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Posted April 16, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Easing into opera: 'Figaro' a fitting introduction to the genre

Marisa Davis and Melissa Chavez put a dress on Kathleen Payne
Marisa Davis, as Susanna, and Melissa Chavez, as Countess Almaviva, put a dress on Kathleen Payne, who plays Cherubino, in "Marriage of Figaro" at Shenandoah University. Dennis Grundman/Daily

Autumn East and Drew Colby rehearse a scene
Autumn East, as Susanna, and Drew Colby, as Figaro, rehearse a scene. Dennis Grundman/Daily

East and Colby share a laugh
East and Colby share a laugh during rehearsals for "Marriage of Figaro." Dennis Grundman/Daily

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By M.K. Luther -- mkluther@nvdaily.com

WINCHESTER -- If you are looking for a standard, run-of-the-mill opera, then Shenandoah University's April presentation of "Marriage of Figaro" should not be your first choice.

If you are looking for an amusing, lighthearted introduction to opera, then this opera buffa, or comic opera, is a great option, especially for a novice's first show, said the opera's director, Mark Kittlaus.

Using an abundance of comic plot twists, with cross-dressing characters and messy, snarled love affairs, "Marriage of Figaro" is a topsy-turvy comic satire of 18th-century aristocratic life.

For example, Shenandoah University's production of "Marriage of Figaro" is performed in English rather than the original language of Italian to make it more approachable and familiar to the audience.

"It is about the energy and the voices and the performance, and just the sound of it," Kittlaus said.

Despite its whimsical appeal, the Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart opera, based on the Pierre Beaumarchais play "Le Mariage de Figaro," is also a historic musical work, said associate professor of music and the opera's conductor, Jan Wagner.

The overture, or introduction, to Figaro is one of the most easily identified music pieces, and is often performed separately from the opera itself.

"Anybody who has had exposure to classical music would recognize the overture," Wagner said.

The opera's plot follows the humorous trials and tribulations of Figaro, the valet to Count Almaviva of Spain, and Figaro's love interest, Susanna.

"This is not an opera where a whole lot of things are going on all the time," Wagner said. "It is more about the music and the singing, not the acrobatics of the piece."

The production boasts four full acts with an 11-member ensemble cast and 26-member chorus of both graduate and undergraduate students, with students Drew Colby starring as Figaro, Marisa Davis and Autumn East as Susanna, John Irby as the Count Almaviva and Melissa Chavez as the Countess Almaviva.

Senior vocal major Kathleen Payne, who is originally from Seattle and is planning a professional opera singing career, plays the opera's "trouser role" -- in which a female singer portrays a male character to add a soprano voice to the cast -- of Cherubino.

"I think a lot of people have a preconceived notion of opera being stuffy," Payne said.

However, "The Marriage of Figaro" is an operatic comedy, Payne said, and her character, Cherubino, the page to the count, is constantly embroiled in mishaps with the women in the count's castle.

"He just causes trouble because he is always canoodling with the girls," Payne said.

Payne said she auditioned for the role of Cherubino because she was drawn to the character's vitality and exuberance.

"I liked the music to it and he [Cherubino] is youthful and has good energy," Payne said. "It seemed like a good, fun physical role to play."

For Kittlaus, who has been on faculty since 2006, "The Marriage of Figaro" is his first endeavor at directing an opera at Shenandoah University.

In recent years, Shenandoah hired national opera directors to produce the university's shows. However, the university discovered that in-house directors could be more flexible and in-tune with the department's needs by working closely with the designers, the musicians and the student actors, Kittlaus said.

The set was designed for the intimacy of a smaller cast and to bring out the full voices of the choral performers, and uses columns and reusable furniture that can be changed easily with each act.

The blocking, or choreographing of the actor's motions as they maneuver across the stage, had to be set to the music, presenting a new challenge to a director more accustomed to nonmusical dramatic productions.

"I did not want to simply dictate all of their movements," Kittlaus said. "I allowed them to show me their instinctual blocking movement on stage and set it with that in mind."

Kittlaus used the mini-breaks established by the conductor to find a natural breaking point in the music and then created a flow to the actors' movements on stage.

"You can't stop line-by-line like in a play," Kittlaus said. "Everyone is going their merry way in the performance and at some point, I have to stop them."

Second-year vocal performance graduate student Colby said "The Marriage of Figaro" is such an appropriate choice for opera beginners, his grandmother is attending the show for her first exposure to an opera performance.

"The plot doesn't sit still for long and the music is accessible, but in no way dumb," Colby said.

Shenandoah University presents "The Marriage of Figaro" April 23-26 at the Ohrstrom-Bryant Theatre on the main campus. Thursday, Friday and Saturday performances start at 8 p.m., and Sunday's performance starts at 2:30 p.m. Tickets cost $15 for adults and $10 for children. Shenandoah University students and employees with a valid identification can attend for free. Contact the box office at 665-4569 or visit www.su.edu for more information.

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