On Friday, July 8, Sidney Outlaw takes on one of the greatest roles in opera for a bass-baritone in Opera Saratoga’s production of Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” at Proctors.
“It is one of my most favorite characters in opera and also one of the hardest,” Outlaw said. “I’m on stage for the first twenty-five minutes of act one. I need to be locked in mentally for concentration. There’s a lot of music.”
Outlaw is making his company debut.
Gioachino Rossini was only 24 when he wrote the opera, already having written more than 12 operas and most all of them highly successful. He had been born in 1792 to musician parents and lived in Pesaro, Italy before moving to Bologna and later to Naples, which even then was considered the historic home of Italian opera. But already, his skills had advanced to write highly virtuosic passages and began to employ an extensive use of ensembles with a particular use of the chorus.
“Rossini wrote a whole bunch of music and a lot of black notes,” Outlaw said with a laugh.
That means the singers much be very agile vocally to be able to sing a lot of words to go with the fast notes, he said. It helps that he learned to be comfortable singing in Italian early on when he was in school at the Juilliard School. His teacher, who was Italian, taught him how to understand Italian humor in comedy and how it feels in a score and to be spontaneous.
“I learned how to build on this,” he said.
Rossini based his opera on the first of a series of three comedies written by the 18th century dramatist Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. The second of the plays, “The Marriage of Figaro,” is the one that Mozart took up so brilliantly.
Rossini was commissioned to write two operas in 1816 for Duke Cesarini, who was the impresario of Rome’s Teatro Argentina. The first opera, “Torvaldo e Doliska,” was produced that Dec. 26, 1815 and Rossini promised to have the first act of the second opera ready by that Jan. 20.
Working with librettist Cesare Sterbini, they got what turned out to be “The Barber of Seville” ready by Feb. 15, 1816.
At the first performance, audiences greeted the show with a bedlam of catcalls, shrieks and whistles. No one in the audience could hear the music except the musicians, including Rossini, who was at the piano. The second performance, however, was applauded and within a week began to achieve the popularity it has had ever since. For that second performance, too, it was discovered that the music to the overture had disappeared. Rossini was said to calmly substitute an overture he’d used in two other of his operas and that’s the one that has endured.
Despite all this history, for the singers it is still a great challenge. And some of that comes from not knowing exactly what Rossini wanted.
“The opera is in a bel canto style and that’s set,” Outlaw said. “But unlike Puccini, who tells us exactly what he wants in the score, Rossini does not. There are parameters that are flexible within the style. But it’s thought that Rossini’s intentions are to show up, to show off and have a good night. There are vocal acrobatics as if to put your best foot forward. As a singer, I know the rules and how to break them, like singing something fancy within safe parameters.”
Having been a professional singer since 2007, including at least two productions of this opera, and with appearances worldwide, at the Metropolitan Opera and a Grammy nomination, he’s used to working with many singers.
“But this is a great cast. They’re singing so, so well and we merged right in,” he said.
Also, of a big help is that the conductor, Dean Williamson, lives in Italy.
“He’s given extra help, especially in the style,” Outlaw said.
A second performance is scheduled for 2 p.m. on Sunday, July 10.
Opera Saratoga’s “The Barber of Seville”
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 8; 2 p.m. Sunday, July 10
HOW MUCH: $45 – $112
MORE INFO: www.operasaratoga.org; 518 584-6018