail)! Actually, get in touch with me even if it’s just to introduce yourself. Talking about opera on the internet will soon be what I get up in the morning to do.

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I Heart Ruggero Raimondi

Posted in Opera Movies, Thoughts on Opera by cToronto on June 27, 2010

When I was first getting into opera, Ruggero Raimondi was my guide, at first without my really realizing it. In the beginning I wasn’t paying much attention to the names on the CD covers, but once I started paying attention I realized he was on all my favourite recordings. I started off with Puccini, and Raimondi was there on the 1979 Carreras/Ricciarelli Tosca, as the smoothest evilest Scarpia out there. Then I moved on to Mozart, and Raimondi was there as a chocolate-tongued Don Giovanni and a Count Almaviva with gravitas. Then I started getting into the Russian rep and Raimondi was there in the Russianest opera of them all, Boris Godunov. Then I was interested in Rossini and Raimondi was there again in a variety of comic roles.


The Pleasures of Opera on Vinyl

Posted in Thoughts on Opera by cToronto on June 11, 2010

Many of us are familiar with the vinyl fetishism that is gaining ground among rock, pop, & jazz enthusiasts. These days every self-respecting Brooklynite mp3 blogger owns a suitcase turntable (which can now be purchased from Urban Outfitters), and a lot of new indie releases include a vinyl option. Deep into the iPod age, it turns out that many people still want a medium with pretty packaging: something that they can hold in their hands, organize on a shelf, and dig through bins for. While sales of just about everything music-related are plummeting, the LP is actually clawing its way back up.

Classical and opera seems to have remained largely immune to this trend, with fans choosing to mostly buy recordings on CD or electronically, even though we opera-heads arguably have much more compelling reasons to stick to the old medium. The downsides of electronic formats for opera are vast and much discussed. In addition to vague claims of loss of “warmth” with digital formats, there’s the issue of fragmentation: while the iTunes world urges us to abandon the album and instead shuffle through an ever-changing playlist of 4-minute favourites, opera benefits from being listened to all the way through, in the intended order. And let’s not get started on the best way to deal with all those recitative tracks.

If you are lucky enough to live near good record stores (Toronto is particularly blessed in this aspect), it’s well worth taking the time to dig through their bins. What opera you find is likely to be extremely cheap once, I found a complete Deutsche Grammophon box set of Die Zauberflote in pristine condition, complete with fat, glossy libretto, for $3. I found the Leontyne Price Tosca and a lovely Contes D’Hoffmann languishing in a bargain bin. My Springsteen-loving boyfriend, used to record store rock sections that have been picked to the bones by hipsters and collectors, was jealous of the quality of recordings available. If you’re patient and willing to sift through the bins at the back of the store (in a lot of places, the classical stuff just winds up in a section called “bargain” along with Nana Mouskouri), you’re almost certain to be rewarded.

Granted, there are some downsides. New opera releases rarely come out on vinyl, so the things you’ll find tend to date from the 80’s and earlier. You have to turn over the record a lot more frequently than you’d have to change a CD. But the vast selection of first-rate recordings for rock-bottom prices, as well as the pleasure of beautiful packaging and big libretti in a reasonable font size, makes it worth pulling that old record player out of your parents’ basement.        

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People Who Like Opera

Posted in Thoughts on Opera by cToronto on May 31, 2010

Last Thursday, Robert Thicknesse of The Guardian published a piece highly critical of opera and opera culture. Though he has long been an opera lover, he says, he’s been finding it difficult to keep the faith in the face of what he perceives as the elitist nature of the form.

You hardly need me to tell you that opera is pretty stupid. Ask the audience: plenty of them will tell you the same, if you can get them to wake up. Is there any other form of entertainment so frequented by people who do not like it? This notion – that opera is not actually all that much fun – is hardly new; that’s why it comes all dollied up in red velvet, snobbery, fancy dress and vats of alcohol, sops to the considerable sections of the audience who are there for reasons not associated with aesthetic pleasure, the socially ambitious, the conspicuous spenders, those trying to beguile clients or spouses or potential mistresses.

