(Above: Local singer-actor-dancer Bill Hulings, second from left, has been honing his opera chops for the past several years and will sing the role of Fiorello in Giaochino Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville; photo by Kelli Matthews)
By Randi Bjornstad
After a near-death experience last January that led to the cancellation of the second half of its season and serious questions whether it would live to tell the tale, Eugene Opera has come roaring back, with new funding, new energy and new ideas that include taking opera seriously by perhaps not making everyone else take it quite so seriously.
The idea that opera is some sort of stodgy event that can’t be enjoyed unless you speak at least Italian or German or preferably both and are accustomed to wearing — depending on gender — a tuxedo with contrasting cummerbund or a 30-pound taffeta ball gown to the theater, makes the new Eugene Opera crew laugh with glee.
So does the idea that people shouldn’t find comic opera hilarious when it clearly is meant to be, and feel free to laugh out loud at funny jokes or goofy pratfalls.
Andrew Bisantz, who has been conducting many of Eugene Opera’s productions for nearly 10 years, took on the role of artistic director during the reorganization and revitalization of the company this year. He and Erika Rauer, who moved to Eugene in September with her vocalist husband and their two young children to become the opera’s first resident executive director in many years, are in continuous contact, communicating in the office when Bisantz is in town and over the phone when he’s not.
The first fruit of their collaboration is “The Barber of Seville,” which will be onstage for two productions the last two days of 2017 at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts. While it may be one of the most familiar titles in the opera lexicon, it hasn’t been performed by Eugene Opera since the company’s 1986-87 season.
“People think they must have seen it, because it’s such a familiar name,” Bisantz said. “But it hasn’t even been mentioned as a possibility, until now, since I first came here to conduct in 2008.”
Great music + great performers = great opera
Bisantz likens great opera to great cooking: Ingredients are paramount.
Just as the greatest chef cannot prepare the greatest meals without the highest-quality recipe and ingredients, opera similarly requires “a high-quality cast in which the singers have a particular feeling for the specific opera and also a particular energy that they share in the same way with the rest of the cast,” he said. “I believe that is what we have here in this cast — (director) David Lefkowich and I both knew what we wanted, and we know these are people who can do it, so we have to get out of the way and not screw them up.”
One of the beauties of Ghioachino Rossini’s operas, including “The Barber of Seville,” is the way the composer wrote for a special kind of tenor voice, called tenore di grazia, or more commonly, leggero tenor or light tenor, Bisantz said.
“To sing leggero requires an incredible amount of vocal dexterity, and if someone doesn’t have it, these roles just don’t work,” he said. “But when it’s done well, the music ends up being pure joy, and that’s what I believe we will offer here.”
Along with the music, the sheer comedy of “The Barber of Seville” delights audiences, Rauer agrees.
“My 6-year-old daughter sat through two and a half hours of rehearsal, and she just loved it,” Rauer said. “She kept saying, ‘Mama, what’s happening? What’s happening?’ because she loved the music and the action but she didn’t understand the Italian. Of course, that’s not a problem for the performances, because anyone who wants to can look at the supertitles, even though the timing and the execution is so good that most people will get the joke in either English or Italian.”
Bisantz has always been such a fan of operatic slapstick that his delight in the humor occasionally has gotten him in trouble.
“I think slapstick generally appeals to the juvenile in all of us, and I often find myself laughing out loud at something so funny,” he said. “I remember once someone in the audience complained that he was distracted because I was laughing at the show. But people need to know — it’s okay to laugh at the opera.”
Or cry, for that matter. Bisantz admits to that, too.
“In a way, that’s a problem for me,” he said. “If something makes me cry, I cry. If it makes me laugh, I laugh. But the composer wants you to feel that way. In the case of Rossini and the genius of his comedies, he wants people rolling in the aisles.”
With this cast, there could be a lot of that happening, Bisantz hopes.
Jake Gardner, who has sung many roles with Eugene Opera during his long career, will sing the role of Bartolo, the doctor who keeps his niece, Rosina, a virtual prisoner in his house as he tries to persuade her to marry him and therefore secure for him her substantial inheritance from her deceased parents.
“It’s a sheer joy to watch Jake as a comedian,” Bisantz said. “He’s an incredibly versatile opera singer to start with, but he does the comedy perfectly.”
Not only that, but the comedy “catches fire” in the very first scene of the play, Bisantz said, “with a really funny joke right at the top — it has certainly made us all laugh, at least.”
Other members of “The Barber of Seville” cast include internationally known Malcolm MacKenzie as Figaro, the barber who agrees to help Count Almaviva, press his own suit with the fair Rosina. Heather Johnson sings the role of Rosina, and Javier Abreu is her would-be lover, Almaviva, who is a Spanish aristocrat pretending to be a student. Craig Phillips takes the role of the music teacher, Don Basilio, who also is Bartolo’s right-hand man.
Two local up-and-coming opera singers, Tim McCoy and Victoria McCoy, also will be singing, as will Bill Hulings, who has been a vocal and musical theater performer on Eugene stages for many years.
The Barber of Seville
When: 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 30; 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 31
Where: Silva Concert Hall, Hult Center for the Performing Arts, One Eugene Place (Seventh and Willamette streets in downtown Eugene)