“Ready?” says Barbara Gaines, to the singers, technicians and assistants scattered around the otherwise empty Civic Opera House theater one morning last week. “Let’s do it.”
“Here we go,” adds stage manager John Coleman. “Act 4. Quiet please.”
South African soprano Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi climbs the stairs at stage right, glancing tentatively around at her feet, looking for something, lifting the curtain and peering underneath.
“L’ho perduta, me meschina!” she sings, in Italian. “I’ve lost it; unhappy me!”
A handful of notes of Mozart sung in her strong, achingly clear voice is enough to jolt me out of the up-to-that-moment ordinary day. It’s like someone popping open my skull and laying cool wet cloths on my brain. Ahhh.
But only for a moment.
“Stop please,” says Gaines, leaping up. “Okay, great. We’re going to change something.”
It’s the third day of stage rehearsals for “The Marriage of Figaro,” the first production of the Lyric’s 61st season, which opens Saturday night with a red carpet gala. Gaines, one of Chicago’s top directors, who founded Chicago Shakespeare Theater and has directed some 30 plays there, is back at the Lyric, part of a savvy strategy to expand its reach beyond the circle of people who, like myself, just love opera, to lure those who might be drawn in by a star director.
Gaines’ job is to sweat the smallest detail, like when Mkhwanazi’s character, Barbarina, lifts the curtain, looking for a lost pin.
“I realized we revealed the set way too early,” said Gaines, explaining why she wants to delay the moment. “It works better with the music.”
Gaines reflexively reassures as she instructs.
“Barbarina, you were perfect, ” she says to Mkhwanazi, who sang a show-stopping “Summertime” in “Porgy and Bess” last year.
Gaines made her Lyric debut in 2010 with Verdi’s far grimmer “Macbeth” and is excited to have been asked to take a crack at something lighter.
“So much more fun, a lot more laughter,” she says, during a break. “The joy of it. It’s all about love, and passion. It’s all of us, all of our stories. It’s not about those dark productions where the count is a miserable bastard. He’s a human being with empty spaces in his heart and tries to fill them, like all of us do.”
Gaines promises, if not quite Robert-Falls-grade shock, then plenty of surprises.
“Some of the things on this stage have never been done before,” she says.
“At the very end of the overture — the best overture ever written,” she says. “We have two singers and an actress doing a little improvisation that tells you the entire story. It’s great fun. What it says to the audience at the very beginning: ‘You can laugh, you can enjoy yourself, this is going to be fun up to the end,’ which is hilarious, but totally a surprise. I don’t think it’s been done in the history of ‘Figaro.’ ”
And she wasn’t referring to the entire second act being performed in an enormous bed, 25 feet across.
Directing the cast, Gaines is constantly in motion, watching the action from various perspectives.
“I’ll just stay here,” she fibs, tucking herself into a seat for, perhaps five seconds, before she is up again, leaning over the pit, on her toes, then on stage, stopping action again, Daniel Ellis, her assistant director, following her like a pull toy duck.
“When they do things, it gives you ideas, and you have to institute those ideas before you forget them,” she explains.
Gaines has said you can’t hear the 4th act and not feel that you are in heaven, “a feast of joy, love, harmony and grace.”
Readers ask — and complain — more about my occasional opera column than any other topic. Gaines, talking about the differences between theater and opera, nails it so well, we’ll give her the final word on the subject.
“You know what it is?” she says. “I am not a religious person. I don’t like people telling me what to do. But when they start singing, when the count asks the countess for pardon — perdono — there’s this whole song about forgiving. Please forgive me. I think . . . there must be a God, because the music is so beautiful. I think it is some of the most beautiful music that has ever been written, the finale of this opera. It goes from this beautiful moment of grace and forgiveness to let’s celebrate, get drunk and have fun and live.”
Follow Neil Steinberg on Twitter: @NeilSteinberg