Marriages of Figaro: Opera Philadelphia stars are partners on and off stage

THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO. Photo by Dana Sohm for Lyric Opera.

Count Almaviva spends much of THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO trying to bed Susanna, the loyal fiancée of his manservant, Figaro. His long-suffering wife, the Countess, teams up with Susanna to expose her husband’s lecherous ways. Although the aristocratic pair reconcile at the conclusion of Mozart’s masterpiece, they surely wouldn’t qualify as anyone’s idea of a traditionally happy couple. So why would a pair about to embark on their own matrimonial journey want to explore their marital dysfunction?

Opera Philadelphia’s upcoming new production of FIGARO—which opens April 28 and runs through May 7—allows us to answer just that question. The Almavivas will be sung by baritone John Chest and soprano Layla Claire, who plan to marry shortly after the conclusion of the Philadelphia performances. They are also the proud parents of a new baby girl, who was born on January 10. Chest and Claire have both performed their roles in previous productions, but the Opera Philadelphia staging represents their first performances of the opera together.

Although still in their early thirties, the rising stars have already established themselves as important international artists. The American-born Chest was an ensemble member of Deutsche Oper Berlin from 2013 to 2016, where his roles included Count Almaviva, Figaro in THE BARBER OF SEVILLE, Papageno in THE MAGIC FLUTE, and the title role in BILLY BUDD. He is a 2017 recepient of a Career Grant from the Richard Tucker Music Foundation. A native of British Columbia, Claire is a graduate of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, and has sung leading roles at the Met, the Salzburg Festival, the Canadian Opera Company, and the Glyndebourne Festival. Several weeks after THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO concludes its run, Chest will travel to Wales to represent the United States in the prestigious Cardiff Singer of the World competition.

I recently caught up with Chest and Claire at a coffee shop near the Academy of Music, where they are enthusiastically rehearsing for their Opera Philadelphia debuts. The following are edited excerpts from a wide-ranging conversation.

[Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA] April 28-May 7, 2017;

THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO. Photo by Dana Sohm for Lyric Opera.

Cameron Kelsall: Did you two meet doing an opera together?

Layla Claire: We sure did. We met doing LA FINTA GIARDINIERA [by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart] at the Aix-en-Provence Festival, 5 years ago this summer.

CK: Did you have your first date before or after the production was over?

LC: Well, we were kind of secretly dating for the whole summer, but we didn’t want our cast mates to know. We thought it might be just a fling. But it’s so beautiful in Aix in the summer—how could you not fall in love there? We’ve been together ever since, and we’re getting married this summer in British Columbia, where I’m from.

CK: That should be a nice way to decompress after this engagement.

John Chest: Yes, and right after this engagement, I am going back to Deutsche Oper to revive the production of BILLY BUDD, while simultaneously appearing in Harbison’s THE GREAT GATSBY [as Nick Carraway] in Dresden. There will be about a week where I will be onstage in Berlin until 10PM, then commuting to Dresden so I can be onstage at 10AM the next day—and it’s about a two-and-a-half hour commute. I’m sure there will be a couple nights where I’ll be wondering why I did this!

CK: I’m glad you brought up Deutsche Oper Berlin, because you were an ensemble member there until just a few months ago. And Layla, you are a graduate of the Met’s prestigious young artist program. How did these experiences shape your artistry?

LC: I would say that, for me, the most valuable part of going through that program was getting to be onstage with such great singers. I was in my twenties and onstage with Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Juan Diego Florez and Diana Damrau—so many incredible artists. And I got to stand next to them and watch them breathe, watch their rehearsal process, watch how they worked with a conductor. It was invaluable.

JC: Even before Deutsche Oper, I went through the Opera Studio at Bayerische Staatsoper, in Munich. I went there right after I finished getting a master’s in Chicago [at Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts]—I was really young, really fresh, and I just went for it. It’s interesting because a lot of big name people in American opera actually told me to stay in Chicago, told me that I would get a young artists program this year or next year, basically go work at Starbucks. But I had a firm offer to go to Munich, and my manager and my teacher both pushed me the other way and told me to go to Germany. It turned out to be a wonderful program, and in the 2 years I was there, I was onstage eighty times. And in my first year, I was singing Morales in CARMEN, and the stars of that production were Jonas Kaufmann and Elina Garanca—arguably the best Carmen and the best Don Jose in the world at that moment. To be on stage and in rehearsals with them was a real education. Watching world-class singers doing their thing in rehearsals was a huge education.

Layla Claire. Photo by Lisa Marie Mazzucco.
Layla Claire. Photo by Lisa Marie Mazzucco.

CK: Layla, you returned to the Met in 2015 to sing the role of Anne Truelove in THE RAKE’S PROGRESS. How did it feel to come back and sing a leading role just a few years after your student days there?

LC: To be totally honest, it was a bit overwhelming. It was exciting, but it was only three shows and it was a short rehearsal process—something of a whirlwind. It was so wonderful to work with James Levine and the wonderful cast, but I did feel a lot of pressure coming back as a former Young Artist, because a lot was expected of me. So I felt like I had to come back and prove myself again in a major role. It was hard.

CK: John, you are going to be representing the United States in the Cardiff Singer of the World competition in June. How did that come about, and how are you preparing?

