Modern-Day Mozart Opera 'Figaro 90210' to World Premiere in LA

Ben Gibbs

An updated Mozart classic, set in modern-day Beverly Hills, tackles race and immigration issues.

Figaro 90210 will celebrate its world premiere this weekend at the Los Angeles Barnsdall Art Park as part of L.A. Opera’s series, “Figaro Unbound.”

In 1783, when Pierre Beaumarchais first put pen to paper for La folle journee, ou le Mariage de Figaro, he could not have known it would three years later be immortalized as an opera by librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte and Mozart. Vid Guerrerio has since updated the piece and its title and set the production in current-day Beverly Hills. 

In the wake of 2008’s economic meltdown, Guerrerio found himself walking down Hollywood Boulevard listening to Mozart’s score and thinking about the one percent, Occupy Wall Street, immigration reform and ethnic diversity when a thought struck him.

The Marriage of Figaro isn’t about something in the past, it’s about human existence, it’s about human life,” Guerrerio tells THR about the origins of his opera reboot. “No matter what time period you’re looking at, these are the struggles that we’re dealing with as we interact with each other.”

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Mozart’s opera centered on Figaro and his bride to be, Susanna, two servants laboring at the oppressive hand of Count Almaviva, who aims to bed Susanna. Figaro 90210 sets the action in the mansion of under-handed real estate magnet, Paul Conti. In the updated version, handyman Figaro and his fiancé Susana are illegal immigrants subject to Conti’s whims and lecherous demands. Cherubino, the Count’s horny page in the original, has become aspiring hip-hop artist Li’l B-Man in love with Conti’s daughter.

Both operas deal with issues of class, but Guerrerio’s adds race to the mix. “When I originally had the concept I was very afraid of broaching the topic of multiculturalism and representation of different races on stage,” says the librettist. “This show is meant to celebrate diversity on all levels. Of the 14 members of the cast, only three are specified to be of Caucasian and European descent.”

Gurrerio’s libretto is written in English and incorporates modern-day vernacular. “Ma’am, I don’t mean to sound twisty and pervy,” Li’l B-Man sings. “Damn, I just love when a body’s all curvy.” The new lyrics make the opera more accessible but Guerrerio also hopes to start a conversation that has proven to be a challenge in light of 2014’s widespread racial unrest.

“It’s become very difficult for us to have anything resembling an intelligent debate about race or class because everything has become so shrill,” he observes. “Everything is about posturing and affecting a level of outrage that I feel like we’d all be better off stepping away from and focusing on ultimately our shared humanity, and that includes white people, black people, Asian Americans, Hispanics, people of mixed race.”

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Guerrerio staged readings and workshops in New York last year and was honored with high praise from critics like Zachary Woolfe of The New York Times who called it “uproariously funny.” And with opera companies around the country facing uncertain financial future, Guerrerio hopes he has hit on a solution for attracting new audiences to a medium considered elitist and out of touch by many.

“I don’t think the majority of our big operatic institutions are equipped to deal with the changing face of America. But I would never have expected an institution like L.A. Opera to embrace Figaro 90210,” he said. “In terms of what’s going on in the show itself, there are some very polarized opinions about the rightness or wrongness of immigration reform but ultimately they’re all singing in harmony on stage together and are able to come to a reconciliation. My hope is to contribute to that dialog with harmony.”

Figaro 90210 will showcase at Barnsdall Art Park Jan. 16 through Jan. 18.

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