A conversation about ¡Figaro! 90210 and immigrants’ rights at the opera.
Mozart’s 1786 opera Le nozze di Figaro has been set in a Trump Tower penthouse and at a Jewish wedding in contemporary Germany. Now, for a week in New York City, Vid Guerrerio’s adaptation, ¡Figaro! 90210, sets Mozart’s music to an English/Spanish libretto—and puts Conti in a red baseball cap. Of course, the plot still features two spirited, ingenious working people trying to free themselves from the abuses of the powerful, but now Figaro and Susana are undocumented Mexican household workers singing their opening duet in Spanish, on the grounds of the Beverly Hills mansion of their pussy-grabbing employer, Mr. Conti. Susana explains that the boss has given them a pool-house apartment to facilitate his assaults on her: “I see this coming when he tell me he help me get my visa … ‘Good girls, they get green cards. Girls who don’t obey their boss get deported.’ ”
Le nozze di Figaro lends itself well to this kind of reworking; rebellion is in its DNA. Its eighteenth-century premiere came only a few years before the French and Haitian Revolutions. The opera derived from a play by Beaumarchais (who was also an arms dealer for the American Revolution) of which Louis XVI said, “For this play not to be a danger, the Bastille would have to be torn down first”; Napoleon, for his part, called it “the Revolution in action.” The opera’s librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, lightened the play’s political radicalism to bypass Austrian censors, earning Joseph II’s approval and a special palace performance commission. Yet the plot remains subtly subversive, addressing both the vulnerability and moral superiority of women and workers, and the violence of the ruling classes and their henchmen. After the marvelously entertaining opening night, the two of us compared notes to figure out what kind of audience ¡Figaro! 90210 was for. Not everybody, we observed, was happy with the adaptation.
Mechi: During the intermission, I heard a conversation behind me between a white man and a black man. After asking the black man for his opinion, which was overwhelmingly positive, the white man went on to say that though there were a lot of similar elements to the original, he found this remake “too much”—as if bringing this piece into a “foreign,” twenty-first century context had sullied it in a way. That felt really wack.
Alison: I think 90210’s exploration of immigrants and citizens taps right into Figaro’s revolutionary eighteenth-century thinking. The opera comes from a French play, adapted for opera by a Jewish Italian living in Vienna who eventually moved to New York and became a Columbia professor. He wrote it just a few years before the French Republic would hash out ideas about citizenship, abolishing internal passports and passport controls, declaring that “the asylum that [France] opens to foreigners will never be closed to the inhabitants of countries whose princes have forced us to attack them, and they will find in its womb a secure refuge.” The Republic decided that the definition of a foreigner was a “bad citizen”—by which they meant the nobles, guilty of “do-nothing idleness” and hostile to the Revolution.
The original plot depends on the myth of droit du seigneur, a “right” that supposedly permitted noblemen to sexually exploit any young women who were their feudal subjects. Sexual violence committed by the ruling classes against the lower classes was then, and remains, an important subject. But this particular myth belongs to rhetoric that Umberto Eco called “shaggy medievalism,” which obscures very real, contemporary violence as something that’s “feudal,” distant, and irrelevant to the now. There’s also a kind of shaggy medievalism in watching this pre-Revolutionary opera but trying to wrap it in feudal—or Enlightenment—nostalgia, in being unable to relate it to twenty-first century concerns. I can’t help thinking that the Contis of the world prefer traditional stagings that obscure their discomfort with the opera’s politics. But there are all kinds of comfort and discomfort different audiences can feel, and they aren’t all bad.
Mechi: As a Latinx person, I felt a sort of comfort, a familiarity, with 90210 from its first words, which were in Spanish. There were parts of it that felt incredibly welcoming, like when Susanna calls Babayan “Papito” after discovering he’s Figaro’s father. I call my father Papito! Ultimately it felt accessible, not stuffy. I haven’t been to an opera since college, so I was worried I’d be out of place or that people would be able to tell I didn’t belong, because I may not have the right language to discuss it. So often I associate opera and theater with others, not with us. For a variety of reasons, we don’t often think of Latinos as consumers of opera.
Alison: The barriers to opera attendance, which are formidable, have so much to do with familiarity, classical-music education, and gatekeeping, even before they’re compounded by whether or not programming or casting reflect or welcome a diverse audience. So many people who are at the opera take it for granted that opera belongs to them. But people who aren’t already insiders don’t find out that at the Metropolitan Opera, a rush orchestra seat costs only twenty-five dollars. And there’s no dress code, but only insiders know that wearing jeans and sneakers just means you’ll come off as a musicologist. People don’t get to hear about Martina Arroyo, a great black and Puerto Rican soprano, who was born in 1936 and grew up in Harlem. Or about the small companies like Harlem Opera Theater, or the tons of fantastic black, Latino, and Asian singers performing now. So what kind of opera insider gets to decide which productions—and audiences—truly belong, and what’s “too much”?
Mechi: Just being there challenged me to think about who these art forms are for and why—why can’t I be the kind of person that goes to the opera? When I got home, I told my mom about it, and her eyes shone. I know she would have loved this, especially because it felt like a musical telenovela, and she loves telenovelas. A lot of the plot twists were the same. Gasp, these are your real parents. Gasp, you aren’t at all who you thought you were. And there were so many slapstick moments that were perfectly adapted from the original that reminded me of the comedies of my youth, like Sábado gigante. So it all felt familiar and wonderful—both because of its similarity to Figaro and the cultural context.
