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State of Wonder

Portland Opera To Go's Bilingual Barber


Andres Zurita got hit by the thunderbolt when he was a teenager.

Baritone Andres Zurita was born in Mexico, and now lives in British Columbia, but it was a fateful date with Portland Opera that set him on his path as a singer.

Baritone Andres Zurita was born in Mexico, and now lives in British Columbia, but it was a fateful date with Portland Opera that set him on his path as a singer.

April Baer/OPB

The Mexican-native was visiting Portland as an exchange student and was taken to a Portland Opera production of “Tosca.” By intermission, his operatic fate was set.

“I immediately fell in love with it,” he said. “I was haunted by the melodies. It moved me…I said that’s exactly what I’m going to do.” Zurita completely switched gears on his plan to become an engineer and began to study music.

This weekend, Zurita, who now lives in British Columbia, will help kick off a new production aimed at leaving kids just as breathless.

Portland Opera is re-imagining Rossini’s famous comedy “The Barber of Seville” as a bi-lingual play for the company’s Opera To Go program, which performs dozens of shows around Oregon and Southwest Washington, mostly for schoolkids.

In director Kristine McIntyre’s adaptation, there are still two young lovers, Almaviva and Rosina. There’s Bartolo, Rosina’s cranky old guardian, and the character Zurita’s playing, one of the most famous characters in opera: wiseguy manservant-turned-barber Figaro. But McIntyre condensed a lot of action, wrote out some characters, and transplanted the story from Spain to colonial Alta California. And that, she said, paved the way for the show’s biggest departure — a twist on the language of the libretto.

“One of the great themes of ‘Barber’ is Almaviva and Rosina are constantly trying to communicate using various notes, but something always gets in the way,” said McIntyre. “I thought, what if we took it one step further: what if she only speaks Spanish at the beginning of the show, and he only speaks English? And what if even if they get a note passed, they can’t read it? And what if, throughout the course of the show, they teach each other their language?”

McIntyre said she hopes the idea has resonance among bilingual kids who have a foot in two worlds. As for the mechanics of moving the story across two languages, McIntyre said the singers don’t necessarily say everything in both languages: “So everyone in the audience is going to have to work a little bit to figure out exactly what’s going on, but by the end everybody understand everything.”

Director Kristine McIntyre has a long history with Barber. Not only was it the first opera she ever saw, but she made her directorial debut at the Metropolitan Opera was on a 2003 Barber production.

Director Kristine McIntyre has a long history with Barber. Not only was it the first opera she ever saw, but she made her directorial debut at the Metropolitan Opera was on a 2003 Barber production.

April Baer/Oregon Public Broadcasting


The show is only 45 minutes long, but Matt Chittick, who plays the role of Almaviva, said that doesn’t make it any easier to sing than a longer opera. “Instead of say, a 2 1/2  hour production, where you’ve got time to walk offstage, get a drink of water,” Chittick said, “my character is changing costumes onstage while the set change is happening.”

Christina Rivera, who plays Rosina, added that getting ready to do seventy shows in three months requires a survival plan. “I’m a big fan of multivitamins, eating healthy,” she said. “We are basically athletes — staying hydrated, making sure you’re in tip top shape physically and vocally.”

But the singers agreed they’re excited to bring what may be some kids’ first-ever experience with opera, particularly Andres Zurita, who remembered the feeling he got at 17 watching “Tosca” when he realized the stage was open to him.

“In the case of the tenor back then playing Cavaradosi — he was Hispanic or Korean or whatever,” he said. “I thought, ‘This person looks like me’, and I thought, ‘Wow! I could be doing that.’ I think providing that space for children where they can identify with someone, that’s very important.”

Portland Opera To Go performs “The Barber of Seville” over the next three months in Portland, Klamath Falls, Lakeview, La Grande, Seaside, Silverton, Salem, White Salmon, the the Dalles, and many, many more tour stops. Visit the opera’s website for a full schedule.

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