Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Opera Preview: A conversation with Michael Shell, stage director of Opera Theatre's "Barber of Seville"

Michael Shell
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Opera Theatre of St. Louis opens its 2015 festival season with Rossini's popular comic opera "The Barber of Seville" on Saturday, May 23rd. The production, which will run through June 27th, will alternate with three other operas on the main stage of the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus.

This will be OTSL's sixth production of the opera. In an email interview, I asked stage director Michael Shell (who directed Mozart's "Cosi fan Tutte" for OTSL back in 2012) what to expect in this latest version of the Rossini classic.

Chuck Lavazzi (CL): When this production made its first appearance with Opera Philadelphia last October, the reviewer for PhillyNow praised its "modernist set design and colorful costumes". How would you describe the look of this new "Barber"?

Michael Shell (MS): I would describe the look of new production as vibrant, energetic and very Spanish. The music is vibrant and energetic/rhythmic. I wanted the look and feel of this production and the way we tell the story to match the vibrant rhythmic quality of the music. This is not Beaumarchais's "Barber of Seville." This is very much a Rossini comedy in the best sense. It walks the line between reality and absurdity and I wanted an environment that could sustain and allow for both. The updating of the piece, using the films of Pedro Almodovar as a jumping off point, helped give us a different way to look at the whole. Not to ignore any aspect of what was there, but allow us to go to a variety of different places.

CL: How does that vision of "Barber" influence the way you direct your singers? Is there a particular acting style you're going for that might be different from a more traditional production?

MS: I always come from a place of what does the character want and how do they get it. That is the most important thing. What changes because of this take on the show, is the how. How they go about achieving their goals becomes just as important as what the goals or objectives are. How does Bertha, for example, who I feel really loves Bartolo, go about getting him to notice her. The Count's disguise as Don Alonso allows the meaning of his words at the top of Act II "Peace and joy and understanding" to go to a different place in order to trick Bartolo.

CL: Yes. Actors can never go wrong asking "what's my objective in this scene?" regardless of whether there's music behind them or not.

MS: Absolutely!! I agree completely. Tends to not be the first thing that opera singers ask, but I am fortunate that this cast was very interested in discussing and working towards that so that we could make interesting choices on how to go about achieving their objectives.

Shell's "Cosi fan Tutte" at OTSL, 2012
CL: The notion of what's funny varies among cultures and often changes over time. Directors of Shakespeare's comedies, for example, often find themselves faced with a real challenge in keeping the shows funny for a modern audience when the references for so many of the jokes have been lost over the centuries. Do you find a similar challenge in 18th and 19th century comic operas? How do you deal with it, if so?

MS: In terms of comedies, the good comedic operas by Mozart or Rossini for example, have tapped into something that is universal and still relevant to us today. So while my choice of setting for this production is updated, and it certainly allows us to be somewhat anachronistic at times, the whole point was to tap into that universal humor that is intrinsic in the piece. And perhaps by putting it in a setting that is distant but still closer to our time than the original period, it may be more humorous to some people who might not be enticed by a traditional telling. The new touches that make it perhaps more humorous are only able to work because we have found situations that match the ones in the piece. For example - In discussion the characters with my team, we decided that because Bartolo is so blind to not only the fact that Rosina could never love him, but somewhat oblivious to everything that is going on around him, that he should be an eye doctor. And in our efforts to keep the character of Rosina from being just this bored, sometimes petulant girl, in this production, we thought that Bartolo would make her be his medical assistant / secretary in order to keep an eye on her. So in his aria near the end of Act I, we introduce a patient into the mix while Bartolo is fuming with anger at Rosina. So he is having to deal with this patient and Rosina at the same time. The exam gets out of control as he loses his cool with Rosina.

This is in no way saying that a traditional telling of this piece is equally as funny. But I figured that it might be interesting to explore a new side of this piece to do what you said about keeping it funny for a modern audience.

CL: One last question: OperaBase shows "Barber" as the eighth most performed opera in the world right now and the third most performed comedy, right behind Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro." What do you think is behind that continuing popularity?

MS: To answer your question - I think I can sum that up with one word : JOY. There is so much joy in the spirit of the piece that I think that is why it has stood the test of time. There is joy in the story, in the characters and especially Rossini's music. It is just a lot of fun to be in this world. And what I hope our production has done has created a world, that may be different than the normal one, but a world that the audience wants to be in and be a part of.

For ticket information on "The Barber of Seville," the season's other operas, and information on the entire OTSL experience (including picnic suppers on the lawn before the shows): experienceopera.org.

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