A new opera takes on immigration reform

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Miki Yamashita as Soon-Yi Nam, E. Scott Levin as Babayan, Haqumai Waring Sharpe as Basel, Craig Colclough as Paul Conti, Greta Baldwin as Roxanne Conti, Maria Elena Altany as Susana and Jose Adan Perez as Figaro. Photo: Jennifer Babcock

President Obama’s recent executive action made it more likely that millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States will have a path to citizenship. But Republicans in Congress call the changes “executive overreach” and are pushing back.

Also this month, for the first time, undocumented immigrants in California will be able to get drivers’ licenses.

This weekend, the debate over immigration reform is moving to an unlikely venue – the opera. A new version of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro”, one of the most beloved and widely-performed operas, tackles the topic.

In the Italian libretto, written by Lorenzo Da Ponte and based on the stage comedy by Pierre Beaumarchais, Figaro is a heroic everyman, and a personal servant to the count. The count is a sleazy aristocrat pursuing Figaro’s bride-to-be, Susanna.

The couple and the countess team up to expose the count’s efforts to seduce Susanna before she marries Figaro.

That’s the nutshell of an opera that’s delighted audiences for over two centuries. But it didn’t start out very popular. The storyline, of a servant making a fool of his master, was seen as a challenge to the aristocracy.

“The play, when it originally premiered, was actually banned in France for several years because it was considered so subversive,” said Vid Guerrerio, a librettist in Los Angeles. He decided “The Marriage of Figaro” could use a modern take.

“My goal was absolutely to, kind of brush off some of the dust that’s accumulated over the last, you know, 250 years, and let contemporary audiences really see what a fresh, daring, even dangerous piece of art the original Marriage of Figaro was,” Guerrerio said.

In Guerrerio’s version, “¡Figaro! (90210),” staged by LA Opera, Figaro is a handyman, and his fiancée Susana is a housekeeper. They’re undocumented immigrants working in a Beverly Hills mansion.

At a recent rehearsal, Craig Colclough played the role of the count, now a real estate mogul. He’s conflicted about whether to help Susana avoid deportation.

Craig Colclough and Greta Baldwin as Paul and Roxanne Conti. Photo: Jennifer Babcock
Craig Colclough and Greta Baldwin as Paul and Roxanne Conti. Photo: Jennifer Babcock

“For just a few thousand dollars I can save her, but does that mean it’s the right thing to do?,” Colclough sang. “She made a contract, and contracts must be respected. Plus, she’s here illegally, it’s all connected. If she pays nothing, no penance, the rule of law in this country goes unprotected!”

In the next scene, Susana, played by Maria Elena Altany, hatches a plan with her boss’s wife, who’s caught on to her husband’s wandering eye. They decide to trap him in the act by having Susana seduce him.

“So punish me. I will not try to change it. Tonight we shall arrange it,” Altany sang.

“Wait! Am I hearing you clearly?,” Colclough replied.

“You must punish me severely!,” she sang.

“Severely!,” he cried out incredulously.

“Figaro” was written as an opera buffa, a comic opera. The new adaptation received high praise from The New York Times for its humor as well as its underlying drama.

Altany said she relates to the subject matter.

Jose Adan Perez (left) as Figaro and David Castillo (center) as Atzuko. Photo: Jennifer Babcock
Jose Adan Perez (left) as Figaro and David Castillo (center) as Atzuko. Photo: Jennifer Babcock

Her grandparents emigrated from Mexico to California’s Central Valley, and though she grew up comfortably in San Francisco, she was always conscious of the difficulties facing many immigrants to the U.S.

“I can’t imagine the stress of being undocumented, of being afraid to drive or to get your license or to go to school because they might check your papers, you know, it’s really incredible what people go through to be here,” Altany said.

In ¡Figaro! (90210), Susana crosses the border in exchange for promising to work in a sweatshop, but she manages to escape – until her old boss comes looking for her.

“She gets out of it, but that’s still hanging over her head all the time, and it’s just a constant fear,” Altany said. “And I think an issue that’s really important to me as a woman, is that she has to deal with sexual harassment and blackmail, which is such a big issue for Latina communities in L.A., especially those who are undocumented. It’s such a vulnerable population, so easily preyed on.”

Guerrerio said he wanted to put the issue of illegal immigration into an opera in order to humanize it, and take it out of the realm of political debate. Even the character of the count, the selfish real estate tycoon, is given a back story that helps explain his position.

“He still starts, saying, you know, ‘the glue of this great nation is true assimilation,’” Guerrerio said. Then he sheds some light on his own background. “And the lines are, ‘my folks may not have swum here, but living in a slum here, dad said, son, we are scum here. You must speak like you’re from here,’” he said.

Miki Yamashita as Soon-Yi Nam, Craig Colclough as Paul Conti, Jose Adan Perez as Figaro, E. Scott Levin as Babayan and Maria Elena Altany as Susana. Photo: Jennifer Babcock
Miki Yamashita as Soon-Yi Nam, Craig Colclough as Paul Conti, Jose Adan Perez as Figaro, E. Scott Levin as Babayan and Maria Elena Altany as Susana. Photo: Jennifer Babcock

Guerrerio said that history elevates the count from a stock villain. And it also comes from personal experience. Guerrerio grew up in an Italian-American family, where his grandparents forced his parents to speak English.

“And that was because growing up in the ‘50s, it was absolutely crucial that, ‘you are America, you speak American,’” Guerrerio said.

The whole concept of ¡Figaro! (90210), Guerrerio said, stemmed from a single moment – seeing a family member yell at an ATM machine because the screen asked, “English or Spanish?”

“So, for this family member, who had lived through an experience of giving up their family identity, their cultural identity, to become American, this notion that now, America was changing, and you didn’t have to choose, you didn’t have to adapt, you could somehow be multiple things at once, provoked an emotional reaction,” he said. “And I think the emotional reaction was grief.”

Figaro and Susana’s boss resents laws broken, and perhaps is bitter over forfeiting his culture in the pursuit of assimilation. Guerrerio said this is a real viewpoint that he hopes audiences consider, along with the perspective of the undocumented immigrants. In the end, it’s an opera about people, not policies.

LA Opera presents the world premiere staging of ¡Figaro! (90210) at the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre in Los Angeles from January 16 through 18. More information here.