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Theater folks invade the opera house! A roundup of current and upcoming crossover attractions

By David Cote
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Okay, the headline might be a tad misleading: “Legit” stage pros have always hobnobbed with their fancier, bejeweled cousin at the opera house. Terrence McNally and David Henry Hwang have penned several opera libretti; Danny Burstein squeezed laughs out of the fur-and-monocle set in last year’s Die Fledermaus; and superstars such as Audra McDonald and Kristin Chenoweth switch easily between brassy Broadway anthems and elegant arias. Designers and directors like to keep a diverse portfolio that mixes grand opera with nonmusical plays.

Still, it’s always cheering to see theater names pop up in operaland, which can always use their showbiz savvy and razzle-dazzle—or just good storytelling chops. Here are the most recent:

The Marriage of Figaro
Monday night the Metropolitan Opera kicked off its season (after a white-knuckle summer of labor negotiations) with a new production of the Mozart–Da Ponte classic about a wily servant, his lascivious master, and a whole lot of skirt chasing. At the helm for this distinctly Downton Abbey–ish Le Nozze di Figaro (set in 1930s Spain) was Richard Eyre, a titan of the British stage who ran the National Theatre in the ’90s. Eyre staged one of my favorite new productions at the Met in recent seasons: a fierce, fatalistic Carmen. His Figaro is more conservative, with the period perhaps muffling the slapstick and bawdy laughs. However, Rob Howell’s monumental rotating set of Moorish ornamentation is impressive and the cast is solid. The standout is gorgeous and gifted Isabel Leonard (pictured above) in the “pants role” of Cherubino, a lovelorn youth who gets caught between the philandering Count Almaviva (suavely lecherous Peter Mattei) and the neglected Countess (Amanda Majeski, making a luminous Met debut). Leonard pulls off the opera’s neat gender trick: a woman playing a boy who pretends to be a woman—quite convincingly and charmingly. Ildar Abdrazakov’s Figaro is more restrained and dignified than you usually see, which is refreshing but comically questionable. Maestro James Levine conjured lithe, lively magic from the Met players. Through Dec 20. Details and tickets here.

The Difficulty of Crossing a Field
Most people know Mac Wellman as an avant-garde playwriting icon for the past three decades. But his cryptic, surreal language isn’t just for head-exploding plays. In 2002, Wellman and the mesmerizing postminimalist composer David Lang were commissioned by Carey Perloff of American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco to make an opera-theater hybrid. Wellman, being an Ambrose Bierce aficionado, decided to adapt Bierce’s 752-word story, The Difficulty of Crossing a Field. In this eerie, fragmentary quasi-allegory, a white plantation owner crosses a patch of land and…simply… disappears in plain sight of his slaves, family and neighbors. Wellman’s equally mysterious and evanescing libretto expands on the text. Lang’s slow, exquisitely attenuated music and haunting vocal writing make for an unforgettable 75 minutes. I’ve been in love with the opera since 2006, when I saw a gorgeous production (designed by Jim Findlay and directed by Bob McGrath) at Montclair State University. Everyone has been waiting for the fully staged New York premiere. And we still have to wait. However, thanks to Beth Morrison Projects (full disclosure: BMP is a producer on my opera The Scarlet Ibis) we can hear the amazing score in a concert version at Roulette in Fort Greene. I’ll be there. Added theater bonus: The cast includes Jay O. Sanders—who was a superb Kent in Shakespeare in the Park’s recent King Lear. Sunday 28 at Roulette. Details and tickets here.

El gato con botas
Director Moisés Kaufman (Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo) and Gotham Chamber Opera, under the baton of Neal Goren, revive their 2010 staging of this opera by the late composer Xavier Montsalvatge. The production, which features beguiling puppetry by Blind Summit Theatre, is a Spanish-language dramatization of the popular folk tale “Puss in Boots,” about a footwear-fancying feline. If, like me, you missed the show when it premiered at the New Victory four years ago, this is your chance to lace up winter boots and head uptown for some furry fun. December 6–14 at El Museo del Barrio. Details and tickets here.

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