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How Beaumarchais Saved the American Revolution and Ensured the Future of French Theater

Figaro: I may truly be called both a Chance Child, and a Child of Chance. By Chance was I begot, by Chance brought into the World, by Chance was I stole,  by Chance am I found, by Chance have I lived, and by Chance I shall die. Chance is Nature’s Sovereign, and must be mine.

Suzanne: Yes, and by Chance thou mayst come to be hang’d.
(Act IV, Le Mariage de Figaro by Beaumarchais)

As with any role he had played throughout his tempestuous life—watchmaker, inventor, courtier, musician, king’s agent, litigant, international spy, dramatist, lover, polemicist—Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1732-1799) took on the character of Monsieur Durand, undercover arms smuggler, with fearlessness and unbridled enthusiasm. We know him best as the author of the Figaro trilogy, three plays known for their wit and their revolutionary results. But for a period, Beaumarchais put his love of liberty into action as a gunrunner, assisting the American colonists in their fight for independence from England.

However sincere his democratic impulses may have been, as a confidence man, Beaumarchais was an abject failure. In December 1777, he arrived at the French port city of Le Havre as Monsieur Durand to supervise the covert loading of arms and supplies destined for the American colonies. Within days, however, everyone from the local police to Le Havre’s high society and even its theatrical troupe knew his real identity. How did Beaumarchais go from secret agent to open secret in a matter of days?

Beaumarchais: International Man of Mystery
Although Beaumarchais was an ardent proponent of democracy, he couldn’t singlehandedly launch an operation to aid a faraway rebellion against France’s archenemy unless he had some high level backing. France’s role in America’s independence is well known, but it was not exactly disinterested. Capitalizing on Benjamin Franklin’s success in Paris, Beaumarchais and his American partner Silas Deane finally persuaded the French government to sanction the arms deal with several arguments: First, aiding the colonists would anger the British and possibly precipitate a war, allowing the French to avenge their loss in the Seven Years’ War; next, arming the colonists would be a way to unload the surplus of outdated weapons created when the French army was refitted; and last, but not least, for Beaumarchais’ sense of égalité, sending guns would give the Americans the help they needed to throw off the tyranny of the British king.

On paper, Beaumarchais’ clandestine business, what we today would call a “shell company,” dealt in Spanish and Portuguese coins, a hot commodity in the trans-Atlantic trade, but its real purpose was gunrunning in exchange for American cotton, rice, tobacco, indigo and other trade goods. With its ships also stopping at West Indies ports where sugar was available, the business venture looked most promising for Beaumarchais who loved a profitable adventure as well as an idealistic cause.

First, he had first to think of a name for his company, one mysterious yet commanding. Remembering his Madrid sojourn in 1764—where he had investigated business opportunities in the Spanish colony of Louisiana and tried to avenge the honor of his jilted sister (the latter the inspiration for his play Eugénie)—Beaumarchais chose to name his fictional company after its fictional president Roderigue Hortalez. (This name has a strong affinity with the French phrase hors-la-loi, meaning outside the law, as well as horloger, or watchmaker.)

So far, so good. Next, Beaumarchais needed imposing premises in which to house such a business concern. With the arrival of the French government’s promised loan of one million livres as well as a second million from the Bourbon government in Madrid, Hortalez et Cie could open its doors in style. Beaumarchais selected one of Paris’ most luxurious residences, the Hôtel des Ambassadeurs de Hollande in the Marais district as headquarters. The former Dutch embassy was large enough to accommodate offices on the ground floor and to house Beaumarchais’ family upstairs. The embassy was grand as only a baroque Parisian townhouse can be with ornate appointments, floor-to-ceiling murals, and long resounding galleries.

