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A Hyperlocal Figaro Puts Immigration on Center Stage

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Photo: Courtesy LA Opera.

If opera is supposed to be inaccessible and alienating, it's a good thing no one told Vid Guerrerio. At the age of 12, he auditioned for the boys choir of Carmen and discovered the Opera Theater of St. Louis, which has, since its founding, presented all works in English. "I didn't know that opera was supposed to be off-putting or elitist or any of the things I have since learned a lot of people associate with it," he says. "I just thought it was really cool stories with great music."

Infused with that egalitarian sentiment, the adult Guerrerio dreamed up "¡Figaro! (90210)," an update of Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" that feels like it could only take place in Los Angeles. It's The title's riff on the 1990s teen drama Beverly Hills 90210 is deliberate. From top to bottom, the production was designed to engage audiences who might not normally attend the opera, and presages LA Opera's expansive Figaro trilogy, launching in February.

Sung in English and Spanish, which are intertwined to create clever rhymes, "¡Figaro! (90210)" finds the titular hero working in Beverly Hills as an undocumented gardener. The basic plot remains the same--a lecherous boss tries to seduce his employee's fiancée on the eve of her wedding--but Guerriero has reimagined the characters as distinct L.A. archetypes: the hardworking maid Susana, businesswoman Soon-Yi who runs a factory staffed by undocumented workers, her heavy of a husband Babayan, Roxane the aging trophy wife, and aspiring rapper Li'l B-Man. The way Guerrerio has grafted modern issues onto the beloved 228-year-old work makes it feel like a natural fit, which in may way it is.

Courtesy LA Opera
Photo: Courtesy LA Opera.

Though "The Marriage of Figaro" is known as a frothy comedy filled with plot twists that wouldn't be out of place on "Three's Company," the work has controversial, even revolutionary, underpinnings. The original play, written in 1778 by Pierre de Beaumarchais, was so scandalous that Louis XVI banned it from being performed for five years. What was it that so shocked France's elites of that era? The way in which nobles were ridiculed and the calls for social equality.

While the original work critiqued the unearned privileges that came with property rights and titles, citizenship is the overriding issue in "¡Figaro! (90210)." Both Figaro and Susanna are undocumented and Conti, their boss, knows it. He uses promises of a visa and threats to call the authorities as leverage to try to sleep with Susanna.

Guerrerio wanted to make the opera resonate more strongly with modern viewers: "The opera focuses so much on the human element it's easy to look at the opera today and forget anything challenging or political in it." But he also wanted to do it in a way that didn't lose sight of the characters' humanity. "What 'Marriage of Figaro' offers is this amazing template for engaging politics first and foremost through the humanity of the characters. This is about a human experience, about what it feels like to feel threatened or fearful."

Courtesy LA Opera
Photo: Courtesy LA Opera.

During the three years he spent writing "¡Figaro! (90210)" the marketing strategist-turned-librettist focused on those universal themes and ways they connect to contemporary Los Angeles. The resulting LA Opera production, which runs through the weekend at the nearly 300-seat Barnsdall Gallery Theatre, opens with black-and-white video projection of strip malls, sidewalks, cemeteries and neighborhoods. You'll recognize the introductory music, if not from Mozart's oeuvre then from plenty of commercials.

Projected digital images expand and amplify the small, shallow stage so that a single backdrop stands in for multiple locations in the mansion. The flatness of the design, inspired by the paintings of David Hockney and the of Ramiro Gomez Jr., suggests that the lives of the domestic workers are, in fact, interchangeable with the lives of their bosses.

"In the end I don't intend for '¡Figaro! (90210)' to be a call to action," Guerrerio says. "I see it as a way for people to come together and for greater understanding, which is actually what I feel is the original intention as well."

Performances of ¡Figaro! (90210) will take place at Barnsdall Gallery Theatre, at the Barnsdall Art Park. January 16-18.

Courtesy LA Opera
Photo: Courtesy LA Opera.

Related:

L.A. Opera's Vision for the 21st Century
CEO and President of Los Angeles Opera Christopher Koelsch is helping to establish the organization as a leading arts institution for the 21st Century.

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