The debate over immigration reform takes center stage in ¡Figaro! (90210) as the title character from Mozart's beloved opera is recast as an undocumented worker on a Beverly Hills estate. These concert performances showcase the original music note-for-note but with an entirely new English (and Spanglish) libretto that makes "the world's most perfect opera" as fresh, as funny, as relevant – and as revolutionary – as ever.
'Illegal' immigrants Figaro and Susana can't wait to get married, but on their way to the altar they'll have to navigate a world of lecherous bosses, Botoxed starlets, bumbling human traffickers, ambitious hip-hoppers and pothead gardeners in an unpredictable adventure that turns The Marriage of Figaro into a thought-provoking comedy about citizenship in 21st-Century America.
Mixing classically trained voices with performers from more popular styles respects the integrity of the original, while allowing newcomers to appreciate the show like never before, as does the abbreviated running time, which cuts the nearly four-hour opera down to a brisk two-and-a-half, including one 15-minute intermission.
After sold-out performances in November 2012 at Dixon Place, ¡Figaro! (90210) is returning for a limited run of concert performances from June 11-16, 2013. The accomplished cast of opera and theater performers will be directed by emerging Latina director Melissa Crespo, and accompanied live onstage by a five-string ensemble under the direction of pianist and music director Raphael Fusco, whom the New York Times has described as "accomplished and winning."
If you've never seen the opera before, ¡Figaro! (90210) offers the perfect introduction to this timeless work; if you know the music by heart, you'll be surprised how fresh and relevant the show feels with words and settings that directly address the way we live today.
¡Figaro! (90210) will be performed from June 11- 16, 2013 at The NSD Theater, 151 Bank Street, New York.
An interview with Vid Guerrerio, 14 October 2012
To be honest, I think it was probably walking down Hollywood Boulevard while listening to the Marriage of Figaro overture on my iPod… the sun, the palm trees, the traffic, the crazy diversity of everyone passing by were all tied together with Mozart’s racing strings and all of a sudden I could see the whole thing in front of me.
Of course. For most of my adult life I've been a huge fan of the opera and I think it’s one of the most brilliant works of musical theater ever created. I know several people who would take issue with me using the term “musical theater” for The Marriage of Figaro, but most of my creative life has been spent hovering between the worlds of opera and musical theater and I don’t really see much usefulness in a distinction between the two. My first exposure to theater was in the boys’ chorus of Carmen, and from there I went on to perform in all sorts of musicals, which I never really saw as any different from opera. Years later I worked for the Santa Fe Opera in casting and contracting while I was enrolled at NYU’s Musical Theater Writing program and felt that my involvement in both worlds gave me greater insight into each.
Back when I started writing musicals, I actually gave a piano-vocal score of Marriage of Figaro to my early collaborators as an example of what I wanted to write – it seems totally ridiculous now, but I remember later handing one of them eight pages of rhymed couplets which he was to turn into a 15-minute octet to close out Act One of some show. I think I even said, “Well, Mozart did it, so it can’t be that hard!” Sufficed to say, I've had the opera in my brain for a good long while.
I think the initial inspiration was more about economics than politics. My dad is involved in finance and he sends me lots and lots of books on the topic: one that particularly caught my attention was about economic disasters throughout history, and the chapter that really caught my attention was about the role that economic volatility in the 18th Century played in precipitating the French Revolution. Economic volatility, a widening gap between rich and poor... this got me thinking about the current situation in America and the heated rhetoric on both sides about the issue: "job creators," "the 1%," etc., etc.
"Illegal" immigration was initially just the plot device that allowed the two ideas to come together, and create a way in which the basic plot line of the opera could seem remotely credible in the present day. While I was outlining the adaptation, however, my attempts to help out a friend of mine in L.A. unwittingly revealed his undocumented status. Quite suddenly what had been just a clever way to substitute droit de seigneur with the threat of deportation was given a very personal dimension, and I gained a window on what is really an alternate America, where the kinds of protections and rights that we take for granted as citizens pretty much don't exist.
I think it’s the personal connection that compelled me to finish the piece, and to make sure that the adaptation, for all its outrageous comedy and outright farce, still managed to treat the subject with a certain level of seriousness, especially in connection with the Enlightenment ideals of individual freedom and equality, which ironically form the philosophical basis for this country that is having such a hard time deciding if more than ten million people living and working in it actually deserve the full protection of law.
I would say that the biggest inspiration for the adaptation was Los Angeles itself, in all of its messy, sprawling, wildly diverse glory. One of the things that New Yorkers find so confounding about L.A. is the fact that it pretty much completely lacks a central point: a place in the city where you can say, “here I am at the center of it all”. I know I found it terribly disorienting when I moved there almost ten years ago because it feels like everywhere in L.A. is peripheral; that’s until you realize that there are actually thousands of different centers. The impact this has on local culture is powerful, especially with regards to ethnic enclaves. Rather than being forced to blend together, the ethnic communities in Los Angeles create their own centers, their own structures, their own internal hierarchies, without really needing, or even desiring, an interface with the “dominant” culture. That breakdown of a traditional cultural hierarchy causes a lot of people anxiety in this country, and is really the central question around which all the other issues swirl in ¡Figaro! (90210).
