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Mozart’s Opera Comes to Plainfield

by Michelle A.L. Singer
In a rehearsal room with fifteen of the cast members, there are small business owners, a transportation organizer, high school students, college students, teachers, actors and a mother and father whose small baby sleeps through their very familiar voices. This is community opera. The cast has memorized their parts in Italian, almost all while holding down day jobs. A photographer and pianist are present, as well as the director and a U-32 drama student as stage manager. People of multiple talents do opera, like so many of the arts in Vermont. They are preparing to perform Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro on May 16 at the newly renovated Plainfield Town Hall.
The Marriage of Figaro—the eighth most-performed opera worldwide according to Operabase, an organization that documents operatic activityis a sequel to The Barber of Seville, and its story takes place three years later in the same location near Seville, Spain. It is a comic opera composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in 1786 and written in Italian by his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. They based the story on the original play by Beaumarchais, the author of The Barber of Seville. His play was too controversial and was originally banned for “licentiousness.” However, Mozart and da Ponte’s version made the Austrian monarchy of the time slightly less nervous and was well received by the public, who knew The Barber of Seville well. The Marriage of Figaro is now considered a cornerstone of operatic repertoire.
The opera is performed in four acts and follows a “day of madness” in the palace of Count Almaviva, played by Stephen Falbel, and his Countess, played by Ellen Blachly. It’s a story of revenge, intrigue and comedic scheming reminiscent of Shakespeare. Figaro is to marry Susanna, who is being pursued by the Count. The Countess laments, yet has an admirer of her own. Secret messages, cross-dressing deception and vengeful planning twist through the plot until, like all comedies, it ends with weddings. Yet, perhaps more importantly, the story is carried forward by carefully planned and masterful emotional music that owes its success in part to being catchy.
Victoria Drew is playing the role of the lead soprano, Susanna. “Everything you need to know about what you are singing is written into the music,” she says. “If you are wondering what you are supposed to be thinking or feeling in your role, you don’t have to look far. The Marriage of Figaro has so many wonderful duets and pieces that people know and can whistle along to.” She received her master’s in opera in Boston but wanted to continue to live and work in Vermont. She is able to perform an opera about every year and a half in addition to running her own business and making plans for starting an opera company in the Burlington area. She has performed various roles in The Marriage of Figaro, but never the part of Susanna.
Brian Lynam, playing the part of Figaro, is also singing the role for the first time. He has recently performed in chorus roles in La Bohème and Carmen and is excited for the opportunity of Figaro. He is a music teacher at Rice Memorial, a Roman Catholic high school in South Burlington. He teaches band, jazz band, choir and just directed his first production in the theater department, Elton John and Tim Rice’s musical Aida.
The director, Naomi A. Flanders, is an opera-trained singer who earned a bachelor of arts in the humanities with an emphasis in voice and literature at Johnson State College here in Vermont. She says, “If anyone told me, back then, that I would end up studying voice to sing opera in NYC and directing opera, I would have just laughed and laughed. It’s funny how one’s personal journey can take you to places you never expected to be! But actually all that studying of the different artistic disciplines prepared me for doing what I do now.”
She is a seasoned thespian, running Shakespeare in the Hills dramatic summer camps for kids in addition to Echo Valley Community Arts. She calls directing the opera an “amazing task.” She has taken on this amazing task five times since she’s turned 50. Now, just a little over a decade later, she generously reaches out to a wide range of artists, from school kids to seniors, to share and pass on the knowledge born of years of study and work. She says of Figaro, “It’s clear what Mozart put in—the emotion, change of mood, it’s all written into dramatic beats musically.” She directs with an eye toward the dramatic expression of the story as well as the singing. “I’m interested in singers that can act, not just beautiful singers, but a person speaking from their heart, from where they’re at,” she says. As director and producer, she and the cast have put over a year and a half into the preparation of the performance.
A chamber orchestra arrangement will provide the music of the opera. A string quartet and piano arrangement will be made up of Raymond Karl Malone, first violin; Patricia Reilly, second violin; Paul Reynolds and Madeline McIntire, violas; Michael Close, cello and Eliza Thomas piano. Thomas describes Mozart’s music as filled with grace and very beautiful. She agrees with the director and actors that you can watch the opera in any language and understand the story because the music tells the story.
The opera will run May 16–18 and 23–25, 2014. Curtain times are 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and Sunday matinees begin at 2 p.m. Call 802-225-6471 for tickets or go online at catamountarts.org. The opera will be presented in Italian with subtitles in English.
Plainfield Town Hall (Sidebar)
The Marriage of Figaro will be the first major production to premiere at the newly renovated Plainfield Town Hall since it closed two years ago due to damage. For decades, the town hall has acted as the community’s meeting and performance space, but had to be closed until major repairs could be made.
David Strong, a Plainfield selectboard member says, “The Director of Echo Valley Community Arts, Naomi Flanders, has been a big supporter of the effort to upgrade and re-open Plainfield’s historic opera house, and the decision to use the town hall for this major event—despite its current limitations—is another sign of that support.”
Thanks to three major grants, volunteer labor and $45,000 in community contributions, the roof has been reinforced and the attic weatherized, rotten floor joists have been replaced, drainage has been improved and all the moldy wallboard and framing has been removed. The current stage of renovations includes a more efficient heating system, a double entry to keep out the cold, a warming kitchen for catering events in the hall, a larger lobby for elections and meeting space, and other lower-level upgrades. They hope to be complete this summer in time for Plainfield Old Home Day in early September.
They have hopes to continue with another phase—an addition to the back of the building that would allow the stage to have a green room, changing room, bathroom and storage. There are stories, he says, of actors exiting stage right and having to run around the building to enter stage left! The continued fund drive would allow for the final phase of renovations. “It’s a grassroots effort inspired by the need of local theatrical organizations and people involved in arts. We are constantly getting calls to see if the building is available, and what the cost is. We want to keep rent affordable so community groups can take advantage of it.”
“I love the Plainfield Town Hall/Opera House!” says director Naomi Flanders. “Acoustically it is a great space and because it is small, it lends itself well to an ensemble piece like The Marriage of Figaro. I have produced and directed five Gilbert and Sullivan’s over the past two decades in that space. I am completely thrilled we are doing the opera there.”
Strong and several hundred people have contributed an enormous amount of work toward renovating the 170-year-old building. Today, only $30,000 remains to be raised. If you enjoy community arts performances in small, exquisite settings, please go to www.Razoo.com, type in “Plainfield Town Hall,” and make a contribution to finish the restoration effort now underway.
“A share of the proceeds from The Marriage of Figaro will be used to fund renovation work, and you can see for yourself what has been done so far and what remains to be completed at Plainfield’s historic opera house,” says Strong. The raised voices of performers from Washington, Chittenden and Rutland Counties who will sing in The Marriage of Figaro will kick off hopefully another century of memorable performances and gatherings.