The Barber of Seville
Carol Main talks to mezzo soprano Karen Cargill and Sir Thomas Allen, who is directing The Barber of Seville for Scottish Opera
She’s 31, he’s 62. She’s a young Scot at the start of her operatic career, he’s a singer who seems to have been at the top of his for ever. But in Scottish Opera’s new production of The Barber of Seville, it is not as singers that the two come together. While mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill portrays Rossini’s delightful Rosina, baritone Sir Thomas Allen, in the operatic equivalent of poacher turned gamekeeper, takes the very real part of director.
Notching up more than 40 different roles at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, alone, he must have sung in hundreds upon hundreds of operatic performances and recordings, and still does. The 25th anniversary of his debut with the New York Met was last year and he is still taking on new roles. Gianni Schicchi for Los Angeles Opera – with another Allen, namely one Woody, directing opera for the first time – is on the stocks for next season.
For Cargill, and the other singers in Scottish Opera’s young cast, someone of Allen’s (Thomas, that is) stature is instinctively awe-inspiring. ‘It’s just incredible,’ she says. ‘It was really scary singing in front of him for the first time, because he’s had such an amazing career. Every day there is something new. He’s a natural stage animal. For example, he gave us an exercise, picking up a hat and stick as his only props and showed us how to become a dandy. He just morphed into this character. All the physicality was there. He makes it easier for us through sensation and demonstration. These are good ways of learning how to do your job.’
By his own admission, Allen is indeed stage-crazed. ‘Basically, I love the theatre,’ he says. He turned to directing (The Barber of Seville is his fifth opera), which is a much less conventional move for a singer than for an actor, for the same reason as he wrote a book. ‘I wanted to do something creative, rather than recreative,’ he says. ‘It’s a way of testing the imagination so that it causes it to flourish, to keep you alive. It’s something that you can put your own stamp on.’
In opera, the stamp is a long and complex process. Allen, whose first title role in 1969 was with Welsh National Opera in The Barber of Seville, has had the new Scottish Opera production in his mind for two years. Cargill has been working on her role for 18 months. Yet singers and director don’t get properly together until only a matter of weeks before opening night. ‘The director gives his idea of the character and you have your own idea, so you have to meet somewhere in the middle,’ says Cargill. ‘It’s actually the best job in the world because you spend your day playing – you get to pretend to be someone else.’
The relationship between young woman and older man in the actual opera is one of ward and strict, conniving guardian, far removed from any possibility of compromise. For Cargill, Rosina is naïve, a girl in her late teens with no experience of the world, who is very shielded by her protector. ‘I guess you just have to take yourself back to when you were younger,’ she says. ‘You think you know everything, you have your first crush on a boy, and remember the excitement of being young with no pressure in life.’
The days of singers who deliver their roles the same way, no matter what, are pretty much long gone, and Allen certainly holds no truck with that mentality. ‘It is, though, a strange world,’ says Allen, ‘and people have different ideas. It’s a meeting of minds. Principally, Karen will have formed her ideas about Rosina in preparing the role. I certainly listen to what she has to say and I hope that as I come with a certain amount of experience, that I offer suggestions and advice. It’s not just what the character sings that counts. It’s the stuff that’s written between the lines and it’s my job to enlighten.’
From both, there is total dedication. Cargill, who grew up in Arbroath and thought that she might want to do something with her voice, possibly music therapy, studied at the RSAMD and continues to take lessons with Pat Hay, her teacher there. ‘There is always something new to learn, whether technical or repertoire.’ In taking on a part, she tends to learn words and music together, working with specialist language coaches before arriving at rehearsal. ‘It’s key,’ she says. ‘You can’t rattle off all this Italian without knowing which direction it’s taking.’
For an opera with a great deal of recitative, virtually spoken lines that tell the story, language is everything for Allen too. ‘Recitative can be the bane of people’s lives, but its dialogue is the secret of the whole thing,’ he says. ‘If it’s right, it leads on to the emotional content of the arias, the truth of the opera and the story we are trying to tell.’ Recitative, however, does not come easy. Detail, repetition, discipline, total concentration, repeated repetition, taking time to make it work are all important. ‘I’m very aware that it could be tedious,’ says Allen, ‘but it’s repetition with knobs on that allows improvisation and development, until, finally, the singer inhabits their role.’
Rosina is a role that Cargill will take on with her as part of her future career. ‘I never thought I had the facility for the coloratura,’ she says. ‘It’s fiendishly difficult, like gymnastics for the voice, and actually the healthiest thing for it.’ She is passionate, excited and speaks of feeling lucky in being able to do what she loves. Allen also speaks of luck, quoting golfer Gary Player who likewise felt very lucky, but noted, too, that luck seemed to increase the more he worked.
Cargill’s career is clearly on an upwards trajectory resulting from much hard work already. At 31, she is six years older than Allen was when he made his Barber of Seville debut, marked by the press as ‘a talent to watch’. Cargill has been in the opera world’s sights since winning the coveted Kathleen Ferrier Award at more or less the same age, but Allen’s advice for her could apply to any singer at any age. ‘After a certain stage,’ he says, ‘the voice is there, but curiosity is the force that keeps everything vibrant and alive. Just be as interested in life as one possibly can be.’ Opera might be a different world, but such words of wisdom are surely universal.
A brush with history
So, who is this Il barbiere di Sivilgia, or barber of Seville? Read on to find out more
The name Figaro might well ring a bell and, indeed, Rossini’s barber is the same character as Mozart’s in The Marriage of Figaro. Both composers looked to Beaumarchais’ trilogy of plays, which feature the street-smart Figaro at their heart. Another, earlier, composer, Paisiello, had done likewise, and made one of the plays, The Barber of Seville, into an opera in 1782. It was his work that inspired Mozart to move on to the second play and compose Le nozze di Figaro in 1786. Rather than take the third play as his subject, Rossini preferred the Barber of Seville, wrote a better opera than Paisiello, caused a fair bit of outrage by doing so, didn’t quite say ‘stuff you’, but it is his version, first seen in 1816, which is undoubtedly now one of the world’s most popular and enduring operas ever.
Both the Mozart and Rossini operas are ‘opera buffa’, as opposed to ‘opera seria’. Historically intended as witty, popular pieces to appeal to a wide public, they would usually involve characters and situations to which ordinary people could easily relate. The story of The Barber of Seville is fairly straightforward. Count Almaviva is in love with Rosina. She is kept under lock and key by her guardian, Dr Bartolo, who also has it in mind to marry her. Figaro’s role is to help the Count trick the old doctor, and his scheme is such that the Count disguises himself variously as a student, a soldier and Rosina’s music teacher. In the end, Count and commoner are married and Figaro, of course, has gained a valuable new, and grateful, customer.
There have been countless productions over the years, perhaps the most controversial being the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich in 1974. The opera takes place on and in an outsized, naked, woman’s torso, from which the imprisoned Rosina pops out of the left breast, symbolically opening her heart to Count Almaviva as he serenades her from somewhere below. (Carol Main)
Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), Theatre Royal, Glasgow, Wed 3, Sat 6, Sat 20, Tue 30 Oct & Thu 1 Nov; Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Fri 23, Wed 28 Nov & Sat 1 Dec