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Musical Chair: "Rigoletto" Director Bill Fabris Equally at Home in Opera and Musical Theatre PDF Print E-mail
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Mike Schulz   
Wednesday, 16 January 2008 02:28

Holly Boaz & Chris Scott in Opera Quad Cities' La Boheme Like many noted directors of opera, Bill Fabris has a résumé that boasts a number of heavyweight titles, among them Bizet's Carmen, Puccini's Tosca, Leoncavallo's Pagliacci, and Giuseppe Verdi's Rigoletto, which Fabris stage-directs - with Ron May music-directing - for Opera Quad Cities on January 18 and 20.

Unlike many noted directors of opera, though, the New York-based Fabris' résumé boasts an even greater number of productions that are not only considerably more lighthearted than Rigoletto, but as far removed from tragic opera as is conceivable, including My Fair Lady, The Wizard of Oz, and Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

"My initial interest was in musical theatre," says Fabris during a recent phone interview. "And my desire was always to go back to New York and do musical theatre. I did train classically; I just wasn't really an operatic tenor. I could sing it, but it wasn't my passion in life. Musical theatre was."

Yet while there might seem to be a considerable difference between the worlds of opera and musical theatre, Fabris insists that the genres are more closely tied than one might imagine.

"I panicked when I got my first real opera job," admits Fabris, who studied musical performance at Pennsylvania's Glassboro State (now Rowan University) in the early 1980s, and who has been directing professionally for more than 20 years. "It was Carmen. In French. But when you really look at it and listen to it, opera's the precursor to musical theatre. The original version of Carmen, with the Opéra Comique, had dialogue that led you into song, which is exactly what happens in musical theatre. It's really the same art form, except that in [directing] opera, I realized you do have to be a little more careful about the singer being in a position where, vocally, they can create the sound that they want to."

He laughs and adds, "I can't really have them stand on their hands and sing."

For Fabris, a career in musical-theatre performance seemed likely upon graduation from Glassboro, when, in 1983, he was asked to be a cast member in a European tour of the rock musical Hair. "I thought, ‘Should I take the European tour or do classical singing, and sing in churches and stuff?'"

The decision, to hear him tell it, was a no-brainer - "It gave me a good reason to travel and get paid as a performer," he says - and it came with an added perk: the chance to expand his theatrical knowledge into the field of directing.

Rigoletto director Bill Fabris"I was the assistant [director] to the show," Fabris says of his two-year stint with Hair, "and as we put in a new cast every six months, I started directing those casts in the production. So it's kind of like I learned directing by ... by doing it."

His work with the Hair tour led to him directing the European tour of Jesus Christ Superstar in 1985, and subsequently, says Fabris, "I branched into more operetta, doing Gilbert & Sullivan and more classically oriented stuff," including off-Broadway productions of the operettas The Merry Widow, Countess Maritza, and The Desert Song.

"That's really how I got into directing," he says. "Taking operetta and bringing a musical-theatre approach to it. I realized it was a good mix; people enjoyed seeing singers dance and act and move around instead of just standing and belting out a tune."

Fabris also realized that people enjoyed seeing classical singers being funny, and with credits including The Magic Flute, The Gondoliers, and Die Fledermaus, says he relishes the chance to blend beloved scores with hearty laughs.

"Rehearsal's the best part," he says, "because you get a taste of where it's going, or how funny it is. But in opera, you really don't have an audience to preview with like you do in musical theatre, so I kind of listen to my laugh-meters, which would be either the stage manager or my assistant, or even the accompanist. You know, if they're laughing at a joke that they're hearing for the first time, and it works, it's like, ‘Okay, we keep that.'

"I kind of have a twisted sense of humor," Fabris adds with a laugh, "and I get a little paranoid sometimes, but 95 percent of the time it's gonna work."

And Fabris admits to being delighted at what he calls the "big resurgence now in opera companies doing musicals," with works by Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Loewe, and Stephen Sondheim performed side-by-side with those of legendary opera composers.

"These musicals," he says, "were written for a full voice - legit voices - instead of what you see on Broadway now, which is mostly miked and all tweaked with electronics, and it's not really a real sound you're hearing. So with these opera companies, we're getting back to the real sound of the voice without miking. They're getting back to the natural voice, which I really love."

Having recently helmed such comedic productions as The Marriage of Figaro, The Pirates of Penzance, H.M.S. Pinafore, and The Merry Widow, though - all of them in 2007 alone - Fabris describes the chance to direct the tragic Rigoletto, his first venture with Opera Quad Cities, as "a nice change, believe me.

"It's good to get away from comedy and get into some real drama," he continues, "and these characters [in Rigoletto] are just ... they're horrible. How they use each other and manipulate each other - they're horrible people." The director laughs and says, "It's going to be a big night of drama."

Bill Fabris' production of Elixir of Love It should be noted, though, that when we spoke, this assumption was still a theoretical. As frequently happens with opera stage directors, Fabris' employment with Opera Quad Cities didn't require him to spend weeks rehearsing with his cast; our phone interview occurred nine days before the show's opening-night performance, when the director was still in New York.

"Opera performers are contracted, usually, a year in advance," explains Fabris, who arrived for his first Opera Quad Cities rehearsal on Thursday, January 10. "So they come memorized, everything's learned, the chorus is rehearsing before I get there - and then, first day of rehearsal, we get up on stage and start staging right away. You dive right in, as opposed to musicals where you show up the first day and you're handed your script and your music, and you spend half your time learning the music. So, as a director, you're able to do an opera in a shorter amount of time."

Opera Quad Cities' Rigoletto is actually being advertised as Rigoletto in Concert, as the production won't feature the extravagant sets and visuals that generally accompany full-scale presentations of Verdi's work. Yet the title, says Fabris, is still somewhat misleading.

"We decided to do a little bit of set dressing, using props, and everyone's fully costumed. And we're gonna stage it with the orchestra on stage, but upstage enough that everyone can play out the scenes downstage. We're gonna do as much as we can in the time that we have, and the budget restraints. But this cast looks really good, and I think we'll be able to do quite a bit."

He laughs and adds, "It's not gonna be stand-and-sing, that's for sure."


Opera Quad Cities' Rigoletto will be performed at Davenport's Adler Theatre on Friday, January 18, and Sunday, January 20. For tickets and more information, visit (

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