At the end of this month, Sydney-based opera company The Cooperative will perform an exciting new production of Mozart and Da Ponte’s operatic staple, Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). The opera is adapted from Pierre Beamarchais’ Le Mariage de Figaro (the second of the three ‘the Figaro plays’) premiered just two years before the opera’s premiere in 1784.
Relatively new to the Sydney opera scene, The Cooperative is a young Sydney-based arts company, founded to stage productions of new, rare, and canonic works, which are impactful, relevant, and necessitate social change.
Rebecca Moret is the production’s director who I’ve had the pleasure of working with for the last two months, preparing the role of Count Almaviva. Greatly inspired by Rebecca’s directorial and production design choices, I thought it imperative to have her discuss her unique approach to this staple work.
I interviewed Rebecca last week in rehearsal. Here’s what she had to say.
What do you find most interesting about Le nozze di Figaro?
I really believe that all good stories are character-driven – and that’s definitely true of Le nozze di Figaro. The underlying dramatic question so often feels like “what if servants are actually people?” This opera, even more so than the play it is based on, takes all the stock character models of The Barber of Seville and gives them flaws, wounds, and hypocrisies that question the whole notion of “happily ever after”. The carefree Harlequin concerned only with himself is revealed as a man keeping everyone at arms lengths for fear of being hurt. The clever young woman who saw true love as the escape from the prison of her circumstances becomes a woman trapped again in a cycle of abuse.
It’s so easy for audiences to care about these three-dimensional, flawed, relatable characters. Even the ‘heroes’ of Figaro make bad decisions and snap judgements. And the characters are never passive – the sticky situations they get into are overwhelmingly the result of their own actions, and watching them get out is all the more fun for it.
Explain a bit about the production we’re doing and the new setting.
This Le nozze di Figaro is set at a multinational tech and e-commerce company named for its founder – almaViva. The action of the opera takes place at the corporate headquarters, attached to almaViva’s largest shipping facility. The staff all live onsite at the corporate campus, in apartments provided by the company as part of their salary packages. It’s a brightly coloured, fun and mildly dystopian near-future – and a natural extension of the direction that contemporary work is already taking.
What’s your take on the ‘droit du seigneur’? Scholars have widely deemed it a myth, so what significance does it take in the Beaumarchais?
The ‘droit de seigneur’ became a popular subject of fiction as a sort of 18th-century urban myth contrasting the backwards, tyrannical nature of medieval feudalism with the forward-thinking, educated leaders of the Enlightenment. And this is exactly how it is used in Figaro – but to the opposite effect. Beaumarchais argues that tigers cannot change their stripes and no matter what lip service they may pay to egalitarianism, the powerful will not give up their privilege easily.
How do you intend to play the feudal right in this new production? What form does it take in this modern context?
The ‘droit de seigneur’ is a dramatic representation of what it’s like to have no time, or place, or part of your life that’s too personal for your boss to intrude upon. An illustration of work that is ‘on’ 24/7, where you’re expected to never switch off. The servants of great houses of the 18th century lived at work in dedicated servants quarters, but the metaphor isn’t as far off contemporary experience as it might initially seem. This became apparent to some of us recently – a common problem created by our increased, round-the-clock connectivity is the bleed of the professional into the personal. Remote work in many ways has increased the challenge of separating work and home, and caused many to unwittingly extend their working hours in an attempt to prove they’re still doing enough.
But even before this, corporations were experimenting with manipulating their staff into working longer and harder for less. The tech campuses of Silicon Valley create elaborate work ‘playgrounds’ with free food, entertainment, and flexible spaces; all designed to keep staff onsite and working as long as possible. Providing free food and childcare onsite, for example, means staff sit and talk to one another during lunch and don’t need to leave to deal with childcare issues, functionally ensuring that they work through their breaks.
So a dramatic context in which your boss makes a public show of giving you private time and space and assistance with your personal business – but in fact can and will contact and monitor you more or less constantly – seems to me to fit very well.
