There's something uniquely Cleveland about the scene: Deep in the heart of an industrial complex at East 35th and Superior, sublime music spills out a door big enough for a truck to drive through. Freight trains occasionally rumble past on tracks perhaps 100 yards away. Inside the warehouse, a cast of singers pours itself into the action-packed goofiness of Mozart's Nozze di Figaro, which Opera Cleveland opens this week.
Most of the cast members, awaiting cues, watch the action from chairs near the truck entry. Mezzo soprano Carolyn Kahl walks around the edges of the stage area in knee-length khakis, knee pads and a T-shirt, adjusting her walk to look as macho as she can. She's playing the Count's male page, Cherubino, a pants role that combines boisterous, high-energy comedy with the touching emotions of young love. As Cherubino discovers his feelings about women in general, he's particularly distracted by his boss' wife, the beautiful Countess Almaviva. The comedy, tenderness and delightful arias make Cherubino one of the most fun roles - even if it's not one of the most prominent ones - in opera. Kahl gets to run and hide, sing about discovering love and take that classic trouser-role turn: She's a girl playing a boy discovering girls who, as the plot unfolds, gets to disguise herself as a girl in a comically rich layer cake of wannabe macho swagger and irrepressible femininity.
The first two acts of Nozze di Figaro are busy with comings and goings and secrets. They also have some of the most memorable melodies in opera. And Cherubino gets to have a lot of the fun.
Kahl says her youth prepared her well for the role: "I grew up with two younger brothers. And in high school, I was more an athlete than a musician." In her hometown of Saginaw, Michigan, she lettered in varsity basketball, volleyball and soccer. Having this role brings back memories of those rough-and-tumble days.
But that was also when she first learned the aria "Voi Che Sapete, Che Cosa e Amor," in which the adolescent Cherubino tells older women, "You ladies who know what love is, see if it is what I have in my heart … Since it is new to me, I don't understand it. I have a feeling full of desire, which now is pleasure, now is torment."
When she first learned the aria at the age of 16, says Kahl, her voice was different than it is now at 30: "You span a lot of different vocal technique in that time. And learning these parts is just like learning something on an instrument: There is a lot of muscle memory. So to bring it into the present, you almost have to relearn it."
The physicality of the role presents its own challenges. Kahl has to internalize the habits of walking like a man. "I always make the gym a big part of my preparation," she says. "The hips can be a factor when you're playing a boy."
And as Cherubino's subplot evolves, her manliness has to become more confident and less an adolescent caricature. Count Almaviva responds to his page's obvious enthusiasm for the Countess by sending him to war. At first, he seems like a boy soldier, recruited far too early. By the end, he seems resolved and ready for it.
The first time Kahl sang the whole role in a production came almost 10 years after she learned the aria in a young artists program with the Seattle Opera. It was "odd to be a girl playing a boy going after a woman," she says. Now, though, she's able to get caught up in the action of the story, so it comes more easily. Opera Cleveland's production has a lot in common with the one in Seattle - including director Peter Kazaras, conductor Dean Williamson, Corey McKern as Count Almaviva and Maureen McKay as Susanna. Other principals in the Opera Cleveland production include Jason Hardy as Figaro and Elaine Alvarez as Countess Almaviva. But that production in Seattle was a long time ago. Kahl says she's spent most of the past 10 years living out of her Honda Civic, traveling the country for different singing roles. For the past two years, she's been in New York. She left there because she's moving to Germany for six months for a cultural ambassadorship - an exchange program with the Goethe Institute, during which she'll audition and try to develop a European career. She leaves for that gig the day after Nozze di Figaro closes in Cleveland. For now, Kahl is just enjoying the company. She says the cast has jelled really well in Cleveland, hanging out together in the evenings and taking turns hosting Sunday brunch. For an opera that has so many great parts and a true ensemble cast, that should make for high energy and a sense of fun the audience can't miss.