Fall Arts Preview - The Barber of Seville

by Michael Bowen & r & Figaro, Figaro, Fee-gah-row!" Everybody spoofs it, but few know its operatic context. In the greatest of all comic Italian operas (written by a 24-year-old Gioacchino Rossini in 1816), the barber of Seville makes his entrance singing "Largo al factotum," an exuberant declaration of his status as a Johnny Do-Everything -- the guy who can do it all. (He's so proud, he can't stop repeating his own name.) And what he's about to do is engineer some madcap machinations so that the proper two-thirds of a love triangle can get properly hitched.

For the Opera Plus! production of The Barber of Seville on Oct. 8-9 at North Idaho College, local opera favorite Max Mendez is serving as chorus master. (Mendez was recently appointed as vocal instructor and concert choir director at NIC.) So what does a chorus master do?

"He prepares the chorus for the staging rehearsal -- he's part conductor, part language coach," says Mendez. "He's also a repititeur -- making sure they learn the notes through repetition and working on pronunciation. Especially as an American opera company, we want to make sure we're as accurate as possible in how we sing, so that it sounds Italian."

Mendez's dozen choristers will keep busy: "In the first act, we're the village people who are hired to be the unorganized orchestra, so that Count Almaviva can sing to Rosina," he says. "In the next act, we're the soldiers who storm the house."

In what Mendez calls "the lesser of two evils," Barber will be sung in Italian with supertitles projected above the singers' heads. "The other option is to do the opera in English, in the vernacular -- but you always lose more of the meaning in translation, and most of the craft that the composer uses to set the music," he says. "The audience may laugh a second later," after they finish reading a joke in the supertitles, says Mendez, but singing in Italian "helps the singers. For a soprano, the worst vowel is an e -- it's almost not singable. But a composer knows what vowels to set in the highest range. And with Rossini, you know, most of the tempos ride on the edge of being outrageous."

In the major roles, Christina Major sings Rosina, whose "guardian" and would-be husband is the foolish Dr. Bartolo. But Rosina loves Count Almaviva (Joseph Muir), who enlists the irrepressible title character (Andrew Garland). Having boasted that he can help anyone do anything, Figaro finds himself arranging Almaviva's elopement with Rosina.

Major and Muir have Opera San Jose connections; both Muir and Garland have sung with Seattle Opera Young Artists. Mendez will himself sing the role of one of the servants, Fiorello.

Costumes for the cast come from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Utah Festival Opera, with Rosina's gown designed and built by NIC costumer Judith McGiveney.

And even if some of the costumes are recycled, a two-centuries-old opera like The Barber of Seville is still capable of making a splash in popular culture today. Mendez has played Barber melodies for his students at NIC. And they instantly recognized them -- in "The Rabbit of Seville," a Looney Tunes cartoon starring none other than Bugs Bunny.

The Barber of Seville runs Oct. 8-9 , at Schuler Auditorium, North Idaho College. Call (208) 765-7780.

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