Once installed in the hôtel, Beaumarchais threw himself into his performance. Every day, he made a grand entrance, nodding and smiling at those waiting in the salons before passing solemnly through the door marked “Sr. Roderigue Hortalez.” As his friend and biographer Gudin has recorded, only a handful of people supposedly knew his identity, among them Gudin’s brother, who served as the firm’s cashier, and Beaumarchais’ pregnant Swiss mistress, Mademoiselle Marie-Thérèse Willermaulez. No one ever had the honor of meeting directly with M. Hortalez, but Beaumarchais, who was understood to be the great man’s private secretary, could be heard at times behind closed doors imitating, first, the heavily-accented Spanish of his superior and then responding as himself, “Oui, Monsieur! Tout de suite, Monsieur!”

Business was brisk and M. Hortalez’s presence was required at army bases and ports all over France. Beaumarchais, who had learned the tricks of costume and makeup in the theatre, appeared in various guises, sometimes as Hortalez or one sieur de Ronac, sometimes as Durand. In spite of all the cloak and dagger trappings, the work was actually quite dangerous for Beaumarchais. He had put himself in harm’s way before, placating would-be royal blackmailers or ending libelous pamphlet campaigns against the queen, but stockpiling huge quantities of weapons on the docks of French port could be construed in only one way: as a build up to war with England.

Beaumarchais, however, was enjoying himself too much to be overly concerned with absolute secrecy. With the wheels of French bureaucracy turning at last, a steady supply of arms, powder, uniforms and other supplies began to flow toward the ports of Brest, Bordeaux, Rochefort and Le Havre. Hortalez et Cie purchased ships and began provisioning them. By the end of the year, Beaumarchais had collected, according to the 1993 unclassified CIA report on his activities, “200 field pieces, 300,000 muskets, 100 tons of powder, 3,000 tents and large amounts of ammunition. He also had a blanket, a pair of shoes and two pairs of wool stockings for each of 30,000 men along with such miscellaneous items as buttons, buckles, needles, thread, pocket knives and bolts of wool and silk for uniforms.”

Another unexpected surplus were French volunteers who flooded the dock offices, eager to enlist in the cause of liberty. These volunteers insisted on being commissioned as officers in Washington’s army even though they spoke no English and understood very little about conditions in America or what would expected of them as American soldiers. In Paris, hundreds of idealistic young men clamored to join up—it is true that many were also trying to escape debts or romantic entanglements. So many officers began appearing on American shores, in fact, that Congress sent urgent appeals to Silas Deane to curtail the number of commissions.

The case of one particular volunteer especially interested Beaumarchais. While French gentlemen of means such as Lafayette could afford to accept a commission as an unpaid private, impoverished noblemen like Baron von Steuben, on the other hand, required a little more assistance. Unable to accept a commission without pay, von Steuben waited at the Hortalez offices for weeks for an opportunity to be of service. At last, Beaumarchais came up with a plan. Putting von Steuben in the uniform of a Prussian lieutenant general, Beaumarchais sent him into Paris society with an aide and a secretary, both paid for by the playwright. After making the rounds, von Steuben came to the attention of Silas Deane and Benjamin Franklin. In due course, von Steuben was sent on a diplomatic mission conveying a letter to Washington. He soon joined the Colonial Army, fighting with distinction at Valley Forge, Monmouth and Yorktown.

The Le Havre Distraction
And so with a top secret mission at hand, Beaumarchais as M. Durand planned a trip to Le Havre in December 1777 to oversee the preparation of the first three ships bound for America, the Seine, the Romain and the Amphitrite. Maintaining his disguise was crucial to avoid tipping off British spies. The loading of the ships took place at night with a hundred men moving a massive volume of arms and ammunition as well as axes, pickaxes, spades, blankets and, of all things, some 15,000 pocket handkerchiefs. Fearful of an explosion, the men nervously loaded 12 tons of gunpowder on the Amphitrite. Goods ended up on the wrong ships and bills of lading were filled with errors. The confusion and bustle on the docks must have been obvious even under cover of night.

How then, if Beaumarchais had been traveled incognito as M. Durand, had a report been issued by the Le Havre police, stating “The arrival of Dr. Franklin in Nantes has caused a sensation, and the departure of M. de Beaumarchais, who is said to have gone to Le Havre, no less so.” Apparently, Beaumarchais’ movements and his alias were well known!