I have indeed met people whose enjoyment of opera was transparently a product of their class aspirations, and people who are attracted to the opera more because of the atmosphere of red velvet, snobbery, and fancy dress than because of the music (usually this viewpoint has been informed by movies and TV, and they are sorely disappointed when they attend an actual opera). But Thicknesse’s description really isn’t my experience of the “opera crowd” at all. When I think about the people I know who regularly attend the opera, few of them fit into this stereotype. So in response to this essay, I’ll talk about what “the opera crowd” means to me.


My mother dated an opera singer in her youth and watched the performances from the wings. She always, always cries at the end of Madama Butterfly and La Boheme. When I started getting seriously into opera, she usually watched the opera videos I rented with me. She loves Ben Heppner over all tenors, even though she doesn’t like Wagner.


My Grade 12 History teacher was “the cool teacher”, full of facts and a fantastic storyteller, with a strange and much-parodied-by-students way of shaking his hips while writing on the blackboard. He described opera as one of his great passions, and told us he’d been attending the opera for over 20 years. He liked Aida but hated Lucia di Lammermoor, and said he was the only person in his rock climbing group who listened to opera on his walkman while scaling walls.


I made a mix tape (back when these were actually cassette tapes) for a girl in high school who was growing into a good friend, who introduced me to the cool kids and invited me to parties. She played on the volleyball team and wore peasant blouses. The tape I made her had opera on one side, and instrumental classical on the other side, and I remember it being very heavy on Puccini. She told me that she loved it and listened to it constantly, as she fell asleep at night and when she woke up in the morning. She wrote me detailed notes on her response to each track and asked for more tapes, which I happily made. She loved the sound of the soprano voice.


When I’d outgrown Opera for Dummies and other introductory opera books, I started gleaning knowledge from online discussion groups, principally The most vocal members (in memory, anyway) were New Yorkers who spent a lot of time collecting bootleg recordings and reminiscing about The Old Days. They had the most vicious, creatively-worded flamewars I have ever encountered on the internet (which is actually pretty impressive), they were generally not rich people, and they loved opera with a fiery intensity. Splinter groups started forming on Yahoo groups, which were a bit less homogenous/nasty (with particular fondness I remember “Gay Opera Punks”, “Opera Dykes”, and “The Parlour of Opera Lovers”). They were full of young people who weren’t from NYC. They even included some teenaged girls who felt about Eugene Onegin the way some girls feel about Edward Cullen.


I worked during university at a ladies’ shoe store, staffed in large part by immigrants from Europe, some of whom had worked there ten years or more and had cultivated a loyal clientele. One of my favourite co-workers was Hungarian. She wore a pixie cut and heavy eyeshadow, and was always debating whether or not she could allow herself a muffin from the Treats kiosk in the food court. Though she never said anything about it to me, other co-workers told me that her family had escaped from behind the iron curtain on the pretext of a vacation, leaving all their possessions behind in Hungary. She said she didn’t miss Hungary at all, but that she deeply missed going to the opera. She had given up trying to take her husband to the opera in Canada, because he always fell asleep. She loved Tosca and Edith Piaf.


The man who taught my Modern Poetry class in University last year is an opera lover. The first day of class he wore a t-shirt that read “Pure Hell” in pink lettering. He is the only person I have seen successfully wear a pink tie/pink shirt combination. He never explicitly told us in class that he loves opera, but it is obvious – he lingered lovingly over the lines in T.S. Eliot that allude to The Ring Cycle, never failed to mention when a poet had also written an opera libretto, tried to recruit students into making use of the cheap tickets available from the English department, and organized screenings from his opera DVD collection. He made terrible, terrible jokes in class (sample: “Let’s get Wasted!” for The Waste Land), even in the weeks following the death of his mother that year. He admired Robert Lapage.


My friend Heather, who regular readers will remember as a contributor, is a graduate student who was once in the army and is now getting her PhD in 18th Century English Literature. Opera tickets are sometimes difficult for her to afford, but that doesn’t stop her from taking a chance on difficult or unfamiliar works. When she lived in Toronto (as she will again soon), we would attend together, both of us in the cheap seats in the fifth ring, and booze it up after the performance. Sometimes we listened to opera while working together at her apartment. She was the person who first took me to Opera Atelier.


