Figaro, a manservant (baritone or bass—a middle- or low-range male voice)
Susanna, a lady’s maid (soprano—the highest female voice)
Count Almaviva (baritone—a middle-range male voice)
Countess Almaviva (soprano)
Cherubino, a pageboy (mezzo-soprano—a middle-range female* voice)
Bartolo, a doctor (bass)
Marcellina, his housemaid (mezzo-soprano)
*In Mozart’s day, composers sometimes chose women to play young male roles. Called a “pants role,” this practice was common because the voice of a grown man would sound too old for the character.
So, What's Going On?
This is a story about one happy couple that just wants to get married and one unhappy couple that’s already married…and not doing so well.
The first couple is Figaro (FEE-gah-roh) and Susanna (su-ZAHN-nah). Figaro is the Count’s manservant; he’s smart, funny, and can easily get himself out of tricky situations. Susanna, his girl, is a lady’s maid; she’s smarter than Figaro, kind, compassionate, and super pretty. So pretty, in fact, that it creates some problems for our second couple: the Count and Countess Almaviva (ahl-mah-VEE-vah). Turns out the Count is way more into Susanna than he should be. Because of this, the Countess, Susanna’s boss, is stuck sitting around the house, hoping her husband will quit his flirting and focus more on her.
But hold on…the story’s about to get even more complicated.
Figaro and Susanna are hoping they can hurry up with their wedding before the jealous Count can crash their party—but stuff keeps getting in the way. First, an enemy of Figaro’s turns up with a much older lady who claims Figaro promised to marry her instead. Next, a teenage servant boy named Cherubino (keh-ru-BEE-noh)—who’s hormones have just kicked in with a vengeance—decides to flirt with every woman in the house, including Susanna and the Countess. This confuses everyone and seriously annoys the Count.
Determined to have Susanna all to himself, the Count plans to force Figaro to marry the old lady as promised, but this totally backfires when he discovers she’s actually Figaro’s long-lost mother (what are the odds?). The Count still wants to get Susanna alone on the wedding night, however, and things take an even crazier turn when Susanna and the Countess decide to swap identities after the ceremony. Yup. They’re gonna switch places. Hearts are bound to get broken, but which of our couples do you think will stick together once the night is over?
Check This Out...
- How the actor’s gestures and their costumes give you clues about the characters and their personalities. Who’s an upper-class person? Who works as a servant? How can you tell?
- How some characters’ songs (or arias, AR-ee-yahs) drive the action forward, while some seem to make the story stand still as the character sings about a specific emotion. What type of arias are your favorites?
- How the instruments, melodies, and rhythms help reveal the characters’ feelings. (Hint: the lonely clarinets in the Countess’s first aria, or the pulsating beat in Cherubino’s Act One song.)
Think About This...
- How Figaro and Susanna often seem to be more in charge of things than the Count and Countess. What do you think the creators were saying about masters and their servants? Can you think of other characters like Figaro and Susanna in plays, movies, or TV?
- The many disguises in the opera. Why do so many people dress up like someone else? What do you think that says about the characters’ relationships to one another?
- The Countess’s actions toward her husband at the end of the show. What do you think the music says about her character at this moment? Would you respond the same way she does?
- When Mozart and Da Ponte were working on The Marriage of Figaro, the world around them was changing. Men and women in America and France were challenging the idea that the people who were in power, the aristocracy of England and France, were always right and everyone else had to listen to them and serve them without asking questions. These new philosophies led to the American and French Revolutions. Think about how art, even art that seems silly on its surface, can reflect big, important ideas of change, and even contribute to it. Can you name other examples of revolutionary art?
Take Action: Be Vocal
At the end of the opera, Figaro is able to recognize Susanna (despite her disguise) simply because he knows her voice so well. As metaphors go, it’s a pretty good one. Opera itself is all about making your voice heard and using your distinct sound to move people or make them recognize a familiar emotion.
