In this downloadable podcast, General Director Aidan Lang discusses The Wicked Adventures of Count Ory—coming to Seattle for the first time this summer, in a brand-new Seattle Opera production—with stage director and Rossini specialist Lindy Hume. Listen to Aidan, who’s British, and Lindy, who’s Australian, share their enthusiasm for this delightful and outrageous comedy—or read this transcription of what they had to say.
Hello, everyone, it’s Aidan Lang here. Normally I do these podcasts on my own, but it’s the first day of rehearsal, there’s a music call going on, so I took Lindy Hume, our wonderful director, out of rehearsal to join me here. Lindy, welcome to Seattle!
Thanks, Aidan! It’s great to be here.
We’re really excited about this new production of Count Ory with your wonderful colleague, [Set and Costume Designer] Dan Potra. What’s it like working with Dan?
Dan and I have worked together for...I’m gonna say, something like twenty years. I know! And in those years we’ve done a few Rossini operas: The Barber of Seville in Houston, and La Cenerentola in New Zealand and Australia and Germany, and later this year in America; we opened our new production of The Barber of Seville in Brisbane, just minutes ago, practically. And now we’re here and ready for the next Rossini comedy. And I’m very excited.
People know Barber, but Count Ory is brand-new to Seattle. What can we expect from the piece? How is it different from Barber? What sort of piece is it?
It’s quite different from Barber. It’s in French, for a start. It’s not so much of a situation comedy as The Barber of Seville; it’s more a comedy of personalities, of manners. It’s based around this unique character of the Count Ory, who’s a bad boy, the Don Giovanni of comedy. He has a penchant for dressing up in various disguises, as religious figures, in order to seduce women. It’s his crazy, reckless, hedonistic sensuality that makes this peace so unique.
If you go back to classical theater, comedy is a way for society to correct deviant behavior. The punishment is laughter. With this piece, what we’re laughing at is the male sex drive, in its glorious absurdity.
Yes, but there’s another side. There’s definitely the male sex drive in all its glorious absurdity, that’s very true. But I think we’re also laughing at the abstemious, abstinent, self-disciplined piety of the God-fearing ladies of the castle that Countess Adèle runs, who really are just dying for a romp in the hay. Which they finally get at the end of the show.
Stylistically with comedy, you have to make a decision on your approach, in order to make it read to the audience. Without giving too much away—because our listeners will be attending the show, we hope—what sort of line did you take on the show visually?
Talking about comedy is like talking about love; you really need to experience it to know what turns you on! I’m a big fan of classic comedy, and the influence that came immediately to mind with this piece, which is set in medieval France and has this Count Ory Messiah-figure, was—I guess it’s a no-brainer—Monty Python. As soon as I sensed that, as soon as I started listening to it and started to prepare it, immediately the landscape, this beautiful French medieval landscape, and all the peasantry, and the rather Breughel-esque world, immediately started to take on a Terry Gilliam in the ‘70s quality to it. It has an animation quality. It’s definitely still set in medieval France, with a contemporary twist. So that’s one side of the aesthetic. On the other side, we were trying to tap into a more modern example of the phenomenon of the guru of love that Count Ory professes to be in Act One. That reminded me of the psychedelic “Summer of Love” period in the ‘60s and ‘70s, so important in American culture. I wanted to bring in a bit of contemporary Americana to it. So we’ve landed our aesthetic, for the Seattle Opera production, somewhere between a Python-esque medieval landscape and something close to a ‘60s/’70s aesthetic.
We’re here in 2016, 200 years since The Barber of Seville was written. What is the enduring appeal of Rossini’s comedies? So many comedies were written at that time, most of which have fallen into obscurity. But Rossini has sailed above everyone else, and lives on to this day. What do you think is the appeal, today, of Rossinian comedy?
