The Pursuit of Happiness

By Fred Plotkin

When I teach opera to newcomers, I often speak of the “standard repertory,” those masterpieces that appear regularly at every opera company in the world. Although opera was conceived in Florence in 1597 and is still a thriving and evolving art form today, we think of the standard repertory as beginning with Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro in 1786 and concluding with Puccini’s final opera, Turandot, in 1926. This means that most of the operas regularly staged come from a 140-year time frame, even though the art form is more than four centuries old.

Being the earliest work of the standard repertory might suggest that this opera would lack the relevance of more recent operas because its values and assumptions are based on 18th-century attitudes. And yet, The Marriage of Figaro has never ceased to amuse and challenge audiences, who respond to the characters with compassion—especially the maid Susanna and the woman she serves, the Countess Almaviva. We delight in the unbridled shenanigans of the hormone-infused teenager Cherubino (played by a mezzo-soprano) who, at the sight of an attractive woman, tells us, “I have no idea who I am and what I am doing.”

Countess Almaviva (Nicole Cabell) plots with Susanna (Sarah Tynan) and Cherubino (Marie Lenormand) in our 2009 production of  The Marriage of Figaro . Photo by Philip Groshong.

Countess Almaviva (Nicole Cabell) plots with Susanna (Sarah Tynan) and Cherubino (Marie Lenormand) in our 2009 production of The Marriage of Figaro. Photo by Philip Groshong.

This is an opera set in Spain, based on a French play by Beaumarchais, with a brilliant Italian libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte and music by an Austrian genius. Yet it has an appeal that goes beyond European borders to achieve universality, because its characters are profoundly and perplexingly human. For anyone, anywhere, who sees this opera, there is a spark of recognition in the longing to be loved that each character reveals.

As an American, I have always loved that this opera has its roots in the Enlightenment and that its European characters, whether they realize it or not, live by our national creed: The pursuit of happiness.

Like all of the greatest artistic achievements (and this opera certainly ranks among them), The Marriage of Figaro is something we can and should live with for a lifetime, revisiting it often and contrasting our own life experiences with the quicksilver and seemingly kaleidoscopic changes that happen to all of the characters in this story. As a young man, I saw this work as something of a sex farce, with mistaken identities, slamming doors, and unexpected surprises that drew big laughs.

As I got older, I came to admire how Mozart’s music and Da Ponte’s words combine to express the duality of the contradicting emotions and desires that live within us. We are all flawed, the opera tells us, and we must all strive to be better. And kinder. Recognizing this, I think, can make us more forgiving and more tolerant.

The Marriage of Figaro is in many ways miraculous, but one aspect is often overlooked: the entire story takes place in one day. We are reminded that everything can change in a single day, and we should live each day as if it is our last.


Photo: Soprano Ying Fang as Susanna in the Opera Philadelphia production of The Marriage of Figaro. Photo by Kelly & Massa.

Fred Plotkin, author of Opera 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Opera, writes for Operavore at wqxr.org and lectures for major opera companies worldwide.