The story takes place in one single “crazy” day. Figaro, valet to the Count Almaviva and Susanna, the Countess’s maid are getting ready for their wedding day. Their employer, the Count Almaviva is eager to reinstate and exercise his droit de Seigneur or jus primae noctis, a medieval feudal practice that permitted a landlord to sleep with peasant virgins on their wedding night. The Count, a confirmed womanizer, had nevertheless, abolished the droit de seigneur when he married his young bride Rosina. The Countess, miserable that her husband is a philanderer helps Figaro and Susanna conspire and eventually succeed in outsmarting the Count. Beyond them is an “extended household” of characters, and a chorus of local villagers who form the chorus providing the festivities for the “Big, Fat Indian Wedding” which closes Acts II and IV of the production.
The genius of Da Ponte and Mozart is that they invested each and every character with human depth, both radiant and flawed. Beaumarchais’s characters were much more mono-dimensional as comic characters. Mozart’s Count is more than a lecherous philanderer. In his duet with Susanna in Act III, we find him almost surprised at himself that he is actually in love with her, reflecting feelings much deeper than mere lechery. Likewise the character of the page Cherubino, an example of the so-called “trouser-role,” a male character sung by a female singer/actress, is a truly extraordinary creature in the annals of opera, comic or otherwise. Mozart invests Cherubino with rare emotional depth, a unique blend of confidence and self-doubt by lavishing some of his most meltingly exquisite music on him.
This opera is the vehicle for some of Mozart’s most psychologically penetrating as well as emotionally and spiritually sublime musical expression. Even the very opening of the overture to the whole opera, that subterranean, subliminal scurrying in unison by the double basses, cellos and bassoons in the bottom of the orchestra, hints at how much of this opera and its story and characters operate in the deep recesses of our perception and consciousness. The fact that it is beautiful music to our ears can deceive us to the real complexity and to the fleetness of the narrative, nay the many narratives, that fly through the plot like so many threads of glistening gold, silver and dark velvet through a tapestry. Some of the most heartbreakingly beautiful music – Cherubino’s arias; the quartet in the Act II Finale where Susanna, the Countess and Figaro are plotting to trick the Count (and save Cherubino); the letter duet Sull’ Aria in Act III (which was the inspiration for the famous scene in the film The Shawshank Redemption); and Barbarina’s Act IV lament for the lost pin – are all moments when the characters are not necessarily noble or paragons of virtue but profoundly human in their flaws.
At the very end of the opera, when the Count, finally defeated and exposed, begs the Countess for pardon, the Countess forgives him in one of Mozart’s most exquisite and yet simple musical declarations. But in the deceptive cadence of her softening forgiveness, Mozart reveals that she knows that he will stray again and yet she (and Mozart) forgive him with the most exquisite musical utterance that he was capable of. It is more than a celebration of a compassionate, sympathetic character; it is Mozart professing his profound faith in the redeemability of the most irredeemable of his fellow human beings, a confession of faith in our shared humanity and a call from across the centuries for us to share it.
So why is this production of Le Nozze particularly relevant for our own time and place?
Le Nozze di Figaro is set squarely in the middle of the 17th and 18th Century European social class landscape and its profound inequality of access to power and privilege. Even though Mozart and Da Ponte did not address race or ethnicity as categories of socio-economic power, it is worthwhile for us to be aware of the profound resonances of Le Nozze and its contexts with our own 21st Century socio-economic ecosystem. This production, (originally planned for the 2020-21 season) coming after the 2020 summer of the Black Lives Matter protests and calls to action in the United States and indeed, all over the world, necessarily resonates with those struggles and calls to action whether one chooses to acknowledge them or not.
The production, set in British Raj India of the 1890s, drapes Da Ponte’s and Mozart’s comic (lest we forget!) portrayal of class conflict and power inequalities over those of the “white” British occupiers and the local Indian population. It might be useful to remember that the 1890s were the period when the British Imperial project was at its heyday, having successfully transitioned from the informal commercial domination of India by the British East India Company to a government-approved and formalized British Empire – an Empire which would eventually cover a quarter of the land surface of the Earth.
As luck would have it, the COVID- 19 pandemic and scheduling realities have landed this Nozze di Figaro onstage exactly one month after the global celebrations of the 75th Anniversary of Independence of India (and Pakistan) – anniversaries which celebrate the ending of the British Raj and with it, significant parts of the socio-economic context in which this production is located. It may well be a providential reminder for us to go beyond the hypothetical British-Raj context onstage and consider what the resonances of the opera might be for our own time and place.
Even though Mozart and Da Ponte may not have intended it, Le Nozze also resonates in important ways for the issues of gender justice faced by millions of women and LGBTQIA2S+ people. It is the women of the opera, traditionally oppressed not only in Western society, who find ingenious ways to overcome their oppression and reclaim their full humanity. And then, there is the beloved figure of Cherubino, whose gender identity is by no means definite.
It is a truism that great music and art are almost always rooted in universal human experience –
a universality that transcends culture and nationality in the characters and their behavior. Our audiences will recognize some of the characters as the “Uncles” present at every Jewish, Italian, and Greek wedding and as the brigade of “Aunties” at Indian and East Asian weddings. Susanna’s character is virtually a classic Indian “bahu” (daughter-in-law) archetype – demure in formal contexts, but feisty in informal spaces, something she shares with young women like the heroine Basanti created by screenwriters Javed Akhtar and Salim Khan in the 1977 Bollywood blockbuster Sholay.
The personnel in this production – a South Asian majority cast and creative team anchored by artists of color – are unique in the annals of American, and indeed of Western, opera productions. In 2022, we stand at a historic moment when there is a critical mass of young South Asian artists, singers, instrumentalists, composers, and conductors at the highest international level poised to make extraordinary and potentially game-changing contributions, but who do not always find the opportunity to practice their art.
Some of the artists testified about what this production meant to them.
“Le Nozze di Figaro is a timeless story of power, politics, and love- but this time we bring you Mozart, with a little masala (spice).” – Deepa Johnny, Cherubino
“Susanna is my favorite role – she’s whip-smart, determined, charming, sincere, and a breath of fresh air. Singing this role in this setting is not only so meaningful to me personally with my Indian heritage but it’s so emotional (and fun!) to be in the rehearsal room with so many other South Asians.” – Maya Kherani, Susanna
Our industry needs diversity of thought, experience and perspective that these artists bring to open up new avenues of innovation and discovery at a time when we are facing a burgeoning need for innovation of every kind in our art. This production not only treads new ground in diversity by virtue of its setting in India but the cast and creative team reflect a rare celebration of the diversity of people and cultures – Tamil, Malayali, Maratha, Bangla, Sinhalese, etc. in India and beyond. In the words of the production’s conductor, Maestro Viswa Subbaraman, “This production and especially the casting are a beautiful representation of India and its people as a pluralistic society.”
It is a pluralism that hopefully will radiate beyond the performances of this production and indeed, beyond our industry and our art.
© George Mathew 2022.
George Mathew is the Artistic Director and Conductor of Music For Life International, a social enterprise based in New York, creating social impact and innovation through music throughout the world in the humanitarian, education, business, diplomacy, and leadership training sectors for more than 15 years. More info at www.music4lifeinternational.org
 Subsequent 19th and 20th Century scholarship has disputed the existence of such a practice in medieval feudal Europe, though there is some evidence of it in other times and places.