In the space of an hour, we have already seen a man with a crowbar, a cross-dressing pageboy, and a string of attempted seductions. Act Three opens. As the music begins, a Count, sporting a brocaded jacket with lace at his cuffs, walks solemnly onstage. He looks like he is about to address the Vatican Council, but he sings, with a great deal of earnestness, “What a bitch of a morning…” The audience jumps and bursts out into nervous laughter.
This year, the Dunster House Opera Society celebrated its twentieth birthday with a polished and refreshingly colloquial interpretation of Mozart’s classic opera, The Marriage of Figaro. For five nights in February, the House’s dining hall was filled with the music of a cast and orchestra made up entirely of undergraduates, whose goal was to present opera not just as art, but as accessible entertainment.
A Breathless Art
The set of Figaro, with all its embroidered upholstery, contrasted as much against the scheming, lustful, almost Oedipal relationships in the story as the words that came out of the refined Count’s mouth. In Mozart’s opera, Figaro must outwit his master, Count Almaviva, in order to prevent him from seducing his bride-to-be. But this goal is not so easily met. First, the young pageboy Cherubino tries to seduce every woman in his sight, even the Countess, before he is packed off to the military. Then, an old housekeeper appears with a contract that entitles her to Figaro’s hand in marriage, before she discovers that Figaro is really her long-lost son. Trysts are arranged. Figaro’s bride trades places with the Countess. When the Count finally realizes that he has been had, having seduced his own wife, he cries “Forgive me!” Everyone declares that they will be happy thereafter, and the opera hurtles on to its heady conclusion.
“It’s not a love story,” says Elizabeth Leimkuhler ’15, who played the reckless pageboy Cherubino. “It’s a collection of flawed characters that you’re laughing at and laughing with. The opera itself is a lot of slapstick comedy, and the audience is always in on the joke.”
Leimkuhler, who saw Figaro years ago at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, recalls how she first fell in love with the lively, flirtatious role of Cherubino. “It’s the perfect role to start out. He’s a memorable and a lot of fun.” On stage, she wears a red and yellow suit printed with ridiculous, Escher-like patterns. We can nott help but imagine that she is an eleven-year-old boy, swimming in pajamas that are just slightly too big for her. But it’s her aerodynamic pixie cut, endlessly jumping eyebrows, and the frightening velocity with which she flings herself around the stage that really puts the part together. “In one of the arias, there’s only about two bars when I’m not singing,” Leimkuhler laughs, “And in those two bars, I’m doubled over the couch, wheezing in the Countess’ face, trying to catch my breath.” She adds, “It’s definitely physically demanding to have to run around so much while singing – I had to hit the gym and be in shape!”
Eric Padilla ’14, who played Count Almaviva and has had six years of experience in musical theatre, echoed Leimkuhler’s thoughts on the demanding nature of the work, “I definitely would not be able to perform in either musical theatre or opera without the training I’ve had,” he observes. Even so, the Count’s role was written for a much older singer: “While the part is in my vocal range,” Padilla explains, “it requires a certain vocal weight that I just don’t have yet because of my age.” He calls Mozart’s highly ornamented melodies “crazy,” but loves them for their beauty. “With directors as great as the ones for this show,” Padilla concludes, “it was made possible.”
The directors, like the rest of the company, are undergraduates. Months before the show, Matthew Aucoin ’12 and Stewart Kramer ’12 had begun looking for English translations of the libretto. “At some point,” Leimkuhler recounts, “they just realized that what they were looking at wasn’t real. So they decided to translate it themselves.” Aucoin, who is fluent in Italian, wanted to create a more direct, down-to-earth interpretation. Especially for an opera written over two centuries ago, bringing out the humor of the piece was vital, explains Leimkuhler. She leans forward. “I mean, people are going to laugh at sex jokes.”
Recently accepted into Harvard, Jake Wilder-Smith attended one of the first performances and agrees that the translation helped bridge the divide between audience and music. As an opera singer himself, he admits, “There definitely is an elitist stigma on opera, especially more lately, but this is a perfect example of the fact that it’s not. Everyone laughs at certain moments, and everyone can relate to the characters.”
When asked about the role that opera plays in today’s world, Wilder-Smith pauses, and says, “It’s a beautiful art form.” Another audience member looked surprised at the question, “It’s culture. It’s like how you need art history in order to understand art. Opera can tell us a lot about the way pop music works.” Eric Padilla commented on how the original play was banned by the soon-to-be deposed Louis XVI of France. “I imagine the aristocracy was not completely pleased with Figaro at the time of its premiere,” he says, “as it undermines the concept of their divine right to power. Today, I feel it’s a period piece. While its position on the aristocracy is still relevant, it’s not really controversial.” Leimkuhler adds, “Plot is never important. Plots are never complicated. It’s all about the music.”
The work of this entirely undergraduate cast came together in the dining hall of a dorm, but the effect was anything but amateur. “The cast, in addition to the staff, is absolutely brilliant,” says Padilla. “Everyone is extremely professional and some of us intend on pursuing professional careers in performance.”
“When I look at Dunster House Opera,” Leimkuhler says, “it’s just a group of people trying to make opera more accessible. It’s a great community of people.” When asked about her professional plans, she says, “My sister once gave me a picture, probably taken in the 1920’s or 1930’s. It’s a view of the Met from center stage. I just want to perform. I love singing, I love acting – having people watch me while I do fun things on stage.”
After the last show, the company will stay in the dining hall until the small hours of the morning as the set is dismantled. “I’m small,” laughs Leimkuhler, “so I just pick up all the props and everyone thinks I’m helping!” The next day, breakfast opens as usual in Dunster House. There are no traces of the hilarity and extraordinary musicality that had filled the hall just hours ago. A glob of peanut butter splatters over the same patch of floor that, just a while ago, had received the bending knee of a great Spanish Count. A sophomore falls asleep over her organic chemistry where, yesterday, Matthew Aucoin had conjured up the first whisperings of the overture. Perhaps that’s the point: a two hundred-year-old Mozart opera, sung by undergraduates one tenth its age, in a space that houses the daily minutiae. It cannot get more accessible than that.