Opera Tackles Contemporary Issues in Updated and Timeless ‘¡Figaro!’

It wasn’t until Act Two of ¡Figaro! (90210) that Chautauqua Opera Young Artist Laura León understood the political significance of a show that was once a simple gender comedy.

“We, as a versatile cast, hold a truth that must be divulged and shared with the world,” León said. “This is not only a show, it’s our everyday lives.”

At 7 p.m. Sunday, June 30 in Norton Hall, current political realities will fill the air as the Chautauqua Opera Company presents Vid Guerrerio’s ¡Figaro! (90210), a modern take on Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.

The original, four-hour opera tells the story of a “single day of madness” following main characters Figaro and his bride-to-be Susanna, who are both employed as servants by Count Almaviva. It takes place three years after Figaro helped the Count marry his wife, Countess Rosine, in the story of The Barber of Seville.

But in the shorter, adapted version of The Marriage of Figaro, Guerrerio’s ¡Figaro! (90210), the count and his wife are Hollywood elites living a luxurious lifestyle as Paul and Roxanne Conti, who are portrayed by baritone Matthew Cossack and soprano Lauren Yokabaskas. Figaro, played by baritone Jesús Vicente Murillo, and his fiancé, Susana — originally referred to as Susanna in the classic version — played by León, are undocumented Mexican immigrants who work on Paul and Roxanne’s estate.

“The story doesn’t veer too far from the original, but it veers enough and creates enough of a new context where it makes sense,” said Eric Einhorn, stage director of ¡Figaro! (90210).

In addition to the themes of immigration and racism that drive the narrative and characters, the opera is on the cusp of being a satire, as it tackles liberalism versus conservatism in a witty way. The intense topics cut down a bit of the comedy from the original.   

“It deals with some pretty hot-button contemporary issues,” Einhorn said. “But it does it in such a thoughtful, often elegant kind of way.

Guerrerio puts the characters into the modern world where there’s a bit more at stake, but scheming and flirtation still help fuel the drama.

In the original, Susanna is pressured to sleep with the Count; in the adapted version, Susana is still pressured to sleep with Paul Conti in order to get her Green Card in the midst of deportation threats. Meanwhile, Figaro owes money to a Korean businesswoman who paid for Susana to cross the border.

Through characters — who have been updated to showcase different ethnic backgrounds — the opera tells an immigrant story, furthering the show’s political significance.

“You have other characters in this opera that are changed in a way to shine a light on other versions and other aspects of the immigration and race debate,” Einhorn said. “That conversation (of race and immigration) was really facilitated by the fact that this is a contemporary story.”

During rehearsals, Einhorn implored the cast members to empathize with the difficulties the characters faced as they left their homes. He said the characters deal with very real problems, which required the Young Artists to bring a piece of themselves to their roles. For Yokabaskas, this prompted her to look at her character, Roxanne, with fresh eyes.

“I quickly realized that the way our Roxanne moves through the modern world, and the challenges of her life are completely different from the way the Countess is typically portrayed,” Yokabaskas said.

Audience members who are familiar with the original story will view ¡Figaro! (90210) in a different way, much like when a reader watches a movie adaption of a book.

“It’s like that movie that satisfies both book reader and novice to the material,” Einhorn said.

Einhorn said the characters are people who audiences can identify with in both the original and adapted opera.

What makes it timeless is that this opera is about humanity,” Einhorn said. “It’s about people and relationships in whatever version you do it in.”

Steve Osgood, the general and artistic director of Chautauqua Opera, will lead a ¡Figaro! (90210) Operalogue at 5 p.m. Sunday, June 30 in Fletcher Music Hall.

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The author Tina Giuliano

Tina Giuliano is a rising junior at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication in Phoenix, where she studies broadcast journalism and Spanish. She serves as the multimedia managing editor at her school’s paper, The State Press. She is excited to begin covering opera for the Daily. When she’s not diving into her journalism career, she’s probably rewatching “The Office,” at a soccer game or figuring out which flavor of ice cream to eat.