Bored with waiting for orders to set sail, it seems that Beaumarchais had begun frequenting the salons of Le Havre during which he must have been a tad indiscreet—not only had he been inconsistent in using the name Durand, he must also have given or at least acknowledged his own. André Limozin, an English-speaking agent at Le Havre, received a letter for Beaumarchais from Deane and sent a clerk to give it to Durand: “[he] remitted it into Mr. De Baumarchaiss own hands. [B]ut I have been informed that he hath not been pleased that my Clarke called him by his name. I did not know that he had taken Durand…[E]very Body knows that he is here, and there are more than 100 Gentlemen in the Town who know him personally.”

However, the enticements of Le Havre’s social scene were not entirely to blame for Beaumarchais’ faux pas. Having learned that M. Durand was none other than the author of the play everyone in Paris was talking about, the actors in the local theater decided to put on a production of Le Barbier de Séville. It was reportedly a “dreary production,” and when Beaumarchais saw the violence being done to his work, he raced to the theater and began rehearsing the actors, giving direction and generally making a nuisance of himself. Of course, by now, having completely blown his cover, Beaumarchais could do little more than bask in the audience’s laughter and pat himself on the back for the theater’s brisk ticket sales. No doubt, he enjoyed the pleasure of introducing the provincials to sophisticated theater, but he must surely have been aware that his indiscretion almost brought England and France to the brink of war.

For the next six years, Beaumarchais continued to engage in weapons smuggling, barely avoiding bankruptcy and constantly petitioning the U.S. Congress to hold up their end of the bargain. Even though Beaumarchais’ support of American independence changed the fortunes of war, his own affairs were in a perilous state. With France’s official recognition of the United States in 1778 and the open outbreak of war with England, the efforts of Hortalez et Cie grew less significant in the overall movement of men and materiel across the Atlantic. All the same, over the course of its existence, from 1776 to 1783, Beaumarchais’ firm is said to have engaged in transactions totaling more than 42 million livres or about $420 million. Beaumarchais spent the remainder of his life attempting to convince the United States to fulfill its contract with him. Due to various delays and political machinations, that did not happen in his lifetime. The debt was finally settled in 1835 when Congress offered Beaumarchais’ heirs 800,000 francs ($4,160,000) or nothing; they chose the money.

The Trials and Tribulations of The Barber of Seville
As if assisting at the birth of the United States and helping set the groundwork for another upheaval closer to home were not enough, Beaumarchais decided to write a sequel to his 1775 hit The Barber of Seville. He had learned much from his experience writing Barber, which in its original form had been a complete failure. The last scene had too many allusions to the playwright’s personal life and seemed labored and dull. Indeed, the years leading up to the first staging of Barber were some of the most eventful—and devastating—of Beaumarchais’ life. In addition to forfeiting his civil rights after an ugly court battle involving a settlement after the death of his second wife, Beaumarchais worked as the king’s agent in England, Vienna, and Germany foiling blackmail plots, one of which involved Chevalier d’Eon, who has been described as “a celebrity of uncertain sex.” Back in France, Beaumarchais landed in prison after he and the Duc de Chaulnes fought over an actress at the Comédie Italienne. In the meantime, the suit over the settlement from the playwright’s second wife turned into an accusation of attempting to corrupt a judge. Beaumarchais chronicled the twists and turns of these latest developments in his famous Mémoires, establishing a reputation for wit and style, if not exactly good sense when it came to the fair sex.

When he finally completed Barber, the royal censor suppressed the play claiming that its notoriety cast Beaumarchais in a sympathetic light at the expense of magistrates and the courts. In any case, the first appearance of the play was a disaster, but Beaumarchais rewrote it in a matter of days, and the revised version became a hit that remains in the repertoire of the Comédie Française to the present day. In fact, by 1785, the tide had turned completely and a production was staged at Versailles with Marie Antoinette as Rosine (renamed Rosina in Rossini’s Italian-language opera) and the King’s brother, the Count of Artois, as Figaro.

