David Stern’s opera company, Opera Fuoco, recently released a 14-part online series of “The Marriage of Figaro” which is set in 2020.
The series was created in response to the new technological developments and the new streaming era of opera which has grown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Stern is a firm believer that in the Netflix-era, people want/need to be able to consume the arts in smaller bites. As a result, the new series was created and stars members of Opera Fuoco’s Young Artist Program and world-renowned singer Laurent Naouri.
OperaWire had a chance to speak with Stern about the new series, the filming process, and the challenges of making an opera show.
OperaWire: How did you come up with the idea for “Figaro in the city?”
David Stern: Once we canceled our scheduled performance of a concert version of Figaro in May in Paris, I wanted to find a solution for the Young Artists of Opera Fuoco to rescue the production. We were in our first lockdown in Paris, and while we could not leave our apartments except to buy food, I thought it would be best to prepare to do something as soon as the restriction would ease. By the end of May, we were once again allowed to leave, but all concert halls were closed. Restaurants were only allowed to serve outdoors, and the parks and gardens in Paris were closed off. I found a private space in the 11th arrondissement which has a room dedicated for small concerts, and I was allowed to use it from the end of May through until the beginning of July. My initial goal was to record the entire work using a piano to replace the orchestra and a baroque guitar to replace the harpsichord. I had my record company, Aparté, do the sound, and we managed to record it in its entirety with sufficient distancing between the singers. Once this was done, I found a video director, Alexandre Camerlo, who not only was versed in street filming in Paris, but also knows Figaro perfectly well.
Together we conceived a way of filming the opera as a mini-series. The premise was very simple: young singers are arriving for a rehearsal of the “Marriage of Figaro,” in a studio setting that is typical of how most operas are prepared before going on stage. As the singers get on with their roles, however, they gradually lose the sense of rehearsal, and they eventually become their characters. At first, you see me conducting and the musicians playing, but then we disappear, and the singers lose the sense of the “fourth wall.” They are no longer in a context of singing to a public, but rather to each other, and the camera acts as an extra member of the cast. Alexandre filmed everything on one camera with no cuts.
Every episode you see is one take, in order to give fluidity to the action, and not a sense of “over-production.” I prepared the project over a two-week period, and we basically improvised our way through the entire opera, all while keeping the safety protocols of that period (which are very different than what we are going through today). I can say overtly that at the time of the initial filming we had no idea how we would end the project.
OW: Tell me about creating each episode and how you created the story?
DS: I had the idea of Figaro as a mini-series because it is one of the most plot-driven operas in the repertoire. We looked for moments in the story that would leave the audience hanging as to what would come next. Luckily there was a suitable place every 15-18 minutes, so it actually felt quite natural where to start and stop.
Again the story created itself, because the object of the story is really how young singers approach such imposing roles with energy, creativity, and openness. I feel that the spectator feels how these young talents grow more and more comfortable with their roles. There was no faking at all, because, indeed, the singers were new to their roles and to the format of being filmed constantly in close up. I am impressed how well they adapted, and how much more relaxed they are in the second season.
OW: Once you had the story and the episodes what was the next step and how did you work with Alexandre Camerlo to create the visual style for the work?
DS: As I had said, Alexandre insisted on the one camera and no cuts method. The alternate title for “The Marriage of Figaro” is “La Folle Journée” (the mad day). It begins in Figaro’s bedroom and ends in the Count’s garden. Alexandre colored the early episodes in morning light and created a night effect for the end of the story. We added the time at the beginning of each episode to keep the audience aware that it all takes place within 18 hours or so.
Since we were committed to filming in this quirky space, we had to imagine how to integrate the “set” into the plot. Alexandre did a great job, I believe, in varying the camera angles so as not to become repetitive. We also took out the instrumentalists and myself. It is natural for a singer to connect with a conductor and/or instrumentalists, so due to our absence, the singers were obliged to focus on each other and, ultimately, the text. Connecting one’s voice to a text in order to tell a story is the highest degree of communication for an opera singer, so it was no small task for them.
Once we opened ourselves to filming outside, the options grew, although there were still quite a lot of restrictions of movement in Paris in that period. There were no historic sites that were available, and all gardens and parks were closed. As you can tell from the scene at the café, outdoor seating was allowed, but indoor access was complicated.
OW: What were the challenges of making the series during the COVID-19 pandemic?
DS: The biggest challenge was keeping the singers safe. What saved us was the idea to film on playback so that they could be next to each other. The codes and restrictions, even without singing are more stringent today, but for the time we filmed, we remained within the rules that the French government had proscribed. I am happy to report that no one fell ill during the entire period.