How do you express yourself or use your own unique voice? What’s your favorite way of being heard? Is it through poetry? Song? Speech? Dance? Take a picture or video of yourself using your own “voice” and post it to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, Snapchat, or any platform of your choice. Tag five friends and ask them to do the same. Use #bevocal as your hashtag.
N00b Guide to Opera
Okay, So…What Is an Opera Anyway?
(If you’re already an opera fan, skip this and move on to the next section.)
First-timer? Never fear. People sometimes think opera is way more intimidating than it actually is. Opera is simply a way of telling a story—it just uses singing instead of speaking. The plots can be just like the plots in movies and can feature everyday people, kings and queens, warriors, mythical creatures, or teenagers in love. What makes opera a little different is that the music gives you tips as to what’s happening or what the characters are thinking.
Want to learn more about opera and some of its most famous characters? Check out some of these links:
The ABCs of opera—composers, voices, history, etc., and why it’s for EVERYONE
Washington National Opera
Learn more about the company who is performing for you
Or visit our Related Resources (to the right of this page)
Nerd Guide to Opera
(If you’ve never seen an opera before, you can skip this part for now.)
Are you a little bit of an opera nerd? C’mon. Don’t be shy. It’s an awesome thing. Wear it with pride. Hoping to learn more about opera in the future? Or maybe even sing some of it yourself? Here are a few tips to get you started:
- Listen, listen, and listen some more. Get your hands on as many opera recordings as you can find. Try your local library or check out YouTube. See if you can start matching your favorite songs to their appropriate operas. Figure out who your favorite composers are and when and where they lived.
- Take a class. See if your school offers basic music classes like theory or harmony. These are the building blocks of opera and getting to know them will really help you understand how it works and what makes it tick.
- Hit social media. Lots of opera singers, conductors, and opera companies have accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. Like, follow, and share. See what those folks are up to. Sometimes, they may even provide you with links to live streaming concerts.
- Try some lessons. If you’re interested in learning about opera singing, test out a few singing teachers in your area (NATS, or the National Association of Teachers of Singing is a good place to start). Your operatic voice may not develop until you’re a bit older, but getting some of the fundamentals of singing under your belt couldn’t hurt.
For more information on expanding your love of opera or for pointers on how to begin a singing career, try these links:
WNO Young Associates
A behind-the-scenes opportunity for local high school students of various experience levels to see how a professional opera company puts together a world class production.
WNO Opera Institute
A three-week summer intensive in which advanced high school singers from around the country interested in pursuing opera in college and beyond experience what life would be like as a vocal music major.
A blog created by a self-proclaimed, opera-loving teen
A national initiative to empower high schoolers to pursue their interest in opera, share opera learning with others and leverage the power of opera to serve local communities. Local chapter, Capital Opera Teens, is active in attending WNO and other events.
Or visit our Related Resource (to the right of this page)
Parents and Teachers: We've Got You Covered
Hey there, adults. We know opera isn’t the most popular art form (it would be amazing if it was…but it isn’t). It’s possible you’ve never seen an opera before or that you know very little about the format. Shhhh…it’s okay. We’ve got your back.
Opera A 400-year-old genre born in Italy that was cultivated throughout Europe from the 16th to the 19th centuries and eventually made its way to the United States (that’s right, Americans write operas, too!). As you’ve probably guessed, there will be singing. Lots of it. Just think of it as heightened speech. A soprano may hit a really high note when she’s angry or scared. A bass might lay down a low note when he wants to be extra menacing. We promise it’s not as confusing as people tend to think it is.
The Marriage of Figaro Le Nozze di Figaro (leh-NOH-tseh dee FEE-gah-roh), as it’s called in Italian, is the first of three operas written by one of the greatest teams the genre has ever seen: librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte and composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (we know you’ve heard of him). Premiered in 1786, it was based on a French play of the same name that was so critical of the upper classes it was banned in Mozart and Da Ponte’s hometown of Vienna. But the team’s talent was too great to deny and the Austrian emperor reportedly granted them special dispensation to turn the play into an opera. The result was one of the genre’s funniest and most-performed works of all time.