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At Regina Opera, audience participation is a regular part of the performance.

"Little Italy in Manhattan is nothing," says conductor Jose Alejandro Guzman with a laugh. "At Regina Opera, it’s ’Big Italy.’ During the famous arias, there’s no such thing as a solo for a singer because the audience will always join in, singing along. I just tell our singers not to worry about it, and to go on with the show."

Those budding opera stars in Regina’s audience will surely be in evidence at its next production, "I Pagliacci (The Clowns)" by Ruggero Leoncavallo, being performed March 6 and 7, and March 13 and 14, at Regina Hall in Dyker Heights.

One of the most beloved Italian operas, the masterful mixture of sex, violence and unforgettable tunes of "Pagliacci" ushered in a new form of opera in the late 19th century, called ’verismo,’ a realistic type of storytelling heretofore unseen onstage. (It was such a resounding success that it eclipsed all of Leoncavallo’s work; only this opera is still heard from among the many he composed.)

To some ears, however, "Pagliacci" is too overly melodramatic, too much a victim of its own surface brilliance. Guzman initially counted himself among the naysayers.

"At first, I’d thought that ’Pagliacci’ was over the top," he admits. "But having conducted it several times, I can really call it a masterpiece: the drama, the music, the characterizations, everything ... it’s completely masterful in its construction.

"The orchestral intermezzo between the two acts is one of the most beautiful in all of opera," he says. "It’s perfectly constructed - there’s not a wasted note. Throughout this opera, the orchestra really underpins and sets the mood for the story, which is based on an actual incident in real life. I’ve come to really appreciate the work so much more, and I totally understand its popularity with audiences for over a century."

This production is in the capable hands of director Linda Lehr, a familiar name to Regina Opera regulars.

"She’s a brilliant director who has worked with us for several years now, but her initial stage experience was with theatre, and she brings that experience to this opera," Guzman explains.

"There are two fight scenes in the opera: in the first act and the big death scene at the end. Linda got an outside professional fight choreographer to make it safe for the performers and to enhance her basic ideas so it all looks even more real. In conjunction with the music, they are brilliant scenes."

What is it about "Pagliacci" - whose simple story concerns the jealous leader of a traveling circus troupe, his beautiful wife and her lover, and the tragic end they all meet - that has hit a chord with audiences for 100 years?

Guzman ventures an answer: "Basically, the story is very real, very compelling. It’s based on something that people can understand and sympathize with. It’s staged in a realistic, human way, but with moments of comedy. And when it comes down to it, we’ve got the voices to do justice to this music.

"I can point out things to you in the opera and say, ’It’s overdone,’ ’It’s ridiculous,’ but once our singers open their mouths and sing this stuff, it all goes away!" he says. "We are very fortunate to have a combination of fine singers and a director with a theater background who appreciates that, although there’s a difference between staging operas and plays, there’s also a similarity. You willfully suspend belief in the theater, which you always need to do with opera as well."

Usually, "Pagliacci" shares a double bill with another short work, "Cavalleria Rusticana" by Pietro Mascagni, but Regina Opera is not following this tradition.

"We used to do it," Guzman says, "but the problem with the second opera in our season is it has the shortest amount of rehearsal time, not nearly as much as the first and last operas receive. So what we like to do in between is a shorter opera, and this opera by itself fills the bill."

"Pagliacci," Guzman believes, is the perfect introduction to the world of opera, a work that always wins new converts.

"First, there’s a lot of great, gratuitous sex and violence, which is always an advantage," he says. "It’s not a long opera. Its story is believable and comprehensible. And it has those familiar tunes - the type of thing that the listener would say, ’Oh, I’ve heard that before.’

"It’s perfect in that respect - it’s tuneful, it’s dramatic, it’s even comic in places, and it’s riveting theater. It really is one of those operas where you can bring somebody for the first time and they will thoroughly enjoy it."


Regina Opera presents "I Pagliacci" on March 6, 7, 13 and 14 at 4 pm, at Regina Hall, on the corner of 12th Avenue and 65th Street in Dyker Heights. Tickets are $15; $10 students, seniors and children. For more information, call (718) 232-3555 or visit on the Web.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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