14 Nov From a director’s point of view: Michael Albano on Le nozze di Figaro
Since I started writing these posts, I have often found myself thinking, how cool is it that I
get to just ask questions that I have secretly had all along? I always find that I am quite curious
as to how the professionals that I work with got their start in their respective fields, how they
think, how they make their way through this world, what drew them to opera and classical music.
One of the many incredibly beautiful things about a career in the arts is the deep connection to
other human beings that we maintain through the nature of our work, not only to our audience
members, but to our colleagues, directors, conductors, coaches, and the like. Having grown up in
a very small town, I am constantly amazed at the diversity of opinions and personalities I
encounter on a day-to-day basis, and I am always intrigued when I have the opportunity to delve
deeper into the minds of my colleagues and instructors. I sat down with our resident stage
director, Michael Albano, one morning before rehearsal to discuss our upcoming production of
Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro and his life in the theatre.
– Can you talk about how you came to be a director and what led you to your position at U
of T Opera?
I suppose you’d have to go back to the very first memory I have of it, which is really in high
school, where the teachers were on some sort of strike and it was announced that we would have
no senior play because there was no one to direct it. And I said, well I’ll do it! And I guess I
caught the bug then. And the whole operatic thing, directing in opera, was just a synthesis of
these two worlds that are my passion: Theatre and music.
I went briefly to the University of Windsor, and I left to study with Dr. Herman Geiger-
Torel. I wrote to him and he gave me an interview, and for reasons I will never understand
except as fate, he gave me an interview and he took me as an assistant. So that’s how it sort of all
began. I was so inexperienced, and knew nothing, so it was just phenomenal. I also got an arts
council grant to work with him and a woman named Constance Fisher who was the resident
stage director here at the time, which is how I came to know what went on in this building.
– Can you tell us about the first Le nozze di Figaro that you ever did, or the most
They’re all memorable in their own way, often for things that go wrong. But the very first one I
did here was at the school, and there was an existing production that was very beautiful, except
there was no window for Cherubino to jump out of in Act 2. The director had wanted him to
jump into the orchestra pit, which he did, and it never went well. It was just a horror show for
everyone, not the least of which was for Cherubino, who had to jump into the pit. I guess that’s
the first directorial decision I made, I said we’ll redesign Act 2 so there’s a window seat, so he
can jump out of the window.
Your physical production dictates what you do; you can’t say you want someone to come
down a staircase stage right unless there is a staircase on stage right. The more say you have in it
[the physical production] the more integrated of a production you can do. It’s really hard to do a
show when the scenery is just awful; it’s more like an obstacle that’s in your way all the time.
– Can you describe the process that you and Sandra go through when you are choosing
shows for the year, and what drew you to Le nozze di Figaro this time around?
Well, it’s interesting. We both have our short lists of things that we think are possible, things that
we can cast, that offer something (for example, we would never do an opera in the same year that
the COC is doing it), and things that offer contrast. You can’t do two French operas in a year
because that wouldn’t serve anybody. So you have all those caveats, and that means that things
gradually fall off your short list. And it had been quite a while since we did Figaro, so Figaro
was on my list, and as more things fell off we thought, wow, this is the opera we can actually do,
and do well, because of the singers that we have in the program. And I can’t tell you exactly, but
it has been quite a while since we did it.
– What is your process when you’re mounting a new production?
It’s always visualization. You go immediately to the pragmatic issues, which means the physical
production, really. I have done Susan Benson’s very beautiful production twice, in Washington
and Detroit, which is the one that goes from Act 1 to Act 2 seamlessly, with one intermission,
and then Act 3 and 4 go together. And I love that, because all intermissions really do is make the
evening longer, and that’s already the challenge in Figaro. I also very much wanted to do a
production that’s set in the middle of the 18 th century, mostly because I think it’s a really good
grounding. Students can leave here and do more conceptual productions and that’s fabulous, but
it’s nice to get a grounding of what the piece is about. There’s a certain elegance to it. I’m not
completely sure that it’s a modern story. I always think that updating La Bohème works really
well because there’s something timeless about it, but I’m not convinced that Figaro is a story
that could be happening in 2019. And other things are just cosmetic; of course, you could move
it to the 1930s because the clothes are swell or move it to the future because everybody likes to
imagine the future, but it seemed the right choice.
– And what about staging, what is your process for that?
