THe Marriage of FigaroOn Stage

with Kim Cammarata

Why Not a Night at the Opera?

Lights dim, music swells and the story unfolds:

A young wife is distraught. Her husband pines for another woman, Susanna. To make matters worse, Susanna is her friend and the fiancée of a man close to her husband's heart.

The husband asks his secret love to meet him in the garden. But the two women have already conspired to teach the errant husband a lesson. They will switch clothes, and the wife will meet her husband in the garden, pretending to be Susanna.

In the meantime, Susanna's fiancé is madly jealous, believing her to be unfaithful. Later, in the dark garden, the philandering husband meets who he believes to be Susanna, and they have a tryst. Only afterwards does he discover that she was really his wife.

In the end, the wandering husband learns his lesson, and his wife forgives him. Susanna and her fiancé marry. Everybody lives happily ever after.

Sounds juicy, doesn't it? But you won't catch this show at the movies. Instead, you'll find this story - and much more just as delicious - at Maryland Hall when the Annapolis Opera performs its only full-length and fully staged opera of the year, Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, Friday, October 9 at 8pm, and Sunday, October 11 at 3pm.

Ronald Gretz, conductor and newly appointed artistic director of the Annapolis Opera, sat down to talk with us about why you might just enjoy a night at the opera.

Q What do you like best about The Marriage of Figaro?

A The music. And the comedy. The characters have so much personality, and that all comes out in the music. There's fun music and fun scenes. People can relate to everything that's going on in this opera. They're really missing out on something if they don't see Figaro. It's a great opera.

Q You're performing this opera in English instead of Italian. Why?

A Because it's a comedy. If you don't understand the language, you're going to miss the fun of it.

Q If you've never been to an opera before, is this a good one to start with?

Ronald GretzA This is a good one to start. A really long Russian opera is not the first one to see.

Meagan Millerphotos by Kim CammarataAnnapolis Opera conductor Ronald Gretz plays piano while Countess Almaviva, played by Meagan Miller, sings in rehearsal for The Marriage of Figaro.

Q How does opera enter the lives of people today?

A Many people think that opera is some elite thing they're not going to enjoy. But almost every TV ad that I hear these days has an operatic tune in the background. It's just amazing. People know these tunes because they're hearing them all the time on TV.

Opera is used in movies. One of my favorite examples is the movie Philadelphia with Tom Hanks. His character plays a recording of an operatic aria, and he tells his friend what's going on in the aria. That was a big plug for the operatic world.

Opera is relevant because it's about human emotion. The music expresses emotions that everybody feels. In The Marriage of Figaro, the Countess sings, 'Ah, where are those days when my husband loved me? They're gone now.' There are people out there who have lost somebody or are living in an unhappy marriage. Opera is all about the human condition.

Q How did you get into opera?

A When I was in elementary school I sang in choruses, and I always liked music. I started taking piano when I was 14. In high school I had a friend studying voice. She sang opera arias, and I enjoyed that. Then I went to Peabody Conservatory of Music, studied voice and conducting and started doing opera workshops. At Peabody I decided to be an opera conductor. One of my first jobs was with Harford Opera in Bel Air. I was chorus master [trains the chorus for the opera production] and opera coach [helps individual singers learn their roles and gives them interpretive information] and played piano for the productions. After that I worked with Baltimore Opera for 10 years as chorus master and assistant conductor.

Q How long have you been with the Annapolis Opera?

A I started conducting Annapolis Opera back in the 1980s. In the mid '80s, they ran into some financial problems and stopped for a couple of years. They started up again in the late '80s, and I've been conducting ever since.

QYou are conductor and artistic director of the Annapolis Opera. What do you do in those different roles?

A The conductor stands in front of the orchestra and conducts the performance. In the past - even though I was just the conductor - I've been in on casting and deciding which singers I wanted. The artistic director makes artistic decisions and helps decide what operas to do.

Q How do you choose an opera to perform?