The Rebirth of Figaro
With his Hortalez adventure behind him, Beaumarchais set about finishing The Marriage of Figaro, a work he may have begun as early as 1778. This time, Beaumarchais ran into difficulties not, for once, due to scandals in his private life, but because of the play’s perceived threats to an increasingly fragile French state. The play was reviewed six times by the royal censor before being approved by the king in 1784. After years of anticipation, public expectations on opening night were high. The theater doors opened at 5:30 and the performance ended almost five hours later to wild acclaim.

In Figaro, Beaumarchais retained the touch of light comedy and vivaciousness that had characterized Barber. The added charm in the sequel was that Figaro, about to be married to Suzanne (Susanna in Mozart’s opera), has more to do than simply extricate his betters from their amorous intrigues. Still a servant, the affianced Figaro wishes to protect Suzanne from Count Almaviva’s exercise of droit du seigneur, a feudal concept in which a nobleman supposedly had the right to sleep with subordinate women on their wedding night. This concept, one that essentially institutionalized abuse, served as a metaphor for social injustice at large, and Figaro as the playwright’s alter ego was speaking with Beaumarchais’ words. Figaro’s ripostes might, on the surface, gleefully satirize human nature and society, but to a government on shaky ground, these words cut deep into institutions in which the French state was heavily invested.

But Figaro was not really a revolutionary. He, or rather his type, had originated, not in Beaumarchais’ fertile imagination, but in the Italian commedia dell’arte form. Figaro and his cohorts were in fact stock characters easily recognizable to contemporary audiences. As Eric Blom has observed, “Beaumarchais, in truth, contrives nothing new beyond details of invention and worksmanship; in their broad outlines the comedies are completely traditional.” Figaro’s commedia origins are as the character Harlequin or Arlecchino, the lively and astute valet. Beaumarchais is certainly responsible for the name Figaro, believed to be derived from a contraction of his own name Fils Caron (son of Caron); the name may also have origins in the Spanish colloquialism picaro or ficaro, meaning “rascal.”

In addition to the quick-witted valet, 18th-century French audiences would have recognized other old friends: Suzanne was known in commedia dell’arte as Colombine, the world-wise serving maid, while Rosine represented Isabella, the emotional young ward and desirable ingénue. Chérubin was Pierrot, too young and naïve to be seriously considered as a lover.

(Chérubin has a more influential role 20 years later in the third play of the Figaro trilogy, La Mère coupable or The Guilty Mother, even though he is unseen on the stage. In this work, premiered in 1792 at the height of the French Revolution, tragic morality is the theme, with Chérubin the deceased father of Countess Almaviva’s illegitimate son Léon. The major plot elements of The Guilty Mother were adapted into John Corigliano’s 1991 opera The Ghosts of Versailles. The least successful of Beaumarchais’ Figaro plays, it also contributed to the playwright’s voluntary exile.)

Commedia dell’arte also called for male characters of varying degrees of ridiculousness such as Count Almaviva, who represents Lelio or Cinthio, the predatory lover of the much-younger girl. Dr. Bartolo is the old, asthmatic Bolognese doctor known in commedia as Graziano or Baloardo; unlike Molière and his old doctors, Beaumarchais spares us tiresome displays of learnedness.

Having reestablished the traditional characters, Beaumarchais proceeds to spin out a ludicrously complex plot that hangs on such thin contrivances as mistaken identity and disguises. In the place of weighty themes, he gives us comical complications or emotional revelations brought about by ordinary objects like a ribbon or a pin. In the original commedia dell’arte companies, improvisation, wit and repartee would have kept such well-worn scenarios and characters fresh and unpredictable.