In fact, all the themes of Figaro have enormous contemporary resonance. The 21st century has the kind of lionisation of the super wealthy that the aristocracy of the Enlightenment would once have paid sculptors and painters handsomely for – crediting them with extraordinary virtues, genius, super-human work ethics to justify their massive power and wealth (even when it looks on closer inspection like a big head-start of family wealth, connections, and privilege probably helped). Plus, there’s the way that wealth inequality skews with gender – the behavioural double standards that continue to be imposed on women in the public sphere, and the ongoing problem of workplace sexual harassment.
And critically, this all feeds into what is perhaps the most fundamental theme of Le nozze di Figaro – that changing a law doesn’t magically change a culture. Words are cheap, and much easier to change than habits and implicit biases.
Why is it important to update the context of operas to more relevant times?
I don’t believe in historical recreations of performance art. Every time we stage a show, we should be making a case for why our audience, now, should care and relate to this work. This doesn’t necessarily mean updating them – a sumptuous period production can speak to current audiences too. But it can be tricky to connect contemporary audiences to the ongoing relevance of 18th century opera – there’s sometimes an assumption that the problems are outdated, or relate to social problems that have somehow been solved in the meantime. I quite deliberately wanted to challenge that assumption in this production.
What opportunities have been presented to you working in the Pitt Street Uniting Church space as a performer and a director?
I’ve been fortunate enough to perform several times at the Pitt Street Uniting Church, and it really is an absolute gift of a space. It’s a stunning building with a fabulous acoustic – always highly valued by opera singers! And the wonderful built in heritage pulpit and choir gallery give us a canvas for staging that a small independent theatre company could never afford to build in a set, so we really are very lucky to be able to perform there.
Explain ‘the cuts’ that are not cut in our production.
Whenever someone references the “standard cuts” for Le nozze di Figaro, what they actually mean is just that Marcellina and Basilio’s aria have been cut from act 4. The perception is that they can be cut without making any real difference to the opera. I really couldn’t disagree more.
You often hear about how Figaro’s aria “Aprite un po’ quegli occhi” replaces a censored monologue critiquing the aristocracy. But the context for that aria, which is jam-packed with both blatant misogyny and veiled references to the more explicitly class-critical material that Viennese censors cut from performances of Beaumarchais’ play, is completely set up by the arias of Marcellina and Basilio that precede it.
Other parts of the play that fell victim to the Parisian and Viennese censors include those that deal with gender inequality – such as Marcellina’s monologue where she reviles how even noble women are accorded only a “derisory consideration” by men, while lower class women are “treated as children where our possessions are concerned” but “punished as responsible adults where our faults are in question”. Marcellina’s aria “Il capro e la capretta” is Da Ponte and Mozart’s nod to Marcellina’s tirade, and flags the shift of focus in Act 4 from class politics to gender politics. Now even class hero Figaro is in the wrong, jealously jumping to conclusions about his new wife without even thinking to speak to her directly.
And in case you were in any doubt about how we are expected to read “Aprite un po’ quegli occhi”, it’s directly preceded by some directions: Basilio’s aria “In quegl’anni, in cui val poco”. In act 1, Figaro told us how he deals with problems – he thinks he can better gain the upper hand if he plays stupid. Now we hear the same idea again – but this time it’s played for laughs, as Basilio recounts a fantastical story about how in his youth Dame Prudence gifted him the pelt of a donkey with which he fought off the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. The moral of the story: Life is easier is you wear an ass’s skin. When we laugh with Basilio, we realise just how silly Figaro is being when he arrives to sling insults at women, and we are set up to await him getting his own comeuppance from his wife.
What do you hope that people take from this production?
I’d love it if some seasoned audience members saw something in the opera that they hadn’t noticed before… but what I hope above all else is that my own love of this opera is infectious, and it gains some new fans! It’s a terrible cliché that every time you look at a work like Le nozze di Figaro, you find something new – but it’s absolutely true.
Le nozze di Figaro runs for four performances from April 28-May 1. The conductor is Joanna Drimatis. There are two casts performing with a full orchestra.
The Cooperative’s motto is “Pay as you feel, come as you are”. For all the details, click here.