Broadway Meets Barber: Spotlight on director Rob Ashford September 17, 2019

Rob Ashford is a director, choreographer, and dancer. He also happens to be a Tony Award, Olivier Award, Emmy Award, Drama Desk Award, and Outer Critics Circle Award winner. Ashford's first foray into directing came from legendary director Michael Grandage (original director of our upcoming Madama Butterfly), who tapped Ashford to stage the British premiere of Jason Robert Brown's Parade at the Donmar Warehouse in 2007. Since then he has gone on to direct multiple shows on Broadway and in the West End including Tennesee Williams's iconic Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with Scarlett Johansson, Frank Loesser's How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying with Daniel Radcliff, and Neil Simon's Promises, Promises with Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth.

When general director Anthony Freud first approached Ashford about directing a brand-new production of Rossini's The Barber of Seville in 2014, it may have been his first time directing an opera, but it was far from his first exposure to the art form. As a college student in Pittsburgh, he danced in the corps de ballet at Pittsburgh Opera. Then, after moving to New York, one of Ashford's first jobs was dancing at The Metropolitan Opera. "I feel as if my operatic education happened in the Met canteen, sitting with other dancers and seeing everyone in costume—that was where I felt I began to learn."

Act Two, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville (2014) Photo: Robert Kusel

People do silly things when they're in love! I hope to find the humanity in the comic characters, or at least, to take them through that doorway of reality to find their humor.

For Rob Ashford, The Barber of Seville--Rossini's rollicking comedy--felt like the perfect fit. In a 2014 Chicago Tribune article, he noted "This opera isn't all that different from a lot of shows I've been involved in. The characters are vividly written, and the potential for humor inside the story seems like a good starting-place. The whole thing is very grandly romantic, in a way." As an artist who cut his teeth dancing in some of Broadway's biggest musicals, Ashford knows a thing or two about comedic timing. "The focus on the stage in key moments...the idea of being able to focus on a small moment, inside a big tableau...you've got a whole stage that's alive, but you have to see the moment where the boy falls in love with the girl!"

Barber is often played for laughs, but Ashford wanted to keep the romance at the forefront of the opera. "It's a love story! Working with (set designer) Scott Pask and (costume designer) Catherine Zuber, the idea was that it should be romantic. The pure passion and the unabashed primary colors of Rosina and Count Almaviva's love—or lust—for each other are what causes the comedy. People do silly things when they're in love! I hope to find the humanity in the comic characters, or at least, to take them through that doorway of reality to find their humor." Ashford believes the humor should come naturally from the situations the characters find themselves in without resorting to the "same 20 gags that are always done," resulting in a fresh, exciting Barber. One that audiences will want to see time and time again.

Lindor's letter, illustration from The Barber of Seville by Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. Image via illinois.pbslearningmedia.org.

As he would with any play or musical, Ashford first went to the text when developing his vision for The Barber of Seville. "I focus in on the text, what's on the page, not other productions, and not 'We're going to do it differently from what so-and-so did,' and try to get to the essence of it." He also leaned heavily on Beaumarchais' source material. "Because the play is so sound and Rossini's work on top of that is so sound, it gives you an amazing freedom because you trust the material so much that you don't question—you just try to bring it to life."

Since the first time Ashford's Barber graced Lyric's stage in 2014, we've been happy to welcome the esteemed director back for a critically acclaimed production of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Carousel (2015) and Bizet's Carmen (2017). Audiences can see The Barber of Seville onstage September 28-October 27 with an all-star cast including Adam Plachetka, Marianne Crebassa, Lawrence Brownlee, Alessandro Corbello, Krzysztof Bączyk, and more conducted by music director Sir Andrew Davis. This production will be helmed by revival director Tara Faircloth.

THE BARBER OF SEVILLE

Rossini’s music—the aural equivalent of champagne—is the last word in humor, inspiring smiles and laughter on every page of the score, which is what makes Barber the most popular of all operatic comedies.