Beaumarchais’ inspiration—one that struck fear in the hearts of those committed to the pre-revolutionary status quo—was to make Figaro, a servant, the intellectual master of his supposed betters. When he questions the idea of hereditary privilege, he does so in a disarmingly flippant manner. Beaumarchais had just spent several years running guns to support the American colonists’ cause against France’s enemy, and he was having a hard time receiving compensation for his efforts. That experience had to have reinforced the playwright’s sense of how absurdity often travels alongside idealism.

While the likes of Thomas Carlyle and Napoleon did hear a call for revolution in Figaro, Beaumarchais was looking a little deeper. He was preoccupied less with sedition than human circumstances and motivations—although we may be sure that he was pleased with the dramatic results of his play. He may perhaps have been pondering, as Figaro, the role of chance as “nature’s sovereign” and how it so often tends to rule our lives and shape our character.

In 1787, after having seen so many others profit by writing operas based on his plays, Beaumarchais staged Tarare, an opera in five acts. The work is forgotten today, but he seems to have had Figaro in mind when he wrote the work’s preface:

Mortal, whoever you may be,
Prince, Brahmin or soldier,
Man, your greatness on earth

Does not derive from your position,
But only from your character.

Leann Davis Alspaugh is managing editor of The Hedgehog Review.

A Note from Music Director James Conlon

Come lo sono i moderni mariti: per sistema infidel,
per genio capricciosi e per orgoglio, poi tutti gelosi.

That’s the way it is with modern husbands:
unfaithful on principle, capricious by nature and out of pride, jealous.


So speaks Rosina (now the Countess) about her husband Count Almaviva (a name that means “Lively Soul”).

The Marriage of Figaro (1784), the second play in the Figaro trilogy by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, and its operatic adaptation by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1786) stand as two masterworks of their respective genres. They can be analyzed from a host of perspectives, none of which can fully plumb their depths. I propose, in this article, to look at these works from the perspective of class struggle (master and servant, aristocracy and working class), pertinent to the Age of Enlightenment and the battle of the sexes, germane to all times and ages. The first holds that there is an inescapable tension between rulers and the ruled, and the second that the confrontational magnetism between the sexes both drives the species, society and personal relations forward and, at the same time, holds them in an unending gridlock for dominance.

The Barber of Seville, the first of the trilogy, is pure comedy. The Marriage of Figaro is a more sophisticated nuanced comedy of manners that charts marriage’s bumpy road from feudalism to bourgeois liberalism, with the action taking place in one day (La folle journée, "The Crazy Day," being the work’s subtitle). The final work is no comedy at all. La Mère coupable (“The Guilty Mother”), which has thus far eluded a universally convincing operatic adaptation with a straightforward treatment of its plot, is a melodrama (one of, if not the first in classical theater). And consequently it is the only play of the three featuring a truly evil character. All the works are, to a degree, autobiographical. But their substance and influence are universal.

The plot of The Marriage of Figaro revolves around the practice, use and abuse of the feudal droit du seigneur (also referred to as jus primae noctis, right of the first night), the right of the lord of the manor to sleep with any woman in his domain on the night of her wedding or to demand a monetary or material recompense to waive his prerogative. This term, drawn most immediately from a comedy by Voltaire (Le Droit du Seigneur, 1762) and included in his Dictionnaire philosophique, was never codified into law. Although its very existence is debated, it may have been practiced in a multiplicity of unspecified forms. Simply put, privileged men took advantage of “unprivileged” women. This practice stands at the spoke of the whirling wheel of La folle journée as it is emblematic of class struggle in the ancien régime and the more universal Battle of the Sexes.

First, class struggle. On the eve of the French Revolution, The Marriage of Figaro sets out a competition for power between the aristocratic Count Almaviva and his valet Figaro. The playing field is, of course, not equal; it is defined by rigid class distinction. But the game of one-upmanship between these men, locked in a lifelong co-dependent relationship, affords the servant a chance to beat his master on his own terms. Mozart exhibits his idea of a more just society, one that doesn’t yet exist. It will be a better one where the individual will not be controlled by despotism, but will relate to other self-governing and (hopefully) morally edified persons inspired by Age of Enlightenment principles. The distance between men is not to be measured by birthrights, but by their essence.