Alison: I agree, the fidelity to the original libretto enhanced the sparkle of the original and renewed the commitment to the score and words, like in the bell-ringing duet reworked for cell phones. The count’s duet with Susana, rewritten in English and peppered with racism, brings out the menace and creepiness of the harassment, where her “no” keeps getting turned into “yes.”
Mechi: That really highlights the vulnerable position of undocumented women in America. The rise of Trump has meant a decrease in undocumented women reporting domestic violence and rape for fear of deportation. The fear of rape or assault by the “master of the house” is real. That fear—and the fear of being deported for failure to comply with your boss—escalated the tension and drama of the original, grounding it in a very real, contemporary issue. We’re seeing women dropping their domestic abuse cases, because they’re afraid to get rounded up by immigration and deported while trying to get their cases heard. Conti refers to Susana and Figaro as “entitled” and “illegals”—“I’m a true American, not you, so I’m entitled to / True happiness! ’Cause this land isn’t your land—it’s mine!”—but the irony is that their only “crime” is trying to better their lives, while Conti is trying to force himself on Susana because he feels entitled to her body.
Alison: We also talked about moments that made us uncomfortable.
Mechi: The moments when Conti shouts the words wetback and beaner felt like a slap in the face. Hearing a slur is never necessarily a welcome discomfort, but I found it jarring. It veered into a weird territory that seemed to undo much of what had been established in the previous acts. All of a sudden, the pressure that had been building was released. If you’re not the kind of person to call someone illegal or wetback, the opera seemed to say, then you’re not Mr. Conti anymore, and you can distance yourself from this very real American perspective. It’s hard to say what the intention was here. Was it meant to shock the audience? Was it meant to give the white audience an out? I struggled with the idea that Conti could insult Susana and Figaro—and that all he’d needed to do to fix that is apologize. Also, Conti isn’t framed as someone who self-identifies as a bigot: they sing of him, “like so many, the liberal politics stop at his front door.”
Alison: All your thoughts build up to the finale of the opera, where we get an aesthetic, musical, and political resolution—of sorts. In the original, the countess demands that the count forgive Susana and Figaro for plotting against him. The count, realizing that his wife knows he’s betrayed her, sings, “Countess, forgive me.” Then, in one of the most musically sublime moments in opera, she does. “I am more mild,” she sings—or, let’s translate it as “kind,” or “nice.” The ensuing harmonies are celestial, and they pose forgiveness, reconciliation, and understanding as the solutions to conflict and violence. But what does forgiveness mean when it’s the vulnerable and powerless people who do the forgiving, while those who wield actual power have the choice to forgo it? It’s sad, ironic, or horribly disingenuous.
Mechi: That scene in particular, watching Mrs. Conti forgive her husband so quickly, felt like the ultimate betrayal. Throughout the opera, she’s presented as his foil—she’s more tolerant, and she treats her staff like family rather than servants. But in forgiving Conti’s sexually predatory and racist behavior, so much of that felt hollow. It trivializes the gravity of Conti’s transgressions against both Figaro and Susana. This opera asks us to contemplate forgiveness and what it means, especially in the larger political context of America’s current immigration crisis. It left me wondering if some things are too egregious for forgiveness—and whether or not we can still move forward without it.
Alison: There are some stagings of the finale of Figaro that have undermined the power of forgiveness, and I think they could and should be considered here. In some productions, the countess pauses a long time before granting forgiveness. In others, she packs her bag during the merry finale and, in the final moments before curtain, leaves her husband. There’s a good intervention in 90210, where Conti sings to her, “I’m so sorry”—she points him toward Figaro and Susana, to whom he adds, “Lo siento.” Dramatically and ethically, it’s absolutely necessary, but it can’t escape the inadequacy of apology in this situation. In representations of power, violence, and justice, in opera or otherwise, we don’t need to portray harmony and forgiveness as ultimately opposed to, and resolving, violence. That’s a reductive narrative, and it omits resistance and revolution.
I’m interested in what you thought of the ending. In the run-up to the 2016 election, Guerrerio rewrote one of Susana’s arias and moved it to the encore. According to the director, Melissa Crespo, that encore was the main reason to remount the show now—
My friends, let’s all join hands
We’re in this together
Whether we like it or not
The only choice we’ve got
Is try to turn back time
To some simpler fiction
Or embrace life’s complexity
It’s messy, and so very stressful,
Yes, it’s very stressful and scary, too.
True, but messy humanity? That’s nothin’ new.
Tough times may test us
But they also can bring out the best us
God has blessed us
Not with the answers,
No, answers always get it wrong
We’re blessed with questions,
Questions and song.
Answers divide us,
We’re meant to search and seek and strive
And sing, together, as long as we’re alive.
Mechi: Harmonious resolution is great, in theory, but as viewers, we fall in love with these characters—we empathize with them, we see our families and friends and loved ones in them. To force them into this tidy ending feels like a mistreatment. Some viewers may enjoy seeing this forgiveness, hearing Susana’s call for us all to work through it together, especially after she’s so graciously forgiven Conti. But when she walks out of that house, she’s still at risk of deportation and sexual violence. After the curtain comes down, we sacrifice these characters we love in our quest for “answers,” neatness, and resolution.
Mechi Annaís Estévez Cruz is a Dominican American writer and activist. Mechi focuses on gentrification, immigration, and Dominican culture and history. Mechi’s work has appeared in The Establishment, Remezcla, and Vibe.
Alison Kinney is a Korean American immigrant and correspondent for the Daily; this is the sixth installment of her opera column, Songs to the Moon. Her writing has appeared online at Harper’s, Lapham’s Quarterly Roundtable, Longreads, Hyperallergic, and VAN Magazine; her first book is Hood (Bloomsbury).