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Best accessible highbrow culture: Tacoma Opera

Writer's pick: Best of Tacoma 2017

Threepenny Opera, directed by Noel Koran for Tacoma Opera 2016. Photo credit: TacomaOpera.com

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"Our 50th-anniversary season -- That's amazing!" crows Noel Karan, general director of Tacoma Opera. "It's very unusual for an opera company to last this long. I think we've done a pretty good job." Not only was Tacoma Opera incorporated half a century ago, it's presented a full season each year since. "There may have been one year when we didn't produce an opera ourselves," Koran recalled, "but we brought in an opera." It's a run that'll continue with festive panache this October.

How does one go about maintaining a lofty institution like opera for three generations in the Gritty City? The key ingredients are passion for the storytelling and respect for the audience's desire for a fun night of emotional escape. Consider the first show of Tacoma Opera's golden-anniversary season, Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. It's a sequel of sorts to Rossini's The Barber of Seville, as both operas' stories were swiped from Pierre Beaumarchais' 1784 stage comedy La Folle Journée, ou le Mariage de Figaro. The plot revolves around machinations to foil horny Spanish count Almaviva from demanding droit du seigneur (aka jus primae noctis) privileges from Susanna, fiancée of Figaro, in turn a valet to the count. (In those days, feudal lords had the legal right to sleep with subordinate women on their wedding nights, though a marriage fee usually bought the lord off.) The characters are "colluding with each other," said Koran, "to get the count back on track." Almaviva responds by attempting to coerce Figaro into marrying an older woman ... who, it turns out, is Figaro's mother. Yep, it's that kind of show. What we now regard as high culture was once derided as bawdily lowbrow. Indeed, the play was banned by Viennese emperor Joseph II, who gave Mozart special dispensation to compose, perform and -- for the first two performances -- conduct the opera while playing the harpsichord.

As a further aid to viewers, the opera will be presented in its original Italian but with English supertitles, a practice the company began in the early 2000s. "They're really, truly helpful," said Koran. "In a way, the audience understands what's going on better on the stage with the supertitles than when the operas are sung in English."

The Marriage of Figaro, 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 28 and Friday, Nov 3; 2 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 5; Tacoma Opera, Rialto Theater, 310 S. 9th St., Tacoma, $25-$85, 253.591.5894, tacomaopera.com

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