An operatic production popularized by a Loony Tunes animation will be performed at three historic Kansas venues next weekend.
Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd’s epic battle in the 1950 cartoon “The Rabbit of Seville” brought one of opera’s most staged works to the forefront of popular culture. In it, the two characters sing along to overtures from “Barber of Seville” as they scuffle across the stage of the Hollywood Bowl. Reruns, along with its selection by animation professionals as one of the “50 greatest cartoons of all time” have familiarized generations with Rossini’s work.
“What’s nice about the comparison to the cartoon is that the comedy in ‘Barber’ is very similar,” said Michael Nansel, who plays the title role of the mischievous barber Figaro. “In those cartoons, you have the comedy level that a child can enjoy, but then you take it to the next level and you have a comedy level that an adult can also enjoy. ‘Barber’ figures both of those aspects out well, just as the Warner Bros. animation does.”
Humorous antics and hilarious highjinks will collide with love and zeal as the Wichita Grand Opera offers up a three-night, traveling production of “Barber of Seville” for its final show of the season. The first performance is Friday evening at the Stiefel Theatre in Salina, followed by a Saturday evening staging at Wichita’s Orpheum Theatre. A Sunday matinee will take place at the McPherson Opera House in McPherson. The opera will be performed in a new English translation, which has been condensed to two hours to allow for a fresh, fast-paced format.
“The fact that it’s in English makes it unique in and of itself,” said Sharin Apostolou, who plays the feisty Rosina. “It makes the production very accessible to the audience. Especially with comedic pieces like this one, it’s so important. If the audience is reading the joke either before we’ve said it or after it’s gone by, there’s a mild disconnect. This performance will better engage the audience; they’ll be there every step of the way.”
Parvan Bakardiev, Wichita Grand Opera’s president, noted that “Barber of Seville” is the most performed comedic opera in the United States. He said that it typically brings in people who enjoy music theatet and performances that are more histrionic in nature.
“This gets audiences of different background to come to the opera,” he said. “It’s great for first-time opera goers. It’s musical theater with substance because the story is funny and the music is compelling.”
Apostolou agreed with that assessment, saying that audiences will find this production to be more relatable than typical operas.
“This is a very zany production,” Apostolou said. “I’ve done ‘Barber of Seville’ and sang Rosina before, but did a very traditional version of it last time. This is a little more cartoonish in the best sense of the word. I feel like most people think opera is stuffy and serious, and it’s not at all, especially in this show and this production.”
“Barber of Seville” debuted in 1816 in Rome. Its story is derived from the famed Figaro trilogy penned by French playwright Pierre Beaumarchais. Those who saw last season’s “Marriage of Figaro” are already familiar with some of the characters in this work. While Mozart’s opera was composed 30 years prior, the events in this tale happened earlier in the arch.
“If people saw the ‘Marriage of Figaro’ last year, this is the prequel,” Apostolou explained. “This is like Episode 1. The Rosina that you see in this production is the Countess in ‘Marriage of Figaro,’ but you meet her here five or six years earlier. This will show you how that whole saga started.”
The story is set in Spain during the late 1600s. As it begins, love struck Count Almaviva arrives in Seville incognito to woo the beautiful and fiery Rosina. The Count’s plans are blocked, though, by her guardian, the vociferous Doctor Bartolo. He has a surreptitious plan to marry Rosina himself for her inheritance. The Count recruits Figaro, the town barber and busybody, to hatch a scheme to thwart Bartolo and win his love.
“Figaro is mischievous in the way that he likes to manipulate people around him and be the catalyst for getting people in and out of trouble,” Nansel said. “He likes just watching everybody and being the commentator on what happens.”
“Rosina is feisty,” Apostolou said. “She’s got a lot of fire, which I really love about her. She’s not afraid to take matters into her own hands. I also like that she doesn’t wait for somebody to help her; she does it on her own. With the time period, though, she can’t do it all on her own, so the barber comes in as sort of a liaison. She’s young, but she’s strong. She’s not afraid to say no or show her opinion. She’s a very modern woman in that aspect.”
Also starring in the cast is Brenton Ryan as Count Almaviva, Charles Turley as Dr. Bartolo, and William Powers as music teacher Don Basilio. James Marvel directs the stage, while Ken Hakoda leads the orchestra as conductor.
“Everybody over the age of 30 always thinks of that Warner Bros.’ “Rabbit of Seville” and the music from it,” Nansel said. “From my perspective culturally, though, when someone asks me what the first opera they should see is, I always include ‘Barber of Seville’ in the top three. I like it the best because it’s funny. Nobody dies. There’s no fat lady singing at the end of the show. It’s light-hearted, and it’s easy to enjoy.”