JC: Cardiff is interesting because you don’t apply for it—everyone is sort of approached. I was actually approached for the 2015 competition, but I had a gig with Layla in France, so I couldn’t take it. This year I was asked again, and we had a big open spot in our schedule, so I thought, why not? I haven’t done a competition in a long time, but this is sort of THE competition. I guess the approached me about a year ago, and I had to send in four videos that passed through two rounds of judging. Then they wanted to hear me live, and I went to New York in November for a live audition. I found out in January that I would be going, and I’ve been preparing since. It’s a lot of repertoire, because you don’t know how many rounds you’ll make it through, but you have to have pieces lined up for every round. It’s a lot of music, and I’ve tried to pick things I am already familiar with. Right now, the game is just making sure I’m ready.

CK: How has being new parents changed how you prepare and how you perform?

JC: It changes everything in general. It’s like night and day in the most amazing way. But Layla and I have gone through phases over the last 5 years of planning our schedules in a way to be able to be together more. Now it’s a totally different game—we have to weigh all of our incoming offers to decide if they’re worth being apart.

LC: And we are very fortunate to both be at points in our careers where we have a bit more choice in what we do. We worked really hard over the past few years with the idea that we would get to a place where we could try and have it all.

CK: And you have both sung your current roles in past productions, but this is your first time singing them together. Has that changed your understanding of the characters at all? Especially since you’re not playing the most happily married pair.

LC: I’ll find that after a particularly heated scene we’ll go backstage and just have a little cuddle—just sort of a way of saying that everything is good.

JC: The other day in rehearsal, I was getting daggers from Layla, so I walked over and asked her if she was okay. And she was like, “I’m acting!” That’s just how good of an actor she is.

CK: Layla, as soon as you’re onstage, you have to sing one of the most beautiful arias Mozart ever wrote: “Porgi amor.” How do you prepare for that moment?

LC: Mozart is so cruel! I love coming out onstage as Donna Elvira [in Mozart’s DON GIOVANNI] and singing “Ah, chi mi dice mai,” because it’s so fiery. Elvira is really engaging with the audience and asking the audience if they’ve seen this bastard Don Giovanni. But “Porgi amor” is introspective, and that is very difficult right off the bat. You have to be so vulnerable with this audience that you don’t yet have a relationship with. The aria requires really steady breath, and if you’re nervous it can get a little shaky. It’s challenging.

John Chest. Photo by Andrey Stoycher,
John Chest. Photo by Andrey Stoycher,

CK: Why do you think THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO is such an enduring opera?

LC: It’s my favorite opera. It’s got everything.

JC: In a lot of people’s estimations, it’s probably the best opera ever written.

LC: There’s a meme that’s been going around Facebook about favorite operas, and I think 90% of people have said that their favorite opera is THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO. And I have to say, it’s such a pleasure to rehearse it. We are having so much fun. Sometimes it feels like you’re just slogging through rehearsals until you can get onstage. With this opera, it’s just a joy every single day.

CK: Do you have any favorite performances of this opera from years past?

JC: When I was an apprentice at Santa Fe Opera, Mariusz Kwiecien was singing the Count, and I watched him as often as I can. His Count was amazing. And recently I have been discovering the [Sir Georg] Solti recording and learning from Thomas Allen’s interpretation.

LC: I adore the DVD of John Eliot Gardiner’s production of FIGARO, with Bryn Terfel when he was very young and the wonderful Alison Hagley as Susanna. She was just so charming and effortless onstage. When I studied the role of Susanna, I studied her performance a lot.

CK: Do you have future plans to work together after this engagement?

LC: No, actually.

JC: We have one gig that’s way off and that we actually can’t announce yet.

LC: But we would love to! And I’m sure we will. Because of how planning is done in the opera world, we are just now finishing contracts we had signed before we met. So now that we’re wrapping up those engagements, we have more choice for the future.

CK: What are your dream roles that you have not yet sung?

LC: That’s a great question! I would say Alcina [in Handel’s ALCINA], but I am going to be doing it quite a bit next season. I’m really excited about that—I guess since it hasn’t happened yet, I can use it. And one day, in maybe 10 years, I would love to sing the Marschallin in DER ROSENKAVALIER [by Richard Strauss].

JC: I have a similar answer because right now, it would be Pelleas [in Debussy’s PELLEAS ET MELISANDE]. And I have one on the books for a couple years from now, but I can’t talk about that one publicly yet.

LC: It’s somewhere fancy!

JC: It’s my dream role and I am actually going to do it. But give me some time and I would like to do some Wagner.

CK: Maybe Amfortas [in PARSIFAL]?

JC: Maybe when I’m fifty! Probably Wolfram [in TANNHAUSER] first. And I’d love to sink my teeth into some of those Verdi roles. But I’m not in a rush.

LC: Definitely. I feel like I really rushed through my twenties, and added a lot of roles too quickly, too soon. Now that I’m in my thirties, I want to be a little smarter, and I want to sing at a good level all the time. You take a lot of risks in your twenties, so when you get to your thirties, you sort of want to pace yourself.

JC: About a year ago, I did my first Don Giovanni, and I thought to myself, “Okay—I’ve got Mozart in the bag. What’s next?” And then I took a step back and thought about it, and I told my manager I actually wanted any Mozart gig we could find. For now, if there’s a Count, I want to sing it. If there’s a Guglielmo [in COSI FAN TUTTE], I want to sing it. Because now I really know the roles. So actually, you could say that the Count is the dream role, and I’m doing it right now.

[Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA] April 28-May 7, 2017;

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