For me, the stereotypical “opera crowd” includes a lot of teachers and academic types, music students, and retirees who probably didn’t listen to opera in their youth but are now interested in delving into a different kind of musical experience. At the end of La Traviata I usually hear sniffles all around me. Whenever I try to go see the Met movie telecasts they’re usually sold out, despite the plebian multiplex setting and proximity to screenings of Iron Man 2 or whatever. Sometimes I experience opera burnout, but not because I think everyone in the audience is a social climber or an idiot. Because, in truth, most of them aren’t.

UPDATE, 6:40 PM: Why not make this into a collaborative effort? In the comments, post a description of someone you know who really likes opera, and who does not fit the description of “the socially ambitious, the conspicuous spenders, those trying to beguile clients or spouses or potential mistresses”.

Why I’ve Stopped Looking for “The Best”

Posted in Thoughts on Opera by cToronto on May 22, 2010

In opera, as in many things, there’s sometimes an obsession with the idea of “the best”. Is the best live opera to be found in North America or Europe? Was Maria Callas the best Tosca, and was Corelli the best Radames? Is Verdi’s early work his best, or his later? Is there any point in recording another Rosenkavalier, or will the Schwartzkopf one always be best?

I think the opera lover can benefit enormously from setting aside attempts to define “the best”.

Here’s an example: I have a friend who is a devoted opera lover, full of intelligence and enthusiasm. His opera DVD collection is massive. And he works in New York City, where first-class opera and world-famous singers can be seen almost any night of the week. And yet, he rarely goes. The last time I asked him (which was admittedly a while ago), he told me he hadn’t been to the Metropolitan Opera at all since moving to the area.

I was stunned. I couldn’t understand why he never went to the Met when it was right on his doorstep. The explanation he gave me was that he wouldn’t be able to enjoy it unless he had really good seats, and the really good seats at the Met cost hundreds of dollars. Family circle? I asked. Standing room? But he wasn’t having any of it. It was the best, or nothing.

It’s true that as you get more familiar with an art form and come to recognize what separates the acceptable from the exquisite, standards are bound to rise as the flaws become more obvious. Also, the nature of internet discussion encourages writers to try to stake a claim, and defining things according to a strict standard – either by proclaiming something to be “the best” or insisting that it falls short of it – is an easy way to set oneself apart.

Here, I’ll do it now: The Metropolitan Opera in New York is widely considered to be the best opera company in the world. But I don’t remember any Met performance as fondly as Les Contes D’Hoffmann at the Edmonton Opera. Ruggero Raimondi probably wasn’t “the best” Scarpia, but even if Gobbi could be resurrected, be-wigged, and restored to glory, I’d still listen to my Raimondi recording. Debates about “who sang it better” are almost always, as Holly Golightly might put it, a thumping bore.

I hope I am never the kind of opera-goer who is unable to enjoy a student production, or a cheap seat at the theatre, or an interesting singer whose high notes are wobbly. Opera itself is beautifully flawed, and sometimes an interesting flaw is better food for thought than the clearest high note.

On The Countess

Posted in Opera Atelier, Thoughts on Opera by cToronto on May 1, 2010
Photo: Bruce Zinger / Artists: Peggy Kriha Dye & Wallis Giunta. Courtesy of Opera Atelier.

Photo: Bruce Zinger / Artists: Peggy Kriha Dye & Wallis Giunta. Courtesy of Opera Atelier.

Last night I had the opportunity to see Acts III and IV of Opera Atelier’s The Marriage of Figaro after volunteering at the subscription renewal tables. I realized that even if I only ever wrote about The Marriage of Figaro on this blog, I’d probably never run out of material. And soon, of course, I will be writing about other operas (next up: Idomeneo) but I’d really like to linger a little longer on this subject.

The way I see it, one’s concept of Figaro – what kind of opera is it? What’s important about it? What does it have to say? – really hinges on the figure of La Contessa. Even within the confines of this single opera, she’s an incredibly complex character, and when you expand your frame of reference to include the other two plays in Beaumarchais’ trilogy and the operas they inspired (the first of which – The Barber of Seville – is very familiar to opera fans, the third – The Guilty Mother – much less so), things get even more interesting.

