With humor and grace

What does the producer of Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley and the director of Pretty Woman and The Princess Diaries know about opera? Answer: How to make it funny, of course. Since the early ’60s, Garry Marshall has been one of Hollywood and television’s most prolific writer/producer/directors and his timing (comic and otherwise) has always been right on the money. Also a veteran theater man, his recent turn as opera stage director isn’t so out of left field as one might think. Entertainment is the name of the game, and he’s currently adding his magic to the San Antonio Opera’s performance of Elixir of Love, Donizetti’s perpetually charming story of true love and snake-oil salesmen.

Specializing in that risky territory where humor and romance often turn syrupy or just plain stupid, Marshall appears to have the secret recipe for keeping it fresh. A common-man reductionism is part of his technique for keeping it real, regardless of the medium. “Let’s face it,” says Marshall, “what we’re dealing with is Cinderella. It always goes back to Cinderella.” You’ve got a love story, with some complicating life circumstances that have to be overcome so the protagonists (in comedies) can live happily ever after. With that basic formula, the dramatic interest lies in characterization, sets, and circumstances — the comedic situations which have made sitcoms a staple of television and film since the beginning. That beginning, if traced back far enough, leads to earlier theater and comic opera, the sitcoms and romantic comedies of their day.

It’s no surprise that Marshall’s operatic debut, so to speak, came at the request of Placido Domingo, the world-famous operatic tenor and director of the LA Opera. Domingo has a well-known passion for zarzuela, a distinctly Spanish form of light opera that combines more sophisticated music and arias with vaudeville- and cabaret-like elements. Marshall’s wife has long been a supporter of the LA Opera, so Domingo took his chance when the two met at an event, eventually talking the Hollywood veteran into staging Offenbach’s The Grand Duchess for the 2005 season.

At first Marshall was reticent, and he still says, “My wife’s the opera fan, not me.” But with her urging, Domingo’s persistence and, finally, the enthusiasm of mezzo-soprano Fredericka von Stade singing the title role, he consented, and everybody had a ball. Enter Mark Richter, artistic director of the SA Opera, who in the past two years has brought both von Stade and Domingo to perform for San Antonio audiences. A few discussions ensued, connections were made, and starting on January 25, local audiences will have an opportunity to witness the Marshall touch.

“Opera directors are always trying to find ways to keep opera vital and interesting to contemporary audiences,” says Richter. What better way than to engage one of the great Hollywood spinners of contemporary fairytales? He’s got plenty of good material to work with in Elixir, one of the most popular of the comic opera repertoire. It’s performed in dozens of halls around the country, not counting the rest of the world, every season. Premiered in 1832, Elixir has been a perennial favorite with it’s buoyant and playful score, stunning vocal numbers, and the classic love triangle, complicated by egos and misguided actions.

The story revolves around Adina, a beautiful, wealthy, proud, and independent young woman from a family of landowners, and Nemorino, the simple, clumsy peasant boy who loves her. She, of course, doesn’t take him seriously. When the dashing sergeant Belcore arrives on the scene, Adina coyly plays with the affections of both men, and agrees to marry Belcore to get a rise out of Nemorino. Enter Dulcamara, a traveling quack of a “doctor” selling tonics and potions. Nemorino buys the Elixir of Love, which is really just a bottle of cheap wine, and the comic possibilities start adding up. You’ve got plot twists, drunken antics, misinterpretations and changes of heart to complicate matters, but it all works out in the end through a series of unforeseen circumstances that are ripe for theatrical excess, in a fun sort of way.

“Opera’s biggest competitor isn’t film, it’s the circus,” says Marshall. His solution? Add spectacle. “You’ve got this fantastic music to contend with, that you don’t want to interfere with. You can’t insert one-liners into the libretto, but you can introduce a few sight-gags and slapstick.” In this production, which is set in a traditional 19th century vineyard, Marshall introduces acrobats, clowns, a train, and a dog. If it seems unconventional, Marshall points out that “in the 1850s, they liked to bring oxen on the stage, oxen were a big thing. But we all bring our own interpretations to things. I don’t like oxen. I like dogs, so we’ll have a dog.”

“When I first heard Garry Marshall was doing the staging, I was a little concerned that he wouldn’t understand or respect the music,” says soprano Elizabeth Caballero, who is singing the role of Adina. After a few days of rehearsal, however, she says it’s been liberating. “Most opera directors come with the blocking already figured out, and you just stand where they tell you to stand. Garry comes with a different perspective, just a picture in his mind and a feel he wants. He tells us what it is, and we all play with it until it feels right. He’s actually been extremely respectful of the music and the composer. He’s just helped all of us with our comic timing and gestures to make it more realistic and natural. And funny.” Marshall, in turn, says, “This cast in particular has been very responsive, they’ve been fantastic.”

It is, after all, comedy. Marshall isn’t particularly intellectual about the process and he surely doesn’t have any egotistical pretensions. “I’m still finding my way in opera,” he says. But with TV credits that range from The Lucy Show, The Odd Couple, Mork & Mindy, and The Dick Van Dyke Show to films as successful as The Flamingo Kid, Frankie and Johnny, Beaches, The Other Sister, Runaway Bride, and Overboard, who’s to say he hasn’t found the right formula?


Elixir of Love
8pm Jan 25-26
2pm Jan 27
Lila Cockrell Theatre
200 E. Market St.
(210) 225-5972

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