The shift to a multi-polar, multi-cultural universe, I think, is the defining issues of America today. Once I realized that this shift mirrors the seismic change that first shook Europe in the 18th Century and continued to rock it for the next hundred years, I found my “way in” to the piece. It is probably important to note that the first lyric I wrote, and the one that I knew I had to write in order to see if the show could work, was the Count’s big aria. I didn’t want him to be a one-dimensional villain, but a personal embodiment of the anxiety many Americans feel as we face this new era; writing new lyrics to this aria was my way to explore both the rational, and irrational, bases for those fears.
The truth is that we are already in the midst of a multi-cultural revolution that is breaking down all sorts of borders and upending traditional hierarchies and there is no turning back. The only question is how we deal with the change. What has been amazing in writing this piece is seeing how Beaumarchais, DaPonte and Mozart looked at a very similar situation nearly 250 years ago and created something so warm, so wise, and so wonderfully funny that it still provides the rock solid foundation for a piece that speaks directly to the changes we face today.
In his libretto DaPonte did his best to tone down the political content, the most notable example being the last act aria “Aprite un po’ quegl’occhi” in which Figaro rages against unfaithful wives. In Beaumarchais’s original, that part of the play contains a bitter invective against the very notion of aristocracy and inherited wealth.
Even with the monologue excised, however, the politics are just as radical, because they are written directly into the plot: the ludicrous revelation that Figaro is not actual serving class but of noble blood, the way in which Susanna and the Countess are able to pass for each other – these expose the totally arbitrary nature of class distinctions in a way that, for any thinking person, really undermines the legitimacy of those distinctions.
I think that Mozart’s music does something even more radical than the play, however – it imbues all its characters, both servant and master, with the same multi-dimensional humanity. By giving such sublime music not only to the nobility, but to the servants as well, Mozart creates an egalitarian world where all characters are on equal footing to connect with the audience.
My understanding is that the Met is doing just fine, and people across the world can’t seem to get enough of Traviata or Carmen. I don't have a problem with traditionally staged opera, they're just not my thing.
These days, however, very little opera is "traditionally" staged and what was novel when Peter Sellars set Pelléas et Mélisande in Malibu happens all the time, as directors hunt for alternate time periods in which to set the classics, so as to keep themselves and their audiences from falling asleep after so many iterations of the same handful of works.
For me, however, these transpositions rarely work because they maintain the same libretto and, as such, create a weird sense of cognitive dissonance wherein the words are of one era (or language) and the setting from an entirely different world. This runs contrary to what I feel is the true objective of opera, which is to involve the audience in an immediate, all-encompassing live experience, which is why my interest is in adaptations that fully embrace the new setting in word and in action.
I’ve had people ask me why, if that’s the case, I don’t just rewrite the music as well. That certainly was an option, but I feel that Mozart’s music so perfectly captures the essence of the story that resetting the words only highlights the timeless brilliance of his dramatic and musical gifts.
At this point that’s almost like asking me to pick a favorite child! Even if I had one, how could I possibly let the others know?
If you twisted my arm, though (OW! Stop twisting my arm!), I would say that it’s probably the scene in which Roxanne, the Countess role in ¡Figaro! (90210), composes a series of sexts to her husband from Susana’s cell phone, in a ludicrous attempt to trick him into falling back in love with her. Throughout ¡Figaro! (90210) mobile phones figure quite prominently in the plot, particularly text messages with sexually suggestive content. But what’s funny is that, for as “contemporary” as all the sexting feels, it’s functionally no different from the erotic notes that are passed back and forth in the original opera. That’s one reason why I love the “Sexting Duet” that Roxanne and Susana sing together – it’s musically and dramatically identical to the original opera, but in a context that speaks really directly to the present day.
I hope you’ll let me pick a second favorite moment, because the point at which Mozart’s score is universally recognized as going from simply genius to truly sublime is the reconciliation between the Count and Countess. Finding the right way to present this heartbreakingly sweet moment in a way that tied into the overall theme of the adaptation, while also allowing Roxanne to come across as a fully-modern woman required several rounds of rewrites, but the moment still makes me tear up, which must mean I’ve gotten out of the way enough to let Mozart’s music do its job.
As for characters, while I love all my children equally, I imagine that Li’l B-Man will emerge as the favorite among most audience members. Just like Cherubino in the original, Li’l B-Man is an adorable troublemaker with a heart of gold, and I was surprised how little alteration was necessary in order to turn an 18th Century pageboy into a 21st Century teenager with Hip-Hop dreams.
The reason why I took on ¡Figaro! (90210) was because I really felt that the update would help illuminate contemporary life in America in an interesting way, and I am definitely wary of taking on another project just because it seems super-hip or super-clever. That said, there’s another popular opera that I’ve had trouble getting out of my mind, and as I drive around L.A. I can’t stop myself from casting the present-day versions of all its characters. So I’ve started work on the new libretto and am hoping to have something ready to share sometime next year.