I Pagliacci, Clowns and Relevance at the FGO

I Pagliacci– Men and Makeup: From I Pagliacci to Drag Race, With Creepy Clowns Added In
Photo: Daniel Azoulay/FGO

How does the opera world bring in new and younger fans? This is not a new question, and there are many audience members who really do not care, and prefer not to change anything in order to appeal to a supposedly fickle younger crowd. But much of the opera world realizes that the art will fade away and stagnate if newer fans are not intrigued, nor will newer, younger artists strive to hit the stage in opera productions.

Contemporary operas do draw some newer fans, and thrill many seasoned ones as well. But how can we entice younger fans to fill seats for the older classic operas? How (and should) the standards speak to them?

Going beyond school field trips to opera houses and discounted tickets, opera companies can market in ways that make the classics seem evergreen and interesting, even, dare we say it, fun and fresh. Let’s look at I Pagliacci, now in revival at the Florida Grand Opera– and the very first opera staged by the FGO (actually, its predecessor the Opera Guild of Miami) in 1942. 

Merely telling curious fans that I Pagliacci is about clowns may not draw them in. Telling them it’s a love quadrangle with clowns may pique their interest more. Telling them that it features clowns in a tragedy with some startling murders may pull them in more.

(On the other hand, telling new audiences that I Pagliacci is famous because it is the rare opera with both music and libretto by one composer, Ruggiero Leoncavallo, may not set their hearts a-flutter, even if longtime fans treasure that fact.)

The current Florida Grand Opera staging of I Pagliacci may appeal especially to contemporary crowds because it has a groundbreaking cast, with leads who are African American and Latino such as the magnificent Limmie Pulliam as Canio, Kearstin Piper Brown as Nedda, and Elemoar Cuello as Silvio. All are powerful, nuanced singers who bring timeless strength to their roles in this comic-tragedy. 

Photo: Daniel Azoulay/FGO

But there are angles that can be touched upon that show how this oh-so-familiar opera can be linked to modern culture. Think about the scene in which Canio is making up his face, dabbing on greasepaint and singing; why, of course it reminds us of queens who are donning their elaborate makeup on every season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, and how some of them tell confessional stories about their lives while working at their mirrors. They are putting on makeup while pouring out their hearts, just as Canio does. (And he’s not even competing for thousands of dollars in prize money and free cosmetics). 

And just as there is drama and friction that always erupts amongst some of the drag queens each TV show season, there is serious drama and friction, jealousy, and secretive alliances among the characters of I Pagliacci. Drag fans, start your engines and check out I Pagliacci!

Photo: Daniel Azoulay/FGO

Another set of special treats awaits those who come see I Pagliacci at the FGO: there are added songs, and fun performances including actual circus performers from groups such as the Miami Circus Arts Center, Sunshine Circus Arts, and others. 

Let’s also think about how clowns are viewed in contemporary society: many are seen as downright creepy. There’s Pennywise from Stephen King’s IT, and Zombie Clowns, and Killer Klowns from Outer Space, The Joker and others. Well, love or hate them, these eerie clowns are a cultural phenomenon, and the clowns from I Pagliacci certainly have their ghoulish side. This is another way to appeal to the young (and even not so young): promise them creepy opera clowns! And they stir drama! 

I Pagliacci is not just a stuffy old opera, much more than a star vehicle for the way-famous baritones; it is a compelling story with piercing songs and both comic touches and tragic hurt, things that we can all relate to. Even younger audiences can see and experience this classic in ways that are thoroughly modern. 

– SP

I Pagliacci

Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County
Sanford and Dolores Ziff Ballet Opera House
Saturday, January 27 at 6:00 pm
Sunday, January 28 at 3:00 pm
Tuesday, January 30 at 8:00 pm

Broward Center for the Performing Arts
Au-Rene Theater
Thursday, February 8 at 7:30 pm
Saturday, February 10 at 7:30 pm


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