In the world of opera, singers hope to develop signature roles that assure they keep working around the world.
Beverly Sills was well known for playing the title role in “Lucia di Lammermoor” as was Joan Sutherland. Luciano Pavarotti was famed for his Rodolfo in “La Bohème,” just as Placido Domingo is known for the title role in “Otello” and Renee Fleming for the title role in Dovrak’s “Rusalka,” (when she’s not singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Super Bowl games).
Steven Condy may not be a household name like those legendary singers, but when he takes the stage of the Sarasota Opera Saturday night for Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” it will be his 24th production in the role of the comically wicked Dr. Bartolo.
“Some day when I go to the pearly gates, if I ever get to meet Mr. Rossini, I’m going to give him a great big hug for all the mortgage payments he helped me make,” said Condy, a baritone who is returning to Sarasota for the first time in about 20 years.
In comparison, baritone Marco Nisticò is singing his seventh or eight production as Figaro, the show’s title character, including one in Sarasota five years ago.
When roles get too familiar, performers have to find new ways to stay challenged and keep it interesting for themselves and the audiences.
“It’s never the same because you’re dealing with different cast members who are bringing different things, and different stage directors and different conductors,” Condy said.
Nisticò returns to Figaro after playing vastly more serious and dramatic roles in Verdi operas in Sarasota and elsewhere in the last few seasons.
“They’re completely different characters and styles, even vocally,” he said. “I’m always happy to go back to ‘Barbiere’ (Italian for ‘Barber’), which was probably my first big leading role that I’ve performed professionally.”
In recent Sarasota seasons he has sung Giacomo in “Giovanna d’Arco,” Germont in “La Traviata” and Rodrigue in “Don Carlos” among others. He also has sung with the Metropolitan Opera and New York City Opera.
Condy has built a career on the great buffo roles, including numerous productions of “Falstaff.”
Nisticò’s first time as Figaro was in Holland in a production staged by Dario Fo, the noted Italian playwright, actor, comedian and director.
“It was the complete opera, no cuts. It was a very interesting but crazy production. So it’s never the same thing,” he said.
Of his 2008 performance, Herald-Tribune music critic Richard Storm wrote Nisticò “used his rich baritone and expert comic timing to bring the role to vivid life.”
Familiarity with the roles makes some aspects of rehearsing and preparing easier. In fact, the two singers joke about how they can take shortcuts in preparing a famous shaving scene when Figaro shaves Bartolo.
“We were joking, what are the gags that we’re going to do this time,” Nisticò said. “Number 6, Number 2, Six-A? It was a joke, but true in some ways. There are things that generally you do and then with somebody who’s done it many times, we almost feel we don’t even need to rehearse. Let’s do this, this and that, and I’ll see you on opening night.”
He recalls a story shared by Artistic Director Victor DeRenzi about Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi, who performed together many times in “Tosca.”
“Anytime they would meet again, he would say, ‘Maria, when you stab me, will it be here (pointing to his stomach) or here (pointing to his back). That was the preparation. And then they would go on stage and do their thing. It can be a little bit like that. But at other times, it’s a completely new production.”
The Sarasota Opera production is a revised revival of the 2008 Fall production. Nisticò is being directed again by William Gustafson, who staged the company’s 2008 and 2000 productions of “Barber,” as well as “The Magic Flute” in 2004 and “Hansel and Gretel” in 2001.
The physical production remains the same from 2008, but the other cast members are new.
Condy plays an older man who plans to marry his beautiful ward, Rosina, primarily for her dowry, though she is in love with Count Almaviva (sung by Hak Soo Kim). The Count calls on Figaro to help him with a plan to whisk Rosina away from Bartolo.
Mezzo-soprano Chrystal E. Williams sings the role of Rosina in her Sarasota debut. She is a second-year resident artist at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia. She earned her master’s in opera performance from Yale University School of Music and has performed a wide range of roles over the years.
Ten years ago, she founded the Chrystal E. Williams Scholarship to help fund training for students who want to pursue careers in the performing arts, and she supports the scholarship with an annual concert held in Norfolk, Va.
Though they are getting laughs on stage, both Nisticò and Condy take their roles seriously.
“You can have actors who play the buffo side of it, the side that is just caricature, a stock figure, just bumbling around,” Condy said. “The way I prefer to do it and the way I think is funniest, is when the characters take themselves very seriously. The funny thing with comedy is that you are dealing with real emotions played to the extreme. In a tragic opera, a character is crying, but in a comedy, they just go over the top and crying makes it funny, not that they’re fake tears.”
Nisticò says that Condy plays a “realistic Bartolo not a slapstick version. I don’t think those comedies were necessarily conceived to be slapstick. Traditional Italian opera buffa is not at all slapstick. It’s light hearted, but it’s realistic and it can be intimate. You don’t have to laugh out loud all the time. You can have a couple of laughs, but you smile your way through the opera.”
THE BARBER OF SEVILLE. Opens at 8 p.m. Feb. 15 and will be presented through March 21 at the Sarasota Opera Opera House, 61 N. Pineapple Ave., Sarasota. For ticket information: 328-1300; sarasotaopera.org