The relationship between the Countess and her servant Susanna is theoretically just as formal. But in fact, the women are far more enlightened—as they usually are in Mozart’s operas—and relate to each other as if in a world of equals.

The Battle of the Sexes is the other, more powerful dynamo behind the plot’s churning wheel. Here the struggle for dominance does not factor in rank. The Count tries—and fails—to make his wife, her servant and even the daughter of the drunken gardener bend to his will. The women all employ their intelligence and charms to maneuver around the men. Figaro, eternally outfoxing the world, is finally outwitted himself by his future wife Susanna, whose name—drawn from the Book of Daniel—identifies her as a model of chastity and fidelity.

Mozart is a clear champion of women, fidelity and the institution of marriage. They are portrayed as humanly and morally more evolved than the men. The Countess’ act of forgiveness towards the Count touches on the divine. Mozart, in a 1778 letter, after rejecting the practice and obligation of economically or politically advantageous marriages, wrote: “But we humble people can only choose a wife whom we love and who loves us…because we are neither noble nor highly born, nor aristocratic, nor rich.” (For more, see Nicholas Till’s Mozart and the Enlightenment).

Importantly, this is not just Figaro’s marriage but Susanna’s as well. Their union represents Mozart’s view of the reciprocity of loving vows and the right of individuals to choose their mates. This was only gradually to emerge in history, but the composer’s convictions are evident, as he will definitively demonstrate in The Magic Flute.

None of this is to suggest that Mozart’s characters are angels or one-dimensional. Part of his genius resided in his ability to portray human beings with all of their imperfections, and to love them as they are, and to bind them all together in a harmonious universe at the end of his operas. And yet in none of the three Da Ponte operas (The Marriage of Figaro, Così fan tutte, Don Giovanni) are we left with the impression that all will live happily ever after. It is more likely that things will not change in the future, and that all the characters will continue to live, love and operate in the same manner they have just demonstrated.

Cherubino is at the vortex of the Battle of the Sexes. Mozart and Da Ponte’s choice to assign his role to a woman (as did Beaumarchais in the original play) have feminized him. He exhibits all of the future characteristics of a rake: a budding Almaviva at best, a Don Giovanni at worst. His future liaison with the Countess is hinted at in Act Two, prescient on Mozart’s part because that story will only be told in Beaumarchais' La Mère coupable, written after the composer’s death.

The Countess bemoans the infidelity of the Count, but successively schemes to teach him a (probably short-lived) lesson and then forgives him. Susanna claims her right to marry Figaro without surrendering her virtue to the Count. Marcellina, discovering that Figaro is her long-lost son, withdraws her petition to marry him, and turns around to identify Doctor Bartolo as the father and to claim him for a husband. Even young Barbarina manages to cajole the Count not to banish Cherubino.

The jealous Count, feeling the entitlement that the ancien régime accorded the aristocracy, arrogantly philanders and belittles all around him. Figaro resists the Count in almost all things, but shows himself to be equally jealous until Susanna admonishes him. Cherubino, charming as he might be, floats from flower to flower, picking all at once. Bartolo is still pompous and Basilio, always intriguing, lives parasitically between the worlds of men and women, aristocrat and servant.

All of this summed up is by the droit du seigneur, around which the crazy day unfolds. It sums up the world of pre-revolutionary France. The men—unfaithful, capricious, vain and jealous—rule their political and domestic worlds. So it was in 1786, when Mozart introduced Figaro to Vienna. It was to unravel in France three year later and, gradually, over the next century, in the rest of the Western world.

James Conlon, conductor of LA Opera’s 2015 Figaro Trilogy, has been the company’s Richard Seaver Music Director since 2006.





New members of Board of Directors

LA Opera General Director Plácido Domingo announced today that six new board members have been elected to the company's Board of Directors since the opening of the 2014/15 season. "I am delighted to be collaborating with these newest members of the LA Opera family," said Mr. Domingo. "LA Opera’s incredible artistic achievements simply would not be possible without the essential and much appreciated leadership of our board members. I am deeply grateful to them for their support for LA Opera and our artistic vision.”

