Brian Leerhuber seems to enjoy jumping back and forth between centuries, like alternating the taste of salty and sweet. Sprinkled in his busy schedule of operatic staples like Puccini's Gianni Schicchi (directed by Woody Allen at Los Angeles Opera) and La Boheme (at San Francisco Opera), he's had a string of parts in contemporary operas, especially minimalist ones -- including Philip Glass' Appomattox, and John Adams' Death of Klinghofer and Nixon in China. He's stepping back in time again to sing the role of Figaro in Rossini's 1816 hit, The Barber of Seville, his debute with Opera Cleveland.
After the challenge of learning those new works with their 20th and 21st century personalities, singing Figaro is "a comfort, like coming home," he says. "It's a pleasure to go back 200 years, because these melodies are in your blood."
As Figaro, he has to carry the mood of the production. He's not just any title character, says Leerhuber, but the one "Rossini gave the best entrance aria ever," the famous "Largo al factotum," which basically translates as "make way for the one guy in town who can handle everything." It reaches its emblematic crescendo with that familiar string of repeated "Figaros," in which the eponymous barber mimics the townspeople calling his name because they need his help — for grooming as well as charming the whole story to a happy ending.
Bringing Figaro into the 21st century requires not just the kind of musical stylistic shift Leerhuber makes going from new works to classics, but traversing social norms as well. The Beaumarchais play it's based on was banned in Vienna, and the opera itself had a rocky time with the censors because it depicts a servant-class barber mingling and meddling beyond his caste.
"Figaro is the first yuppie in the world of opera," says Leerhuber. "At the time Barber premiered, there was open hostility toward social climbing. I don't know if that has as much resonance today. These days, that's the American dream."
If that weren't enough time travel, the Cleveland production — directed by Linda Brovsky and conducted by Dean Williamson — moves the story forward a century to the Edwardian period. Leerhuber says this places the action closer to the present, but not so much that it makes class consciousness unbelievable.