How does she fit within the paradigm of lighthearted-but-politically-and-emotionally-charged farce? First, she is undeniably a full participant in the comedy. To treat her as the “straight man”, at a regal remove from the hijinks, is to do her a disservice. In The Barber of Seville, she’s as much an engineer as Figaro of the comedic schemes; The moment when she produces the letter Figaro has just been urging her to write (Un biglietto? … Eccolo qua) is possibly my favourite moment in that opera. In The Marriage of Figaro, Figaro himself is pretty ineffectual and it’s the great lady herself who ultimately brings her husband in line. In the scenes with Cherubino she sparkles with mischief, an intelligent, worldly woman who knows exactly how to torment a naive young boy.

On the other hand, in The Marriage of Figaro she’s the only character who seems to be experiencing any sort of long-term anguish (apart from sexual frustration). Figaro’s feelings of betrayal in Act IV, while genuine and movingly expressed, are short-lived and based on a misunderstanding that is easily resolved. For the Countess, however, both of her arias (Porgi, amor and Dove sono) are sorrowful, expressing profound disillusionment with love and marital happiness. They are also absolutely necessary to the drama, and must be taken seriously if Contessa, perdonothe opera’s final moment of forgiveness and reconciliation – is to have any emotional impact whatsoever.

By the time we see her in The Marriage of Figaro, she can hear about her husband making a pass at her best friend without sobbing or flying into a rage in grand operatic style. Five years before, perhaps the first couple of times, she would have done those things. But she’s been entirely worn out. You can hear this, in Porgi, amor – the long ascending line on lascia, the let in the phrase let me die. She longs for release, relief, rest. And she still loves him!

So, how do you play the Countess? I recall seeing one Figaro on DVD a while ago that depicted her as the victim of physical abuse by the Count. This seems to me to be incorrect. Not that it wouldn’t be historically accurate – I’m sure plenty of 18th century Countesses were slapped around by their Counts – but it’s wrong for Figaro, which is first and foremost a comedy. This heavy-handed treatment seems to me to be symptomatic of the changing narrative about Mozart: starting with the early narrative of the perfect prodigy, composer of beautiful but somewhat sterile music; continuing to Shaffer’s Amadeus, the vulgar, dirty-minded boy with a direct line from God to his pen, unequal to his music; and then the current attempts to correct both of those narratives by emphasizing how hardworking and thoughtful Mozart actually was, and how much emotional richness his music actually contains. A Figaro that focuses excessively on the class and gender politics constitutes an effort to convince the audience that Mozart! Is! Serious!, and reveals the consuming fear of irrelevance that seems to continually plague the opera world.

And yes, Mozart is serious. And I’m as much in favour of ferreting out hidden subtexts as any self-respecting amateur critic must be. But, the truth is that The Marriage of Figaro really doesn’t need to be propped up the way that, say, Il Trovatore sometimes does. It works just fine on its own – marvelously, in fact. It’s funny, it has no longeurs, and it carries no problematic cultural baggage like Cosi fan Tutte or the Ring Cycle. The Countess can be sad and she can sparkle, just the way she does on the page and at the piano. And this is mostly how Opera Atelier approaches it – as a comedy that requires no gimmicks, where movement can be guided by the music and the audience doesn’t need to be browbeaten into laughing at the jokes.

I warmed up considerably to Peggy Kriha Dye’s performance upon a second viewing (although I still think Canzonetta sull’aria was way too fast). She moves with grace and agility, and is immediately believable as an astute noblewoman. During Dove sono she allowed her voice to break at strategic points, to give the impression of being on the point of tears, and the transition from sorrow to anticipated triumph was managed perfectly – with help from a few clear, very powerful high notes. She gives the impression of a great force just waiting to be unleashed. And Piu dolce io sono came, as it should, like the unfolding of a flower, or the exhale after a three-hour inhale.

An interesting choice was made in the final tableau, which showed the Countess in Cherubino’s arms with the other characters pointing and reacting with shock. This looks ahead, of course, to Beaumarchais’ third play, The Guilty Mother, that sees the Countess pregnant with Cherubino’s child after an impulsive one night stand. I like that Figaro’s “happy ending” is actually somewhat compromised – it gives me more fodder to ruminate endlessly on it.