You can actually hear his laughter, his spirit, his sheer enjoyment in the writing. He wrote very fast, of course. The Barber of Seville was—he said—twelve days, as a young man of 24. He whipped through The Barber of Seville, and you can hear that momentum, or panic, or sleep-deprivation, or something. But I think with Count Ory, also, and Cenerentola and certainly Barber of Seville, you feel the humanity of the man. He was a naughty boy. He loved good food, he loved good wine, he was a great conversationalist, a bon vivant, and I think that absolutely oozes out of every note. All the dynamics are so quirky and playful, and he just has a humanity that is irrepressible. That’s what comes through. It’s absolutely impossible NOT to smile when you hear our gorgeous singers singing that extraordinarily funny music. It’s sweet!
Now, it’s not easy music to sing, that we know. What are the challenges of directing music like this? It has its own forms, its dramatic rhythms. How free can you be with that, or how much do you feel what you do has to respect that structure?
The first thing that you need is good singers. People who can sing all the notes, in rhythm, and be expressive. The freer the singers are, the more freedom the director has to explore and surprise and play.
One of the particular challenges, as you will know, Aidan, of directing Rossini, is the high mountain of the Act One finale. You can be directing any other scene in the opera, but you know if you haven’t finished that Act One finale, there’s a way to go! They do take up proportionally a lot of the rehearsal period. And I see a lot of directors do give up, actually. They give up halfway up the peak, and stop and have a little rest and look at the view, and that’s fair enough, too. But one of the great challenges and joys and delights of what I do for a living, directing Rossini comedies, is the Act One finale—almost a personal quest properly to shape the staging, which invariably goes from reality to complete anarchy. That’s what he did so beautifully. And to take the audience on an increasingly bizarre ride, visually as well as musically. That’s one of the challenges.
Also, in this particular piece you’ve got the challenge of the most unutterably beautiful trio at the end of the opera, which happens to be a ménage à trois.
Yes, tell us what’s going on there.
Well, it’s very complicated. Count Ory is dressed as a nun, a sister, who is in love with the Countess Adèle; he’s climbed into her bedroom to seek comfort. But she is also accompanied by her lover in turn, Isolier, who is Ory’s page. So it’s all kinds of kinky! It’s very sensual and sexy music, and also just wonderfully beautiful. I find it quite moving, that trio. And then it’s interrupted by the arrival of the returning Crusaders, which ends the opera! You literally go from the sublime to the ridiculous.
And the great thing about Count Ory, it’s written in French, and although it’s unmistakably Rossini, there seems to be a different quality in the music from some of his Italian works.
It does, it’s more elegant—and yet, the comedy is more risqué. There’s a tension between the sheer beauty and elegance of the music and the utter bawdiness of what’s going on onstage. Which is fun! And you need a cast, again, who are not just fantastic singers but who are pretty brave. Because you can’t do this stuff without going there, as it were.
There’s something very French—I’m not sure if the Italians are quite so good at laughing at the church, and at religion, as the French are.
No, but this piece does! In the first instance he’s dressed as a wise hermit, dispensing advice to young ladies mostly—I don’t think the men are so keen on it—about how to improve their love life. And then, having been given a tip by his own page, he decides to dress not just himself but his entire band of knights up as nuns...
...who say they’re being pursued by Count Ory!
So how raunchy is it going to be? Is this an opera for children, or should we give it a ‘Restricted’ rating?
I haven’t started rehearsals yet, so I don’t quite know how raunchy it’s going to be. Kids would probably enjoy it greatly! I would have done, as a teenager. It’s quite an adult comedy. It’s certainly not X-rated; but they do end up in bed, the three of them!
You’ve not worked with Giacomo Sagripanti, our conductor, before.
I haven’t, but I met him—I was in Leipzig, directing another Rossini opera, Cenerentola, and he was conducting another Rossini opera, The Barber of Seville, in Paris at the Bastille, so I had a really lovely day having a chat with him about Ory just before his final matinee of Barber. We met, we got on famously; he’s the most wonderful Rossini conductor. We’re so lucky to have him here in Seattle. As we are to have such a fantastic cast, or two fantastic casts.