"It is an honor for LA Opera to welcome such an esteemed group of leaders, from our city and from across North America, to our board this season," said Marc Stern, Chairman of LA Opera's Board of Directors. "They are a great testament to the ever-expanding reach and influence of our company and I look forward to working with each one of them."


LA Opera's new board membersTop row: Beatrice Bennett, Dr. Carol E. Cass, Linda Pascotto.
Bottom row: Susan Shapiro, Geoffrey P. Wharton, Zev Yaroslavsky

 

About the New Board Members 

Beatrice Bennett is a longtime supporter of Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, the Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena, Five Acres, Boys and Girls Club, and many schools, including the Colburn School. She was the President of Art Center 100 and has been a docent at the Huntington Library. She is a member of Orphanage Guild, The Blue Ribbon and the Library Foundation.

Dr. Carol E. Cass is Professor Emerita of Oncology and Adjunct Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Alberta. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and of the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences and the recipient of numerous research awards. Dr. Cass served as Chair of the Department of Oncology at the University of Alberta from 1996 to 2007 and Director of the Cross Cancer Institute, the tertiary cancer center for Edmonton and northern Alberta, from 2003 to 2010.

Linda Pascotto is the President of the Board of Directors of The Prem Rawat Foundation (TPRF), an L.A.-based nonprofit organization that is dedicated to helping people around the world discover the words of Prem Rawat, known also as Maharaji, and to improving the quality of life for those most in need. She is Trustee Emeritus of Viewpoint School in Calabasas. She supports directly and through her private foundation many charitable organizations that promote specific cultural, social and educational work.

Susan Shapiro is a retired partner of the Boston law firm of Ropes & Gray, where her practice areas were in estate planning and settlement.  She is currently active as a principal of PMR Venture LP, a trust management firm.  She serves on the Board of the Boston Lyric Opera, the Nantucket Land Council, Inc., and the Nantucket Yacht Club. She previously served as Trustee of the New England Conservatory of Music, is a former board member of The Linda Loring Nature Foundation, Inc., and was a past officer of the Harbor Point Community Task Force, Inc.

Geoffrey P. Wharton is the former COO of the Los Angeles Dodgers and former President of the John McCourt Company, the real estate and construction arm of the McCourt Group. He previously was with Apollo Real Estate Group, where he oversaw the master planning and entitlements for Sunset La Cienega in West Hollywood and the Columbia Square project in Hollywood.  Prior to Apollo, he led Silverstein Properties’ role in developing a master plan for the World Trade Center.  He was also President of Douglas Elliman, one of New York City's largest residential real estate brokerage firms.

Zev Yaroslavsky has helped to initiate a number of innovative programs that allow the community to experience LA Opera performances, including the radio broadcast series LA Opera on Air, the live video broadcast series Opera at the Beach, and performances in community venues, such as Great Opera Choruses. He recently retired from his position as Los Angeles County Board Supervisor, representing the Third District. He has been an ardent supporter of the arts and culture across the County, leading initiatives to expand many of the major music organizations, museums and cultural institutions during his tenure at the County, as well as his past position  as a Los Angeles City Councilman.

7 Questions for Figaro: Meet The Ghosts of Versailles' Lucas Meachem

Seven questions for Lucas Meachem

The 6’3” baritone, who made his LAO debut in 2009 as Figaro in The Barber of Seville, is back on our stage as Figaro once more…this time in The Ghosts of Versailles.

Welcome back to Los Angeles!  What are you hoping to experience this time around while you’re here?
The most specific thing I am looking forward to doing in L.A. is spending time with my amazing family who live in the area. As a traveling artist, it’s not often that I get to spend a lot of time with family, especially my parents. It’s so refreshing to come home to a home-cooked meal and loving company instead of an empty hotel room. It makes me feel like I live a normal life with a normal job. Almost...