It’s a two-fold process. You’re trying to organize the traffic in a way that makes sense for the
characters, that it’s driven by what they say and who they’re saying it to. You’ve got that going
on at the same time as a totally technical level of, in the show the singer will need to see the
conductor at this point, or whatever. It’s almost always dictated by the text and the music. I don’t
know how a lot of other people direct because directors don’t talk much to each other, but I
cannot listen to operatic music without imagining. It’s all about the motion of the characters, the
sweep of the movement. It’s just the way I think.
– What speaks to you most about Figaro?
I think it’s a brilliant libretto. The play is not great; first of all, Beaumarchais wasn’t really a
playwright, he was a political essayist, a supporter of the American revolution, so his play
was a vehicle more for revolutionary thoughts than anything else. And Da Ponte saw
something different there, he took a lot of the political stuff and saw a more solid narrative.
There could still be political sassiness, the sassiness of Susanna and Figaro, who represent
the serving class who are starting to speak truth to power. It’s that brilliant libretto, and the
Mozartian music which takes it to another level, and that it seems to come out of the play
itself. I often say if you really want to understand Figaro, of course read the play and the
libretto, but you should read Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. That’s about people who go
through a kind of difficult period in their life and drift apart, and come back together, which
is basically the story of the Count and Countess in Figaro. And I do think that Figaro is
about the Count and the Countess, and I think that Susanna and Figaro are the subplot. A
brilliant subplot, with brilliant characters; but I think it’s about the estrangement of the Count
and Countess, and their coming back together and all that stuff that needed to happen. Like in
The Winter’s Tale, these people have to go through all these terrible things in their lives in
order to discover the people that are really important to them.
– What do you think is most accessible about this piece?
First of all, audiences love the music, and they still identify very much with Figaro. People love
the character of Figaro. And as I mentioned in our own rehearsals, there’s a reason why the
newspaper in Paris to this very day is called Le Figaro, because it means “voice of the people”.
You can tell audiences are immediately on the side of Figaro. It’s not unlike Hansel and Gretel,
where you know the kids are on the side of the kids, not the witch, so that’s why the theatre
always explodes with applause when the witch gets pushed in the oven. So we’re on the side of
Figaro from the very beginning, and also the opera has what I call a strong narrative. It has a
story that develops in a way that we understand it, and it is interesting enough for us to follow
but not so crazy as in some operatic stories that we just get lost in the complication of it. Figaro
has a number of important subplots which underline what is going on, but it’s laid out,
dramaturgically, in a really good way.
– What can you tell us about your image for this production?
I see it very much in having confidence in these performers to tell this story and make these parts
their own, and not laying any gimmickry on top of it. And we directors have all been guilty of
inserting gimmickry into something, or some sort of effect, or some sort of stunning visual thing,
when the piece is sagging and you need a moment to engage the audience. But in Figaro there’s
basically nothing wrong with the piece itself, it’s very well constructed, so it’s a great framework
to let people create these characters. And I’m really hoping that these parts will be good friends
to you and your colleagues. It would please me very much to think that you did your first
Countess here and formed your initial opinions about it. But I really look forward to what people
will create, of which the direction is only a tiny, tiny bit. At a certain point it always has a liftoff,
which always intrigues me. To give you a very simple example, you give someone the
instruction at some point to go and sit down, and then when you’re running through, for the first
few times they always look like they’re going to sit down because you told them to, and then at a
certain point they just own it. I think these characters are intriguing to inhabit because they’re
– What is the most challenging part of this piece from a director’s point of view?
Well, I think it really is the same challenge as the artists have, which is confronting the length of
it, the enormity. The last thing you want to do is have your first complete run through of the
opera on the first night. So, the challenge is to work efficiently but not inartistically, so that
people have a sense of the general traffic of the opera. If you’re fussing right up until the dress
rehearsal about a move or something, it’s very difficult to go beyond that and create a believable
– What can this work still teach us?
Well, if you look at the pieces that survive over the years, they’re the ones that are non-specific.
They always come back to very basic issues that we’re still confronting. They always ask the big
questions. The estrangement of a couple after a brief period of marriage where they try to find
each other again and question their love for each other, that’s still a modern thing.
In regard to speaking truth to power, I don’t think our contemporary society is that much
different in the sense of a privileged class and an underprivileged class. It’s disguised because we
have a much larger middle class, but that still does not erase that inequitable power structure that
exists, and I think people are fascinated by that. And again, why do audiences come to the
theatre? Maybe a third reason might be a reason that I go to the theatre, which is that I’m always
captivated by a good story.
Catch our production of Le nozze di Figaro from Thursday, November 21 st to Sunday,
November 24 th , 2019. Happy singing!