By Andrew Psarris This year the Eastman Opera Theatre will present Mozart’s perennial favorite Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). (Performance dates and times are listed at the end of this post.) It will be performed by two student casts in alternating performances, with musical direction by Benton Hess and stage direction by Steven Daigle. I had the opportunity to interview several of the principals in the student cast and ask them about their process and preparation for this great comic opera. Tell me about the opera. What has made this opera such a success? Isaac Assor (Figaro): Le nozze di Figaro was the first collaboration between Mozart and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte. It is based on the play Le mariage de Figaro by Pierre Beaumarchais. Aside from its political and social impact, what makes the opera so timeless is the complexity and nuance of its characters, both in the libretto and the music. We never get the sense that we are watching stock characters. And after this opera, nothing short of this psychological standard would ever be acceptable. Sun-Ly Pierce (Cherubino): A prevalent theme in Le nozze di Figaro is the separation of classes/rank and the rise of the middle class. Although the plot centers on the aristocratic characters in the opera, the most important characters are arguably the servants/middle class. This theme is one of the main focuses in our production of Figaro. Anthony Baron (Count Almaviva): This opera is so well known and beloved, in my view, because of the characters. Each one of these characters is so human. You see humanity at its worst – intrigue, jealousy, spite, but also at its best – love, forgiveness, caring. Everyone in the audience can relate to not just one, but probably most of the characters on the stage. What is your role in the opera? Isaac Assor (Figaro): Figaro is the head of Count Almaviva’s servants, and until the day of this opera, he was once his dear friend. Figaro prides himself on his cunning, yet a big challenge for him is learning to become a team player. He takes the entire responsibility of solving his and Susanna’s problems upon himself, and this gets him into trouble. He does not realize how resourceful and proactive Susanna is, and frankly, how much more effective she is at outsmarting the Count. Only at the last moment does he recognize that Susanna is not just his beloved, but a true partner in crime. Sun-Ly Pierce (Cherubino): The character I play in the opera is Cherubino, the young page boy to the Count Almaviva. Anthony Baron (Count Almaviva): I play Count Almaviva. He is the leader of the community. He and is wife have been married for a few years now, and the spark and energy that captivated both of them is largely gone. Evelyn Saavedra (Susanna): I play Susanna. She’s a very saucy person whose intelligence and wit allow her to maneuver herself out of some very difficult situations. How have you grown as a result of this role? Isaac Assor (Figaro): The biggest challenge of this opera has been the need to truly think in another language. This opera has the potential to fall flat if the singing comes first. The storytelling needs to be on as strong a footing as the music. As a result, working on this piece has been a major step forward in terms of how I approach a role. Sun-Ly Pierce (Cherubino): While the preparation for this role has been difficult, performing the character itself has been extremely fun and rewarding. Cherubino’s youthful and innocent, yet flirtatious nature is surprisingly hard to embody and project to the audience. Every day I find myself exploring new ideas for my own interpretation and learning so much from my colleagues. Anthony Baron (Count Almaviva): It has been a challenge playing a character quite different than myself. The count is a pretty extroverted guy. He lives totally on instinct. Evelyn Saavedra (Susanna): Learning the role was difficult because we started coaching and having musical rehearsals while I was still involved in another production (Suor Angelica). I had to be very disciplined and make myself a daily schedule of what I was going to learn when so that I wouldn’t fall behind. Once the music was learned I made a schedule for memorization as well. It’s a lot of music and Susanna is a chatty character so there is a lot of text to remember. What are the rehearsals like? What makes them special? Isaac Assor (Figaro): Fitting in a fast-paced three-hour opera into a staging process of a little over a month has been exhilarating. We are forced to work with a great deal of detail from the first time we put a scene on its feet. There simply isn’t enough time to rework old scenes constantly. Therefore, we are seldom just walking through blocking. Each time we run a scene, we have to live through it as our characters. Sun-Ly Pierce (Cherubino): Rehearsals are immensely fun and simultaneously demanding. The fluidity of language is essential, and complete understanding of not only your lines, but everyone else’s lines, is imperative. It was a very involved process to master the Italian and feel as fluent as possible, and I’m still finding ideas and nuances I can improve upon. More than anything, I underestimated how physically exhausting this role truly is. Cherubino is constantly running around, jumping off balconies and getting into all kinds of mischief. The role requires lots of energy and stamina. Anthony Baron (Count Almaviva): Our conductor, Maestro Benton Hess, said to us that there is not and probably never will be something as close to a perfect opera as The Marriage of Figaro. The way that Mozart so expertly uses his musical language to reveal character intent continues to astonish me. My favorite moments in this opera however, are the finales in Act II and Act IV. The Act II finale is especially a tour de force! The ensemble begins as a duet between the Count and Countess and continues for about 25 minutes. By the end, almost every character is on the stage, adding his or her viewpoint to the scenario. Evelyn Saavedra (Susanna): Apart from being the longest role in the soprano repertoire, it is also a very physically demanding one. I’m jumping, running around, dancing, among other things. There have been days when I have woken up sore from the previous day’s rehearsal. Apart from that it’s been really amazing to see how my colleagues develop their characters further and further each week finding new and creative ways to make all of us laugh! It’s unbelievable how much fun we are all having! What is most exciting about performing in Figaro? Isaac Assor (Figaro): The history that accompanies this opera makes the process simultaneously daunting yet almost surreal. On one level, there is the struggle to find the balance between grounding the performance in tradition while bringing the characters to life in a way that they’ve never been done before. On the other hand, every time I enter the rehearsal room, I am aware of the privilege of getting to step into one of the greatest works in the history of music, and that excitement overwhelms any anxiety over whether I am doing it “right.” No matter where my singing will take me in the future, this will always be my first Figaro, and I could not feel more fortunate to have the opportunity with the Eastman Opera Theatre. Sun-Ly Pierce (Cherubino): I think the greatest part about performing this iconic opera is to get to explore these characters in such depth. The various relationships between the characters fuels and drives the story, and to get to spend time understanding and interpreting them is fascinating. Anthony Baron (Count Almaviva): To me, the most exciting part about doing this opera is getting to sing this glorious music in Kodak Hall. We are so fortunate to have two extremely strong casts and a terrific orchestra. The performance will be very special because of that. Eastman Opera Theatre’s performances of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro are as follows: Thursday, April 7, 2016 – 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 8, 2016 – 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 9, 2016 – 7:30 p.m. Sunday, April 10, 2016 – 1:30 p.m. All take place in Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre. Pre-performance talks take place one hour earlier in the Ray Wright Room, Main Building, except for Thursday, April 7.