In addition to Figaro in The Ghosts of Versailles, how many different roles have you sung in the “Figaro Trilogy”?
I have also sung Figaro in The Barber of Seville and the Count in The Marriage of Figaro. I gravitate more towards Figaro’s joie de vivre spirit and his vocal lines. But the Count is a more amicable role for me to sing than Figaro because I find the Count a more challenging character to portray; the difficulty is in portraying the amount of pedigree and stoicism that someone from the aristocracy would show without having ever lived it myself. This is my first Figaro in The Ghosts of Versailles, and I’m looking forward to playing him as a more mature, developed character who has settled into his prime.

How do your previous experiences singing Figaro in The Barber of Seville enhance your characterization of him in The Ghosts of Versailles?
The thing I have learned most through all of the Barbers I have sung is that Figaro is not a one-dimensional character. A one-dimensional Figaro is only out for personal gain. There are many other layers to this character than being self-centered, narcissistic and egotistical. To give a complete portrayal of him he has to be more compassionate than selfish. Though he sings about the joys of being the best and being well paid for his profession, he really does get extreme satisfaction out of his work. He reminds me of my father, who is very imposing upon a first introduction, but if you tell him you genuinely need his help he will give you the shirt off his back. This is where the two portrayals of this role gel together for me. Both roles start off showing the audience how great they are: the Barber Figaro through swagger, confidence and bragging, and the Ghosts Figaro through his age, experience and more bragging. The common thread is that by the end of both operas his compassion, empathy and kindness toward those that he loves have helped win the day.

What (if anything) is different about Figaro in The Ghosts of Versailles from the Figaro we meet in the other two operas?
The biggest change from Barber to Ghosts is the way Figaro sees himself. He thinks that the best years of his life are behind him in both physical ability and social status. In the end, though, we are able to see he’s still the same ole Figaro. Just with a bit more wisdom and maturity. 

The French Revolution is a sticky subject for him. At this point, his (and Susanna’s) entire lot is thrown in with the aristocracy. The French Revolution could have actually been a good thing for a man like him. This is another big difference between the Figaro of Barber versus Ghosts. If the younger Figaro were to be experiencing the same time in history as the older Figaro, then he may well have ended up on the side of the revolutionaries and against his Count and Countess—the people that he has come to know and love. It says a lot about people becoming comfortable with the roles they have chosen in life. 

What do you do like to do in your free time, when you’re not onstage or rehearsing?
In my free time I enjoy exploring a city—not the way a tourist explores but in the way only someone who gets to spend a month or longer in a specific city can. I become a local when I am in a different city. I find my favorite places to get bread, cheese, wine and meats, and I try to become familiar with all of the people that provide me with those things. It’s a really great way to brush up on your languages when you are abroad. It’s also nice to walk into a shop and being asked in many different languages “would you like the usual?”

While I was singing Eugene Onegin in Montpellier I made friends with Frederique, a restaurateur downstairs from my apartment. I would swing by after all my rehearsals for a glass of wine and chat with him and help him clean up from the dinner service. We visited each other’s homes and shared many meals together. On my last day, he even buzzed my apartment to make sure I was awake to catch the taxi to the airport. We are in touch to this very day. Those types of experiences are what I appreciate most about this vagabond life style.

What kind of music do you listen to other than opera?
I am a huge fan of 70’s and 80’s rock. I listen to Queen, Journey, Rush, Led Zeppelin, The Who. I also enjoy Motown and some rap as well. And I’m not gonna lie—every once in a while, a song like “Call Me Maybe” or “Shake It Off” will come along and turn me into a total fan girl.  

You look like a football player. How do people react when you tell them you are an opera singer?
I guess I do cut an imposing figure. I get asked a lot if I’m a football player or construction worker or something more along those lines. I love to see people’s faces when I tell them my actual profession. Not everyone is totally convinced. That’s kind of nice, too, because I come off as dark and mysterious when I am just being honest. It does sooth my sweet southern soul to be thought of as someone who works with their hands.