John Millard says bluegrass gives a backbeat and festive feel to the material.
THE BARBER OF SEVILLE by Michael O’Brien and John Millard, adapted from Beaumarchais and Rossini, directed by Leah Cherniak, with Dan Chameroy, Oliver Dennis, Raquel Duffy, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, Gregory Prest and William Webster. Presented by Soulpepper at the Young Centre (50 Tank House Lane). Runs to June 8, Monday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Wednesday and Saturday 2 pm. $51-$69, stu $32, rush $5-$22. 416-866-8666. See listing.
Even if you've never seen Rossini's 1816 comic opera The Barber Of Seville, you probably know its most famous number, in which Figaro, the title figure, celebrates his multifaceted reputation.
You might, in fact, remember the Bugs Bunny version, in which Bugs conducts the aria, or another cartoon, Rabbit Of Seville, in which he and Elmer Fudd find themselves onstage enacting their own take on the story.
You'll find some of the same cartoon capers in Michael O'Brien's version of Barber, in which Figaro helps Count Almaviva win the love of the young Rosina, ward of the older, Bartolo, who wants to marry her himself.
Theatre Columbus premiered the Dora-winning show in 1996. For the new Soulpepper production, again directed by Leah Cherniak, O'Brien has revised his script, which includes onstage music adapted from Rossini tunes by John Millard.
"When we first worked on the piece, Michael came up with a template based on the original 1775 Figaro play by Beaumarchais," recalls Millard, a resident artist at Soulpepper and a musician and composer who's worked with the Polka Dogs and Happy Day.
The revolutionary subtext in Beaumarchais's 1775 commedia dell'arte-inspired play subtly promoted ideas about liberty that would burst out, bloodily, in the French Revolution. O'Brien weaves them into a play whose first act is a comedy the Marx Brothers would adore for its anarchic craziness.
"When we turned to the show's music, we decided to cut a lot of the recitatives [the introductory sections of arias] and songs based on a florid style we couldn't do," says Millard. "I poked around inside the Rossini opera and found several cavatinas [short, simple arias] that I latched onto.
"They're basically little folk songs, often telescoped together, and I realized that I could play them on a banjo or an accordion. In other words, they are a kind of ornate folk music that suits my style, melodies I could orchestrate for plucked strings, accordion and flute."
Dan Chameroy, a performer "with tons of musical theatre chops," plays Figaro, and he's surrounded by Soulpepper artists both established (William Webster, Gregory Prest) and rising (Courtney Ch'ng Lancaster).
"They've all stepped up to the plate and made it work," nods Millard, who performs in the show, something he didn't do the first time around. (This summer he'll also be onstage in the SummerWorks production of The Ballad Of Weedy Peetstraw, a Faustian musical he co-wrote with Peter Anderson.)
"The actors have been wonderful at adjusting to the production's shift from being music-driven and true to the opera's farce in the first half to more serious themes, echoing Beaumarchais, in the second."
Millard's translated some of the other opera tunes into a folk idiom, and during our interview he sometimes sings in scat to show me the difference between an opera melody and his version.
"I refer to bluegrass all the time; I can't help it, since my playing so often involves plucking strings. That style of music gives a backbeat and festive feel to material that has the rhythm of mazurkas, tarantellas or waltzes.
"It's all popularized or colloquialized to our ears now. Arguably, listeners today know country music more than opera. And possibly they enjoy it more, too."