A First of all, we eliminate a lot of operas because they're too big for our stage; they have huge choruses or tons of animals. We can't have elephants on the stage and a chorus of a hundred. We try to pick operas for singers who are starting their careers. We also try to pick operas that the audience will come to see.

Q Andre Previn has just written a new opera based on A Streetcar Named Desire. Would Annapolis Opera consider doing a work such as this, now or in the future?

A When you do only one opera a year, you have to stick to the standards. In the early '80s, the Annapolis Opera did three operas a year. Usually they picked two popular operas and one not-so-popular opera and sold it as a season subscription. People would buy three operas knowing they really loved two. They would go to the other one because it wasn't much more money, and it might be something adventuresome.

It's difficult to do a brand-new opera because of the cost. If you don't get a big enough audience, you're losing a lot of money. Hopefully, when Annapolis gets a sold-out audience for every performance, and we can do three operas a year, we might do something like Andre Previn's new opera. There are lots of 20th century operas - wonderful works - that I would love to do because people don't have the opportunity to see or hear them. That's a shame.

Q Define opera for me. How is opera different from an operetta, or a musical?

A The lines get blurred as the years go on. I've always had a tough time separating opera and operetta. One of the big differences between opera and operetta is that operetta has dialogue, and operas for the most part don't. What makes an operetta, which has dialogue and music and songs, different from a Broadway musical? I think that the only distinction is who wrote it and where they want it performed. If the composer calls his work an operetta, then that's what we're going to call it. Something like Phantom of the Opera, that's a musical. And yet the soprano part is as difficult as the soprano parts in operas. You need a legitimate voice to sing that.

Q Opera is sung throughout, for the most part?

A Yes. But on the Broadway stage, something like Cats or Les Miserables is sung entirely throughout. Why isn't that an opera? Because the composers didn't consider them operas. A lot of times Broadway asks the singers, usually women, to belt - to use what's called the chest voice. You don't ever get that in opera.

QWhen opera singers learn an opera in another language, do they speak that language?

A They know the language well enough to know what they're singing about. If they don't, they should. When the kids are at school, they study languages - French, German, and Italian. It's required.

Q The Annapolis Opera has a vocal talent competition coming up in February. Are people here and now aspiring to be opera singers?

A Absolutely. Some people say opera is dead, but don't tell that to a singer. There are tons of people who want to sing and aspire to have an operatic career. Talent's not the problem; money's the problem. In any opera company in the United States, if you get 40 to 45 percent of your budget through ticket sales, you're doing better than anybody. You have to get more than half the money through corporate foundations and private donations. Otherwise tickets would be $150 a piece and nobody would come.

Q What do you do in your spare time?

A I have no spare time.

Q So music is your life?

A It's my life. It's something I do every waking moment and sometimes in my sleep. I'm fortunate enough to love what I do every day from seven in the morning to 11 or 12 at night.

Q Finally, what treats does the Annapolis Opera have in store for us in the future?

A Next season, we're doing [Puccini's] Tosca and a children's opera: Little Red Riding Hood. We'll do a concert of famous arias and duets from various operas with a full orchestra and singers but no sets or costumes. Then, hopefully, the following year we'll do two operas and a children's opera. Then maybe eventually back to three [operas a year]. I would love to see the house filled and people upset because they can't get tickets. That would be wonderful.

A Night On the Town:

Mozart's Marriage Oct. 9 & 11-Enjoy some cultured comedy as Annapolis Opera opens the season w/Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. Some of opera's best talent turns out to perform the masterpiece. The plot revolves around Figaro's attempt to outwit his master, Count Almaviva, and marry Susanna, without surrendering her to the feudal rights of the Count. Don't fret; it's in English. 8pm Oct. 9; 3pm Oct. 11 @ Maryland Hall, 801 Chase St., Annapolis. $40 w/discounts: 410/267-8135.

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VolumeVI Number 40
October 8-14, 1998
New Bay Times