This week, LA Opera kicks off a months-long series of productions featuring Figaro, the comedic character popularized in 18th-century France. But with its first opera, the company takes on a very modern issue: illegal immigration in Los Angeles.
¡Figaro! (90210) – as you may have guessed — is set in Beverly Hills. The main antagonist is a real estate mogul named Paul Conti, who’s threatening to turn Figaro, reimagined as a Mexican handyman, over to immigration authorities. In a fit of rage over Figaro, Conti sings in a bass-baritone:
It’s so disgraceful. They sneak into this country. We let them, we even help them!
The music of ¡Figaro! (90201) is taken note-for-note, meter by meter, from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. But the Italian libretto is now in English and Spanish.
Once they get here, they think, ‘We don’t need your stinking language!’ They have no respect for those who built this country!
Stacy Brightman, who oversees education and community engagement for the LA company, acknowledged opera is often seen as elitist. But she said ¡Figaro! (90201) shows that the medium is an accessible way to raise current social issues, such as immigration, using humor, even beauty.
"It’s the one art form that encapsulates music, narrative, drama, dance, spectacle," Brightman said. "It is the place where we can come together and have these kinds of conversations."
¡Figaro! (90201) starts a three-day run at the Barnsdall Gallery Theater on Friday. That will be the first staged performance of the opera; it was performed concert-style in 2013 in New York by Morningside Opera - to rave reviews by the New York Times and the New York Post.
Librettist Vid Guerrerio said the opera was workshopped in New York because of a more readily-available talent pool and an opera company eager to take on recontextualized adaptations of classic operas.
But with the LA company's backing, Guerrerio said he could stage the show in his adopted city of Los Angeles.
"We've been able to get the best of the best in Southern California," Guerrerio said.
Guerrerio added it was critical to cast performers of color to play for example, Figaro and his fiance, who are supposed to be from Mexico, as well as a Korean-American businesswoman and an aspiring African-American hip-hop singer.
"Now that we're in 2015, and especially being in Southern California, it's really important to have casts on stage that look like the world they're representing," Guerrerio said.
Guerrerio likes to describe The Marriage of Figaro as "one of the most perfect operas." The idea to adapt the storyline to present-day came as he walked down Hollywood Boulevard several years ago, the opera playing in his earbuds.
Guerrerio's immigration story line spoke personally to some of the cast members, whose families emigrated in recent decades - as well as the opera's director, Melissa Crespo.
"My family is Domincan, Puerto-Rican and Chilean," Crespo said. "So, my family has experience with green cards."
But Crespo said she still learned a lot from staging the production, first in New York and now in L.A. The story of Mexican immigrants trying to make it is a distinct one, she said.
"That's what makes the production special," Crespo said. "It highlights that experience, but in a humane way. It’s not beating people over the head with the politics."
¡Figaro! (90201) opens a three-month-long Figaro Unbound series that includes The Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro and The Ghosts of Versailles.