We have a lot of singers who are new to Seattle. Larry Brownlee is much beloved here, and Barry Banks is making his debut. We felt we were pretty lucky in procuring the services of two outstanding Orys. What’s the challenge of directing two sets of singers?
The Seattle schedule has its own distinctive qualities—let’s see! They’re first-rate singers, and both Larry and Barry have done the role before. They’ll be very professional, and I’m looking forward to working with both of them.
Let’s talk about the other roles. What’s the characteristic needed for Countess Adèle?
It’s a very particular kind of comedy. She’s not laugh-out-loud funny; she doesn’t have funny lines. But she does need to be able to sustain an almost continual state of frustration. She’s really madly in love with Isolier, but she’s taken a vow of chastity, so she can’t do anything about the urges that she feels. She’s in a heightened state of frustration, most of Act One. And she’s also a very pious lady, so most of her persona is thinking a lot about sex, but not doing anything about it until the end.
So in her big aria in Act One...what’s going on in her mind?
She has sought the advice of the wise hermit, who is Count Ory in disguise, who has a reputation for dispensing advice about ‘what ails you.’ So she’s seeking advice from this hermit on her own pain, and he accurately pinpoints the problem—she needs to love, and then all her pain will disappear. What’s she’s going through is trying to explain this incredible feeling which is ruining her life, this pain she continually feels. Until she’s relieved of it, she’d rather die. So this is an aria in which she expresses the inexpressible. And of course Ory, who’s listening with wide-open ears, would love to help her out personally, as would her actual lover, Isolier, so again, it’s one of these incredibly bawdy scenes. She has to be able to play that almost straight, I think. And the two gents either side of her, one of whom is a woman dressed as a gent, need to hear the subtext and respond to the subtext. Whereas the text is very proper and good, but the subtext is obviously what she really needs!
One aspect of this work which is really extraordinary is a lot of the music was written for Il viaggio a Reims, which was an occasional piece. In that opera, this particular aria—one of the characters arrives at the inn and finds her hat has been trashed. It’s exactly the same music, yet the context is completely different. We respond to the same notes in a completely different way! It’s extraordinary. And as you say, the context of this aria is what provides its comedy.
That’s right. And it’s been a build up. We’ve heard about the Countess, and we’ve heard about her frustration, and we’ve heard about how wonderful the Hermit is, and we’ve seen the effect he has on all these other people, and we just know that when she comes down from her ivory tower up on the hill, Ory releases her from this bind, and says she must love again. It’s almost like the lights are all switched on, and she sees the light! It’s a gorgeous piece of writing, and very funny, but the challenge for the soprano is to sing a fiendishly difficult aria and be funny without trying to be funny. I think that’s the trick. That’s the case with all of them. The last thing you want is buffo faux-funny acting. You just want everybody to be intensely serious about their roles, because it’s the situations that are funny.
That’s the beauty of this piece. It doesn’t fall into those buffo moments which so dog some other comic operas.
And also, because it's so little-known, you can make your own world without bringing in the history of the piece. Everybody knows how the comedy of The Barber of Seville works, or should work, or—most often—doesn’t work. But Ory is a blank canvas, on which we can write large what we think is funny. Everybody on the team and cast are looking forward to doing this piece, because they can make it their own.
[As the Countess] we have Sarah Coburn, she’s well-known to our audiences here in Seattle, she’s a fabulous comedienne. And Lauren Snouffer, who’s making her debut, is a marvelous singer, so I know you’re going to enjoy working with them. We have two baritones making their debuts in the role of Raimbaud—Rodion Pogossov and Will Liverman. What’s he about?
Oh, I love this character. I’m calling him the ‘Wingman.’ He’s the guy who sets up all of Ory’s seductions. He’ll warm up the crowd, he’ll make sure everybody’s prepped and ready for the arrival of this great Hermit, in Act One, and make sure they all Ooh and Ahh when he arrives. He’s the guy who protects his master and makes sure none of the back-end of the tricks gets seen. And in Act Two, he can’t wait to get that nun’s habit on, and then go scavenging around the castle looking for booze. He’s the guy who goes and discovers the cellar, and the very good wine of the lord of the manor, and gets the ‘nuns’ riotously drunk. Raimbaud is a party-boy, and he takes the fall when Ory is caught out in Act One and Act Two.
