Uncovering secrets of the opera

“Figaro! Figaro! Figaro!” The Florida Grand Opera’s season kicked off this week with the very production responsible for those famous lines — Gioachino Rossini’s Barber of Seville.

Running through Saturday at the Adrienne Arsht Center, this production is the original romantic comedy. It all starts when the young and handsome Spanish Count Almaviva falls madly in love with the beautiful Rosina. With enough courting, she falls for him, too. There’s just one problem for the young lovers — Dr. Bartolo, Rosina’s creepy guardian, has trapped her in his house and plans to marry her as soon as it is legal.

Kevin Glaven as Dr. Bartolo and Brian James Myer as Figaro. (Courtesy of Brittany Mazzurco Muscato for Florida Grand Opera.)
Kevin Glaven as Dr. Bartolo and Brian James Myer as Figaro. (Courtesy of Brittany Mazzurco Muscato for Florida Grand Opera.)

Cue the famous Figaro. Figaro is, in fact, the barber of Seville. He tries to help the Count and Rosina dupe Dr. Bartolo. To find out how it all ends, you’ll have to attend the show. But, meanwhile, we’ve got the inside scoop on what exactly goes into creating such a dynamic production that combines acting, singing, choreography, a live orchestra, and more costume changes than a Katy Perry concert.

While the performance lasts just under three hours, it takes almost a whole year to prepare. This rendition of the show, in particular, may have taken a bit of extra practice, as “there are a lot of quick costume changes in this show,” according to Howard Kaplan, FGO’s costume designer. In this version of the Italian classic, the usual 1816 Spanish countryside is replaced with a 1940s movie set.

“We had to have a big rehearsal teaching everyone the choreography of changing clothes on stage. The gentlemen are changing on stage in a hurry, so we had to figure out the right pecking order to see what should go off and on first,” Kaplan added.  

Kaplan admits it’s also a challenge to have the singers change clothes mid-song. During Rosina’s dress change, for example “we couldn’t have the costume going up above her head, because it would cause a muffled sound,” he said.

On the stage

Before anyone could take off or put on any clothes on stage,  there has to be a stage. Each show is designed according to the space it will inhabit, explained FGO’s director of production Kevin Mynatt. Once that is settled, Mynatt considers his budget. “Usually it takes about $1 million to $1.25 million to put the whole production on,” he said.

“The next step is to hire the singers, the orchestra, stagehands, make-up artists, dressers, principle artists, lighting designer, costume designers, and buy props,” Mynatt added.

Each production requires different voices ranging from the highest soprano to the lowest bass. Hilary Ginther, who plays Rosina during the Young Artist show, sings mezzo-soprano. This is a lower female voice, which is often used to carry a “strong sexual charge,” according to the Guardian.

“In our production Rosina has a lot of attitude, which I like to play with. This is not your normal damsel in distress, she is smart and tricks and surprises people,” Ginther said. “Traditionally, the role of Rosina is one of the most famous in the opera repertoire … and it’s one of the biggest opportunities I’ve ever had. It’s also the most challenging,” she added.

Leading up to the performance, all of the singers rehearse for one month as a group, for six hours a day, six days a week. But before rehearsals even start, singers know their parts. They start preparing months before they ever practice together.

“The most important thing is preparation, and that’s before you start rehearsing with everyone else. This allows you to just play with the character [during the actual rehearsal] and not think about the music, or the words,”  according to Alex Soare a bass-baritone singer who plays Don Basilo in the show.

For Andrew Owens, a tenor who plays the Count, preparation starts before he even says “yes” to the role. “I check the score and music, and make sure it’s set I can perform,” he said. “So that preparation lasts anywhere anywhere from six months to two years ahead of a show.”  

In this production of the Barber of Seville, there are 12 chorus members, 30 orchestra members, 12 principal singers and 9 supers, which are like extras in a movie. And with so much talent in one place, someone has to organize all of the performers to pull off a cohesive work of art.

That person is the conductor. “The first movement of the entire performance, without any sound, is the conductor’s hand,” said Darwin Aquino, the secondary conductor. “The conductor needs to do things before they happen … so, for example if you want a singer to enter on the third beat, you cue them on the second one.”

Behind the scenes

For every person on stage, there’s one more working behind-the-scenes. About 120 people are involved in the opera, with just 60 on stage, Mynatt said.

These people design and produce make-up, costumes, sound, props, and lighting — which is perhaps the most subtle but important addition to the show.

Liam Roche, production manager at FGO, uses cooler, darker colors like blues and purples to set a somber tone. To make a scene feel happy, he uses oranges, pinks, and ambers. Lighting can even make an audience feel uncomfortable. Strategically casting shadows on a villain’s face, for example, can make him seem more ominous, Roche said.

“There’s a lot of storytelling to be done with the lighting,” said Roche. “We hope the audience doesn’t notice the lighting overtly …  We don’t want anyone to notice any single element, we want it all to drive the story.”

The final bow

It takes hundreds of people, thousands of practicing hours, and millions of dollars to produce such a multi-faceted and sophisticated production. “I’m really excited to go on stage, but there’s also a bit of anxiety that comes with that,” Ginther said. “I’m looking forward to doing something this big and really feeling that sense of accomplishment.”

But the cast and crew are happy to put in the work for the audience. “We’re really hoping the audience likes what we do and is enjoying themselves and laughing a lot,” Owens added. If it all comes together, the biggest payoff is a resounding “Bravo!”

Join The New Tropic at a special night at the Opera, featuring the Barber of Seville on Nov. 20. We have our own special seating blocks just for readers and members of The New Tropic. With the special code NEWTROPIC at checkout, you can get $25 mezzanine or $75 orchestra seats