Figaro-tively Speaking

An interview with the Dallas Theater Center's Kevin Moriarty on directing his second opera, The Marriage of Figaro, for the Dallas Opera.

published Thursday, October 23, 2014

Photo: Robert Hart/TheaterJones
Kevin Moriarty

Dallas Dallas Theater Center artistic director Kevin Moriarty wears his emblematic bright-colored sneakers everywhere—we hear he has a special pair for opening nights—and these days he must need them. While keeping up a breakneck pace at DTC, Moriarty’s been seen trotting from the DTC’s offices above the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre to the other side of Flora Street—heading for the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House, where he’s staging (that’s the opera world’s version of “directing”) The Dallas Opera’s upcoming production of Mozart’s comic masterpiece, The Marriage of Figaro.

It’s a repeat performance for Moriarty, who was also the stage director for TDO’s modern opera The Lighthouse in 2012. Back then the opera came to him, not vice versa: Lighthouse had a well-reviewed run at the Wyly, a space normally occupied by Moriarty’s DTC.

The Marriage of Figaro pairs Kevin Moriarty for the first time with Dallas Opera music director Emmanuel Villaume—and the two men’s shared interest in both music and storytelling would seem to predict they’ll play well together. Maestro Villaume, who once thought he might become a stage director himself, studied both music and literature at the Sorbonne—while Moriarty, who entered college as a music major, quickly found Shakespeare—through the plots of Giuseppe Verdi’s operas!—and a passion for theater.


Theater Jones: You’re working both sides of Flora Street these days. What’s been new and different about your experience with the opera this time?

Kevin Moriarty: The Lighthouse and Figaro are such incredibly different pieces, and so my assignment has been quite different as well. With The Lighthouse we were creating an original production of a modern chamber opera that audiences in North Texas had never seen before. The real obligation there was to create something new, compelling and clear—to introduce the piece in the most persuasive way.

With Figaro, it’s exactly the opposite: the audience comes to the piece with an immense amount of history and deep, deep affection—and strong points of view, not just musically but in terms of the staging. So this time, the assignment was to take a beloved classic and treat it respectfully, joyfully—and allow it to thrive onstage in a traditional way, and with all the incredible resources the opera can bring to bear, which is incredibly different from what we have in theater. Massive, massive sets, for instance—it takes five minutes to change the set between acts; in theater, we don’t typically even have set changes any more. But here, we lower the curtain, and a huge crew of stage hands—much bigger than you’d have on any Broadway musical—comes onstage and rebuilds the set. That happens four times during the opera!


In theater, the director really is the ship’s captain, the person in charge. In opera, you aren’t alone: you’re working with Maestro Villaume, and with the singers, too, who are experts themselves. Is it truly a very different experience from directing a play? 

It’s hugely different. In this case, with a traditional opera and me being a relatively novice director of operas, the maestro is the primary creative force in the process. But also, so many of the others involved—the cast, the orchestral players, the Dallas Opera as producer—have done Figaro before. In theater, you might find with a Hamlet or South Pacific that a few of the people have done the piece, but it’s quite likely that most everyone is coming in fresh. That certainly was true in the Les Misérables we just did at the [Dallas] Theater Center.

All these people bring such history and knowledge to Figaro they could almost run it without the stage director. So I think it’s my role not to be the primary visionary, but to somehow assimilate the different voices and experiences and let them come together in a coherent stage picture, and a compelling story onstage.


You spoke recently about wanting to make “the architecture of the music visible” to audiences through the action onstage. Can you give an example of what you meant by that?

That’s been one of the great, great joys in this, and something I can be very much involved in as the stage director. Even where the production has a long history, in the staging we have to invent it in the room for the first time. A great example would be the famous, glorious Act Two finale of Figaro—among the greatest pieces of material I’ve ever had the good fortune to stage.

One of the things that makes that finale so spectacular is the constant addition of voices; as the scene goes on, it accumulates characters one by one. But also, the characters keep shifting their allegiances in terms of the plot, and Mozart is doing the same thing with the music, line by line, alternating solo lines with duets and trios and quartets, and at an increasingly giddy pace: one character will sing, three will respond, two will respond, four will respond to that. So the music itself, beyond even the plot and characters, is changing its mass (the number of people), and also changing duration—how long it is, and the tempo, how fast or slow it is.

What I’ve done my best to do in the staging is to make all that visible. In the best moments, if you knew the score but the sound was turned off, hopefully you’d be able to look at where the bodies are in space, how fast those bodies are moving, and where they stand in relation to one another, and be able to say “I know where I am” in this piece of music—even without the added layer of character and plot, which of course is immense fun too. 

At one level, that might mean putting people near each other who are singing the same thing. But it gets more complicated; for instance, I make sure that when Mozart’s music is in balance, I try very consciously to balance the stage visually, in a neo-Classical stage picture way. And where the music is off balance, I try to unbalance the stage, to weight things toward stage left or right. And that is unbelievably fun every time. You can’t stage by following the words, which often repeat themselves; it’s the music that’s really the engine, the heart and soul of it.

