Dean Williamson shares his thoughts on the Barber of Seville

Dean Williamson. Photo credit Bill Mohn Photography.

By Philippa Kiraly

Seattle Opera’s presentation of Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville,” which begins Saturday,
is like old home week for many of the participants. Conductor Dean Williamson, until its untimely suspension last month (temporarily we hope) the Artistic Director of Opera Cleveland, was principal coach and pianist for Seattle Opera for twelve years from the middle 1990s and a major player in Seattle Opera Young Artists Program. He still lives in Bellevue.

Williamson has conducted many “Barbers” around the country, and among the singers gathered for this production are two graduates of that program, soprano Sarah Coburn as Rosina and Lawrence Brownlee as Count Almaviva. He’s conducted them both in other “Barbers” as he has mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey, the other Rosina, and Patrick Carfizzi, Dr. Bartolo, while he’s worked with other cast members elsewhere. All of them have sung many “Barbers,” indeed the only person who has not done a “Barber” before is stage director Peter Kazaras, very familiar to Seattle Operagoers and an old friend of Williamson’s.

“We met at Santa Fe Opera in 1985, where he was an up and coming opera tenor and I was an absolute beginner as rehearsal pianist,” says Williamson. “All of us are helping Peter get through his first “Barber.” Operas like this are like Noel Coward comedies. Everyone has to be in the right place at the right time to generate the next situation,” and timing is of the essence.

Every “Barber” is different, he says, even when one knows it intimately. ”It’s like throwing a dinner party, and everyone comes with their own perspective. It’s like mixing in a fishbowl and seeing what we come up with.”

There is a major difference in this production, however. Seattle Opera often uses a double cast, and in this, one Rosina is a soprano and one a mezzo soprano. Coburn and Lindsey have different vocal timbres, but what matters, Williamson says, is who they are as musicians as reflected in their personalities. “They are both such strong characters on stage, they make you laugh, cry, feel.”

One aria is pitched a semitone apart for their voices. Where Coburn sings it in F major, Lindsey sings it in E Major, the key used in Rossini’s original production. Not a problem except when you are singing with someone else, and Rosina spends considerable time singing in thirds with the maid Berta, veteran Seattle Opera artist soprano Sally Wolf.

“It was one of our big issues, how do we do that,” says Williamson. “We ended up with two versions of the role. When Sally sings with Sarah, she sings the lower voice, when she sings with Kate, she sings the higher one. Sally’s fantastic. She owns the stage when she’s up. When I asked if she’d do it, I wasn’t surprised when she said Okay.”

Asked how Coburn’s voice has changed since her Young Artist days, Williamson comments: “The voice has taken on a luster, a pearliness, a depth, a sheen. She always had a beautiful voice, a technically secure instrument, but as she has matured, the voice has matured in the best way, with depth of color, particularly valuable for a coloratura soprano. It’s the color which is the personality in the voice that you remember.”

The other Young Artist, Lawrence Brownlee, went straight from the program here to La Scala, Milan, to substitute for a tenor who withdrew from “Barber.” He has since built a major career. Asked how he has changed since those early days, Williamson says, “With him it’s less about the voice and more about the musical personality. He’s so strong, so world class, I feel his soul in this music-making. He’s always had the lustrous quality of voice, this miraculous God-given instrument, not to say he hasn’t worked his rear end off to achieve what he has, but now there’s a confident musicality. He’s a conductor’s dream. He always feels the connection, one of those rare singers who knows where the stick (baton) is. He’s also one of the more grounded singers, now he’s married, has a child. It’s wonderful watching what that kind of life experience brings to a singer.”

Brownlee is also one of the few tenors who can encompass the extraordinarily difficult and high aria in the last act, usually omitted, the one where Almaviva reveals his real identity. He’ll sing it in all his appearances here.

“It’s of no importance to the story,” says Williamson. “It’s a showpiece for the tenor, but it can be heartfelt, and very funny.”

Other little touches to this production won’t necessarily be noticeable to the audience, but will add to the whole anyway. When Almaviva serenades Rosina in the first act, the guitar will be played by guitar master Michael Partington, using an instrument from the early 19th century. The opera’s recitatives will be played by Williamson on a fortepiano, since he discovered that both Rossini and Mozart preferred it in their operas.

However, Williamson had never played one until he started rehearsing with it a few days ago.
When he tried it, “I was flummoxed, I was shocked.” The action is much lighter than a modern piano, the decay time much shorter, and the pedals are operated by the knees. Also the keys are narrower, so Williamson, who says he has “Rachmaninov-size hands,” has had to scrunch his into a smaller space.
However, he’s already feeling more at home with the instrument, and as he has been saying about everything to do with this “Barber of Seville” production, “It’s lots of fun.”

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