Opera in Williamsburg is warming up for its largest production yet with "The Marriage of Figaro," which takes the Kimball Theatre stage later this month.
The organization, now in its fifth year, has tackled the likes of Giuseppe Verdi's "Rigoletto" and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's "Don Giovanni." It channels Mozart once again with this latest production, a comic opera about two servants seeking to marry despite efforts to the contrary from their employer.
"I think it's one of the top five most popular operas in the world," Naama Zahavi-Ely, Opera in Williamsburg's founder and artistic director, said. "We decided that the time has come."
With Opera in Williamsburg, she's always strived to put on major, popular operas. But limited resources meant limited scale, manifesting in ways such as the number of instruments that may be included in the performance. "Figaro" attempts to address that.
"We want to make a statement with how different this piece is," Jorge Parodi, who has served as the organization's music director for four years, said.
"Figaro" features 11 characters and nine performers, up from the local opera's typical number of players that hovers around five people.
"It's going to be a great performance," Parodi said. "The cast is really wonderful."
It also will mark the first time Opera in Williamsburg operates with a full orchestra, including a string quartet and a woodwind quintet.
"That's also going to add to the performance," he said. We're getting closer to a more traditional rendering."
Those on the stage are equally vital in the act.
"All of our singers are absolutely fabulous singers," Zahavi-Ely said. But "in opera, it's not enough to be a good singer."
Performers must fill the role, work well with each other and balance all the elements of a theatrical performance. She is confident in the cast she has constructed.
"We have an absolutely phenomenal cast," she said. She didn't want to divulge details about the casting process, but she likened it to "putting a flower arrangement together."
Zahavi-Ely is confident that the centuries-old tale will resonate with modern sensibilities.
"It's a timeless story," she said, emphasizing its themes surrounding love, lust, power and manipulation. "They're all things that have been going on. It's about human nature."
"Sometimes people speak more frankly than others," she said, and "Figaro" aims to be vocal in that sense.
"It was a provocative piece," she said, praising its sly humor and subtle beauty underneath. "There's a level of twisting that you get with this particular piece that you don't normally get."
The opera was composed a few years following the American Revolution and in the time leading up the French Revolution. Zahavi-Ely said its rebellious themes are as relevant now as ever, and it's particularly poignant for the historic area.
A story of passion
Zahavi-Ely does much of the work behind the scenes of Opera in Williamsburg. She founded it on her own and she supervises all operations, down to the mailing list. She is not paid for the position but she is more than happy with her role.
"I'm the person who decides what needs to be done and also the one who does it," she said.
She was also quick to express appreciation for her "essential" helpers, including Parodi.
"We have a really, really first class group," he said. They need it, too, considering the amount of hard work and skill required compared to the financial reward.
"They put a huge amount of work in," Zahavi-Ely said. But "people don't perform for us because of the money."
Ticket sales alone are not enough to cover the various costs. Opera in Williamsburg relies heavily on support from groups like the Williamsburg Area Arts Commission and Virginia Commission for the Arts to cover the difference. Donations are also key, and that's where Williamsburg opera lovers come into play.
"Our support is local and our audience is local," she said.
For both Zahavi-Ely and Parodi, such struggles are worth it for the love of the opera and the audience.
"It's a whole different experience," Parodi said, praising the way in which opera combines elements of music, poetry and storytelling into a unique theatrical experience.
He also appreciates the opportunity to showcase works of art with such history behind them, right in people's backyards.
"These are pieces that have survived for hundreds of years, so the quality level is outstanding," he said.
As for this month's performance, Zahavi-Ely hopes people will "come and give it a try."
"If you don't like it, I will give you your money back," she said with confidence. "All you have to do is come to the Kimball."
She understands why some people are hesitant towards opera, and she conceded that bad opera can be unbearable. But she asserts that "Figaro" will be three hours well spent.
"It's really beautiful, just gorgeously beautiful," she said. "It's a good opportunity to give opera a try if you've never tried it before."
Further down the road, Opera in Williamsburg is planning an October performance of Gioachino Rossini's "The Barber of Seville." Zahavi-Ely is eager to keep the momentum going.
"It's wonderful to be the catalyst for such productions," she said.
Birkenmeyer can be reached by phone at 757-390-3029.
Want to go?
"The Marriage of Figaro" ties the knot at the Kimball Theatre on Friday, April 21 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, April 23 at 2 p.m. General admission is $45. Discount tickets for seniors, teachers, military, first responders and school faculty are $40 and student tickets are $15. Tickets are available at operainwilliamsburg.org or at the Kimball Theatre box office.
"Meet the Artists" allows guests to mingle with the cast and crew of the opera on Wednesday from 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Williamsburg Art Gallery. Free and open to the public.
A dinner concert, "An Evening of Beautiful Music," will offer the chance to experience some over the music over food on Tuesday, April 18. Doors open at 6 p.m., dinner begins at 6:30 p.m. and the concert kicks off at 7:30 p.m. The concert by itself is $28, and coupled with dinner it is $48. Tickets are available at operainwilliamsburg.org.