Once we began filming, Alexandre had to contend with the fact that the rehearsal space had skylights, which did not allow him to control the lighting for each scene. On days of mixed sun and clouds, we were often unable to film an entire episode.
OW: What new ideas did you discover from this iconic score while reimaging it for this project?
OW: Since the way we did the production depended so much on the interaction between the singers, I came to an even higher estimation of Mozart’s and da Ponte’s recitatives. The intelligence, subtlety, and psychology that all the characters display have always fascinated me, but this time I understood the depth of the combination of music and text.
Since I had chosen to replace the orchestra with a piano, I then chose a baroque guitar to replace the harpsichord, which does not combine well with a modern piano. The guitar plays an important role in the story, since Figaro and Susanna play it and Susanna accompanies Cherubino in the first season. I had the guitar play alone in “Voi che sapete” and I have to say I was very happy with the way it came out. I would like to imagine Mozart would have approved.
OW: Tell me about the collaboration with the cast and how they prepared for their parts.
DS: The cast are all (except for Bartolo) members of the Opera Fuoco Young Artists Program. I keep every group of singers for 3-4 years, and this was slated to be their last big concert before the end of their term. I have thus been working with them on various repertoires for quite a while now, and I can say that I have come to know them very well. They know that when they come to Fuoco rehearsals they need to understand every word of the text before they start singing and that working a role means starting from a certain point and continuing to grow and develop.
Mozart’s opera is hardly new material, and so they had already a certain notion about the music, but I began the process with a week of rehearsals supervised by the marvelous Karine Deshayes, the leading mezzo-soprano out of France these days. Her contribution to the vocal level was significant. I also had the chance to ask my good friend, Laurent Naouri, who is well known at the Bastille and the Met, to sing the role of Bartolo. Having sung the role of the Count around the world during his career, he had never sung Bartolo, and he generously agreed not only to join us, but to help his young colleagues.
The camaraderie and dedication of Karine and Laurent, combined with the commitment and perseverance of the young singers were beautiful things to witness.
OW: Tell me about finding the locations and what obstacles you faced in working with unrestricted environments?
DS: As I had said, we were lucky to have been granted access to a private space to record in, because at the time, all public spaces were either closed or restricted to a small number of people at a time. We managed to convince the café owner to allow us to film, because we had been ordering out from him for a good part of the rehearsal period, and then for the Dove Sono sequence, we filmed in my music studio across town, in order to go back to the notion that the singers were still bridging the rehearsal-performance boundary.
What I like about that scene is that the Countess is clearly in rehearsal mode at the very beginning and end of the aria, but in between, as she gazes out to the roofs of Paris looking on to the dome of the Val de Grace Hospital, she is thinking about the Count, and how to win him back despite all. When she gets to the end of the aria, I have the impression that she forgot that she had been filmed and that she was “waking” to the reality of where she actually was. By the time she sings the duet with Susanna in the car, she is once again fully integrated into the story.
OW: Tell me about the sound design and when did you record vocals?
DS: We recorded the sound in the rehearsal space, and I called upon the sound engineer from Aparté who made our last CD, Florent Ollivier. I trust him completely and he adjusted to our needs and limitations perfectly. He had to distance the singers more than he usually would have, and more importantly, he had to make a sound that would be adaptable to a video and not an audio recording.
There is a huge difference in the way we hear something when it is in conjunction with an image, than when it is only in audio form. There is a spontaneity and flow that needs to lend itself to a filmed version of the music.
OW: What do you hope that audiences take away from this series and how do you think it can shape the way people see opera?
DS: I started thinking of this way to present an opera because clearly, the Covid era had upended our traditional ways of appreciating culture. There is now a glut of videos available on the internet as a reaction to the lack of concerts. I have difficulty, I must say, remaining in front of my computer for hours to watch an opera, but the idea of watching an episode appeals to me. I did not cut the score or make any grand changes to the music for this version. Whereas most stagings cut out Marcellina’s and Basilio’s arias because of the length of the work, this format allowed me to keep them in. For someone who loves the “Marriage of Figaro,” there is everything of the original to enjoy (except the orchestra, of course).
But I hope that this mini-series attracts people who may otherwise not know how to approach opera. Opera remains for me the ultimate genre, since it mixes music with text, drama, staging, dance, lighting, in short, all the art forms. By putting the emphasis on the acting and the expression of the sentiment of opera, the video format can highlight the marvel of the performance. I am not trying to replace live performances.
There is no video that can replace live singers on a stage and a direct, live acoustic. But as long as we are using the format of the internet, I think it is better to present opera in a specific way that the audience cannot experience in the theater. If “Figaro in the City” manages to convince some people that opera is alive and vital, then I think we will have done our job.