Michael Preacely finds a lot to like in Figaro, the title character he plays in the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre’s production of “The Barber of Seville.”
“He always knows what the next move is,” Preacely says before taking the stage for one of the final rehearsals of the show. It opens Friday for four performances at the Singletary Center for the Arts. “He’s always thinking; he’s always plotting. It’s through that thought process, I believe, that the regalness of the character is portrayed.”
In the show, Figaro orchestrates romantic intrigue among the wealthy, but those characteristics of always being one step ahead also come in handy for an opera director. UK voice professor and world-renowned soprano Cynthia Lawrence is directing a full-length production for the first time.
Lawrence says the opportunity emerged during discussions of what shows were on tap for the 2016-17 UK Opera season.
When “Barber of Seville” came up, Lawrence says, “I raised my hand and said, ‘Well, I know that show.’ ”
She might have been underselling the point. Lawrence first sang the role of Berta 30 years ago at Central City Opera in Colorado and has since sung it all over the world, including a 1989 Lyric Opera of Chicago production directed by renowned stage artist John Copley, with Frederica von Stade as Rosina. And Lawrence’s husband, Mark Caulkins, who teaches voice at Berea College, is equally well-traveled as the romantic lead, Count Almaviva.
You don’t have to work at comedy. If the timing and the communication of the text are real between the people, the jokes are already in there.
Cynthia Lawrence, ‘Barber of Seville’ director
Suffice to say Lawrence came to the table with a few ideas — a few steps ahead — about what “Barber” should be.
“If you’ve been through 15 productions, you learn a bit more each time,” Lawrence says. “You learn more about the timing, the text and the comedy, the people, musical things you can do with it, so we’ve got a lot of knowledge about it.”
Topping her list of lessons learned about Barber, which she rates as the best comic opera, is one that’s familiar to a lot of comedic actors, particularly Shakespearean actors.
“You don’t have to work at comedy. If the timing and the communication of the text are real between the people, the jokes are already in there,” she says. “(Gioachino) Rossini made them. So the artist has to be aware of the timing and how they’re set up. Some people want to help it, and I say no. No, no, no.”
The message is getting across to her singers, particularly Preacely and Taeeun Moon, who share the leading comic role of Figaro — Moon sings the evening performances and Preacely is in the matinees.
“The comedy is there in the score, and as a result, I have definitely learned to let the music speak for itself,” Preacely says. “Rossini puts punctuations where there need to be punctuations; he puts emphasis where there needs to be emphasis. He puts everything in the score and the words, so as you are singing, people are laughing and getting it, and your characters really help shape the comedy as well.
“One of the things that she said that has really helped this process is, ‘If you see comedy, don’t try to be comedic.’ Sometimes you want to add an extra schtick, and it’s really not needed. Just act.”
The comedy is there in the score, and as a result, I have definitely learned to let the music speak for itself.
Michael Preacely, singer playing Figaro
Another voice of experience the actors listen to is bass Kevin Glavin, who plays lecherous old Bartolo, whose own designs on Rosina mess up Almaviva’s quest for true love. Like Lawrence, he has sung the same role and brings years of experience to the stage and to the student actors. Preacely says having Glavin, who sings Bartolo with both casts, puts that experience on stage every rehearsal.
“I watch Kevin all the time,” Moon says. “Learning from him — his acting is great. He doesn’t move so much, but every move he makes has really good impact. Also, his reacting is great. He gives us so much energy.”
Lawrence, Moon says, brings the “big picture. At the beginning, we were into ourselves and what we were doing, and she had the big picture, what everyone was doing, and it was great.”
Both actors say it is helpful being double cast, so they can watch the production and consult with the other actor playing the part as they develop their characters.
And develop is precisely what Lawrence wants her actors to do.
“They’re complicated human beings who are real,” she says. “Getting them real has been part of the challenge. People want to make them silly, farcical, big. People have been running the risk of making them too big or goofy, and they’re not goofy people. They’re real people in ridiculous situations.”
One thing that has made “Barber” bigger than the average opera is “The Rabbit of Seville,” the Bugs Bunny cartoon that incorporates Rossini’s overture in a cartoon that puts a classic Bugs Bunny-Elmer Fudd chase into the context — somewhat — of an opera performance. Everyone involved agrees that the cartoon — one of several Warner Bros. cartoons based on classical music and opera — has benefited “Barber,” making it more accessible to broad audiences.
“In Europe, opera is more well known, more grounded in the culture,” Preacely says. “But here, it isn’t. Bugs Bunny, however, is. For those creators back then to take this opera and put it in that context was really great.”
Lawrence says, “When I hear the overture, I see Bugs Bunny putting the elixir on Elmer Fudd’s head and the towel and everything like that. I definitely see that.
“Everybody knows ‘Barber,’ in some way. And to see it all come together, and to have the audience say, ‘Hey! I recognize that tune,’ is really great because you do know it. You’ve heard it. And here it is, all together in one place.”
If you go
“The Barber of Seville”
What: The University of Kentucky Opera Theatre’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s comic opera.
When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 24, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Feb. 25, 2 p.m. Feb. 26
Where: Singletary Center for the Arts concert hall, 405 Rose St.