I arrived to the first day of rehearsals here to discover that the director is someone I have worked with before and who I really like. At the meet and greet, he talked about his concept of Barber of Seville, and how he wanted the action and the comedy to be more character based as opposed to using the same gags that we see over and over in productions of this opera. I was nodding my head vigorously because I thought that was a fantastic way to approach the opera, and I find so many of the old physical jokes to be trite and overdone. Let's rise above all that and do some serious character work, I nobly thought. Until he started to want to cut MY schtick.
I think this is the 6th time I've sung Rosina, and the one piece in which I have really developed my (ahem) skills as a physical comedienne is Bartolo's aria near the end of the first act. In this aria, Bartolo is lecturing Rosina, and she's usually really annoyed to be hearing his lecture once again. There are several physical gags I developed when I sang the role at City Opera, including puffing myself up to look as much like Bartolo as possible and imitating him by lip synching his text, crying hysterically with snorts and gasps, and falling onto the ground several times. I would be lying if I told you that my ego wasn't stoked by the fact that one of the reviews from new york mentioned what a great comedienne he thought I was and compared me to Lucille Ball. So I kept all those gags in all the productions and just kept doing them with more and more vigor, while eating up the cheap laughs and guffaws they elicited.
We got to staging this aria yesterday, and I started in with all my cheap tricks. Wait a minute, the director cautioned - I thought we weren't going to get all schticky in this production? My initial thought was - well, yeah.... but my schtick is... frigging FUNNY! But then I realized that he was right; the bits may get guffaws in the moment, but they leave the characters less human and less likable in the end. Maybe if I want the audience to take the journey with me, I'm going to have to edit out my groaning and snorting like a stuck pig. Oh phooey. That means I have to actually act like a human in this aria, and think about my genuine motivation and basically recalculate everything.
Comedy is a tricky thing, no doubt about it. Physical comedy can be hilarious, but it's the most funny when it comes from a place of genuine human emotion. If I fall on the ground and my dress goes over my head because that's what I think is funny, then it's not actually that funny. But if I really need to grab Bartolo's hand and convince of something, but I miss him, fall on the ground and my dress goes over my head, that's comedy. Maybe that seems obvious, but too often with these oft performed roles, we fall into a kind of comedy rut, and play for the laugh instead of for the truth. But this time, thanks to a savvy director who's got my number, I get to reach inside and find a new honesty. That's fine, as long as I get to fall on the floor at least once.