Charlottesville Opera tells modern stories

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Trevor Scheunemann, at a recent rehearsal for The Marriage of Figaro, says although he’s performed the role of Count Almaviva several times, it was guidance from director David Paul that helped him understand the vulnerability of the character. Photo by Amy Jackson Trevor Scheunemann, at a recent rehearsal for The Marriage of Figaro, says although he’s performed the role of Count Almaviva several times, it was guidance from director David Paul that helped him understand the vulnerability of the character. Photo by Amy Jackson

Most of the time, when we talk about characters in books, in movies and plays, we talk about their arc—who the character is when the action begins and when it ends, and the curve followed in between.

But opera singer Trevor Scheunemann knows it’s not always that simple.

It’s especially not that simple for Count Almaviva in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, a role Scheunemann has sung a number of times throughout his career, with the San Francisco Opera, the Washington National Opera and the Opéra National de Bordeaux.

The Marriage of Figaro takes place over the course of a single day in the Count’s villa near Seville. It’s a continuation of the story presented in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, but in Figaro, the Count has fallen out of love with his wife, Rosina (the Countess Almaviva, whom he pursued so intensely in Barber), and now lusts after Susanna, the maid and the bride-to-be of the servant Figaro.

“The opera’s not named after the Count, but—and maybe I’m biased—he’s one of the more interesting characters, since he goes through so much in the opera,” says Scheunemann. Through tricks and clever maneuvers, Figaro, Susanna and the Countess manage to thwart the Count’s effort at seduction while teaching him a lesson and provoking him to beg for forgiveness. Count Almaviva has “less of an arc than a roller coaster of arcs, peaks and valleys,” says Scheunemann.

The Marriage of Figaro
July 814

Into the Woods
July 27-August 5

The Paramount Theater

Scheunemann says that often, the Count is portrayed either as “a Don Juan figure, very smooth and seductive,” or an “aggressive, monstrous, demonic figure.” But with guidance from director David Paul, Scheunemann has come to understand a vulnerability that’s rarely lent to the character.

The production is set in mid-20th century America, giving the whole thing a sort of “Mad Men” feel, says Charlottesville Opera Executive Director Kevin O’Halloran, adding that it won’t be the “park and bark” that most people think of when they think of opera. The smaller setting means this opera company can take more risks.

First performed more than 200 years ago, Figaro’s story is timely in light of the #MeToo movement, says Scheunemann. He says that audience members may feel a sense of solidarity with Susanna (portrayed by Karin Mushegain), how she faces “pressures from a male-dominated workplace to acquiesce to certain things she would not be comfortable with otherwise.”

Charlottesville Opera’s second production of the season, Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods opening (July 27) at the Paramount, is perhaps equally timely in America’s social and political climate, says interim Artistic Director Steven Jarvi.

The musical weaves together various Brothers Grimm fairy tales, and is very much about how “we’re all going to see the consequences of the road we walk down,” says Jarvi.

At the heart of the musical is the story of a childless baker and his wife seeking to start a family, their encounters with the witch who cursed them, and their run-ins with other fairy tale characters, like Little Red Riding Hood.

Rena Strober, who plays the Witch, says Into the Woods is largely about seeing the humanity in every person. Strober, who has acted on Broadway and on television (“Veep,” “Shameless” and the Disney Channel’s “Liv and Maddie”), says that before she stepped into the role she “viewed the Witch as the villain of the show. But now that I’m getting behind her, I’m finding her humanity…she is the heroine in my mind, as she wants what’s best for her and the child she raises.”

Deborah Grausman, another Broadway-trained actor with television experience (she voices Smartie the smart phone on “Elmo’s World” and “Sesame Street”), who plays Little Red Riding Hood, is compelled by her character’s straightforwardness. “She pretty much tells it like it is,” says Grausman. “She calls people on things; she’s a truth-teller [who] doesn’t necessarily change her opinion for whatever company she’s in.”

There are plenty of adult themes in the musical, so a children’s performance is offered, but the original opera is suitable for ages 11 and up. “I think it’s important for families to see this show together in order to have conversations about the more difficult questions Into the Woods brings up,” says Strober.

As with The Marriage of Figaro, Charlottesville Opera is taking a few risks with Into the Woods.

Strober won’t spoil the surprise, but she says that director Raymond Zilberberg has found “a very perfect window into how to connect the present.” The cast “ooh-ed and aah-ed” throughout the first read as it saw how the audience members will be forced to use their imaginations in ways they haven’t since they were kids, says Strober. “It’s a new telling of the story with absolute integrity and respect. People will leave really affected.”

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