I actually feel that when I go back to directing plays, I’ll be more facile in my staging because of these muscles Mozart has built up for me. Being attuned to how he’s made that architecture in the score has left me much more aware of the possibility of doing that onstage. Now I can’t wait to get to Molière and Euripides later this winter [at the DTC] and see if I can do that same thing with their writing.


The original Beaumarchais play caused quite a political controversy in the 1780s, and Mozart’s librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte removed much of the politics—but I gather you believe it’s still in there to be found. 

I do think quite a bit of the politics managed to survive intact. What of course is missing is Figaro’s summational, climactic speech, to which he brings all the frustration of being the little guy—the 99 per cent, we might say—who is constantly at the mercy of the big guy, the one per cent. Da Ponte changes that extremely political speech and makes it very personal—all about the fickleness of women. That was necessary to get past the censors and guarantee that the power structure would allow the opera to be performed.

But the plot remains political. It’s about working people trying to maintain their dignity—and their marriages—and who hope to live their lives with self-determination and respect and joy. Their efforts are blocked and thwarted every step of the way by the power structure, in this case represented by Count Almaviva.

I think what still gives the piece a kind of revolutionary fervor—as well as a comic joy audiences love—is that ultimately the servants win. And it’s those characters most of the audience relates to—the people who wake up every day and work to provide for their families. This is a story that by its nature is political…and relevant.


There certainly are some very strong women in Figaro, and that’s a kind of political theater as well, isn’t it?

It’s hard to think about the powerful and the powerless, whether you’re talking about the 18th century or today, without also thinking about gender. Certainly, women have made immense strides toward equality and liberation, but still, I think, audiences can relate to husbands who are sometimes quick to jealousy and anger, or who threaten violence against their wives. These are male libidos out of control—and controlling the actions of the male characters. And more than a few operas portray women who are beaten or ill-treated, even with these victimized women dying, which causes us to pity them.

But in Figaro, the women fight back, and fight back with immense wit and humor and joy—and the final result is that it isn’t truly Figaro who triumphs as much as it is Susanna, the serving girl rather than the serving boy. Susanna and the Countess forge a personal relationship, a bond in which they find what they have in common as women—and in that bond is not just the happy ending of the story, but also the happy ending envisioned for society in the years to follow: women and men, equal, the upper and lower classes increasingly merging and seeing their shared humanity as friends, citizens, equals. And all of that is driven by the women—and Mozart gives it his best music, on top of that!


You’re directing Medea at the DTC later this season, a play that also has strong women, but is tragic where Figaro is comic. Do you see any parallels?

Oh, very definitely. When you look at classical literature, whether you’re looking back at the Greeks or to France, for instance, over and over again you find the tragedies are populated by women who are denied equal access to justice. And in that denial they are either personally destroyed, or they triumph—but at immense cost to themselves and those around them. That, of course, is the tragedy of Medea: denied by the state, her only recourse is an act of tremendous violence.

In a comedy, and in The Marriage of Figaro delightfully so, essentially the same forces are put in motion. The setup of the plot is truly brutal: Susannah is not allowed to have any agency over her own body, and the Count is insisting that no, I don’t love you, but I will have sex with you, because I have that right as your employer. What makes it a comedy is that justice finally is done. It comes late—it takes four acts to get there—but justice does come, and so the world is left in order, in balance and harmony, with a victory won.

It’s also interesting to think about Medea in relation to our recent Les Misérables, which is also a story about revolution. Women are victimized throughout that story, and for the most part end up tragically, either dead or alone. But with Figaro, Beaumarchais’ revolutionary shot manages to escape that fate and present a much more hopeful and loving vision.


Are there more operas in your future?

I’ve been left more in awe than ever at the genius of Mozart, and wanting to tackle some of the other great operas he wrote. The other thing is, I’ve fallen head over heels for Beaumarchais. I now have an immense desire not just to direct his original Marriage of Figaro but also the play of The Barber of Seville and the final part of the trilogy he wrote later, which tells us what became of Cherubino and the Countess. The characters are so incredibly vibrant and specific and human, the stories so deep and complicated, the politics so spot-on. This has definitely made me a fan, and led me to put them on my list of artistic works I’d like to conquer.

» The Marriage of Figaro opens Oct. 24 with a performance at the Winspear and a free outdoor simulcast in nearby Klyde Warren Park. Figaro’s exciting cast has been drawn from around the globe, with Italy’s Mirco Palazzi in the role of Figaro, Canada’s Joshua Hopkins as Count Almaviva, and two eagerly awaited young sopranos making their American debuts in this production—Australia’s Nicole Car as the Countess and Austria’s Beate Ritter as Susanna, Figaro’s intended bride. To order tickets for the free simulcast, go hereThanks For Reading

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Figaro-tively Speaking
An interview with the Dallas Theater Center's Kevin Moriarty on directing his second opera, The Marriage of Figaro, for the Dallas Opera.
by Jan Farrington

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