What you describe is fascinating, because we’re in this quasi-medieval time, doing an opera written in the 1820s—but human behavior does not change!
I always feel there’s more than a little bit of rock-and-roll in Count Ory. He really has a sense that “Life is short, let’s just live it. It’s too short for taking it all seriously. Let’s see if we can bed as many women as we possibly can.” There’s a line in the Act One finale where he says, “I’ve got one more day—I’m sure I can make this work!” to invade the castle and seduce the Countess, who clearly is not for being seduced, until he breaks in there dressed as a nun. It’s going to be crazy with both those guys, Larry Brownlee and Barry Banks, dressed as “Soeur Colette,” the modest nun.
The character of Isolier, the Page, is a bit like Cherubino. The reason he behaves badly is because his master is a bad role model. He/she/he is a fascinating young man, and again we have two singers new to Seattle, Hanna Hipp and Stephanie Lauricella. What can we expect from Isolier?
You’re right, the role of the page is to learn to be a knight, and unfortunately this knight has taught this page too well. Almost immediately we meet Isolier as somebody setting himself up as a rival to Count Ory. He’s fallen in love with the Countess; it appears to me that they’ve already started an affair, but she’s closed off this affair to go into this period of mourning while the Crusades are on. So Isolier has decided to take matters into his own hands. It’s Isolier’s idea to dress as a nun, which he confesses to the Hermit, to test out the idea. And the Hermit thinks this is a great idea—this Hermit who is Ory in disguise—and steals the idea for himself and all his mates. So Isolier is really a chip off the old block, and they are very quickly competitive. Halfway through Act One, Isolier changes his allegiance from Ory across to the Countess, against Ory. So he’s a little turncoat, too.
The other two characters are the Tutor, played by Patrick Carfizzi, who’s no stranger to Seattle Opera. And Maria Zifchak plays Ragonde; Maria was last here in 2006, in Così fan tutte. What do we expect from this long-suffering Tutor? Ory’s father has sent this Tutor out to look out for his son, and to keep him under rein.
There are no small roles, and you’ve got two mighty fine singing actors in these roles. The Tutor, I think, he once was a rock-and-roller himself. But he just doesn’t have the energy for it anymore. And now he’s been hired by Ory’s father to keep an eye on his errant son, and it’s really hard work! He has an aria in which he describes what he has to do to keep up—to keep the honor of being the Tutor—none of which involves teaching Ory anything, it’s all about keeping him out of trouble, and wrenching the latest girl off him, or chasing him into battle, or hunting, or something that’s fun, and getting him back on the straight and narrow. So the poor long-suffering Tutor is also dragged into this whole party dressed as a nun—unwillingly, at first. But then he finds his old mojo partway through the scene, and is thoroughly disgraced, along with all the rest of the knights dressed as nuns!
Ragonde is a gorgeous character. She, like all the ladies in the tower, has taken a vow of chastity and abstinence to recognize the sacrifice of the men off to war. But she’s the sort of person—she’s on a really, really strict diet and she can smell the barbecue next door! She’s longing for something naughty to eat and drink. So she tiptoes down to the field where the peasants are rollicking it up at a picnic with Count Ory, and she can’t help herself. She has a very sensual side to her, Ragonde, that will not be surpressed.
The opera is an evening of naughty but joyous fun. One of the reasons we decided to schedule it, especially for a summer audience, is a really fantastic night out. But a sophisticated night out, as well!
It’s very elegant music. It’s going to be magnificently sung, beautifully played, with Maestro Sagripanti leading it and shaping it, and it will be absolutely first-rate, musically. And I hope to do you justice and do the company proud with the staging. It’s a fun show—delightful!
Thanks for coming with me, and giving us these insights into how it’s going to go.
I hope your listeners all enjoy it—we’ll prepare it with love for them.