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Character Counts

In the not-too-distant past, Henry Price sang leading tenor roles with New York City Opera. This week, he is directing Opera-at- Pepperdine in “The Marriage of Figaro.”

In his office Friday at 1 p.m., he gave a voice lesson to Evelyn Trester, who will sing the role of Marcellina. Trester begins with vocal exercises. He accompanies on piano while he sings with her and corrects her mouth positions and stance. They begin work on Marcellina.

“Breathe there,” he tells her, “not because the singer needs the breath but because the character has something to say. You can breathe there — there’s a comma in the sentence.” They discuss the low-class Marcellina’s high-class aspirations. Trester slides into fiery character.

“Here’s our strategy,” he coaches. To put an appropriate pause in her recitative, he tells her to imagine a colon punctuating the sentence. To emphasize the word “our,” he suggests a glottal stop.

As the lesson ends, she asks, “When is rehearsal onstage?” He answers, “6.” “6 p.m.?” she reassures herself.

He provides her with a pep talk, suggesting a career in opera. “You have substantial vocal equipment,” he tells her. “You have to have the work ethic.” She nods enthusiastically.

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Price won a Grammy Award for best opera recording, “The Merry Widow,” with Beverly Sills, and sang leads internationally and at the Met. To improve his teaching, he recently obtained a doctorate in musical arts from Claremont Graduate School.

Still, the associate professor is thrilled with his Pepperdine cast, the student technical staff and his fellow music professors. In 1993, he came to the university as an artist-in-residence. Soon, he conducted his first opera. “I never knew how rewarding it could be,” he says, “to introduce the opera not only to the students but to the audience. It was a kind of gratification I had never gotten as a performer.”

So he seems ecstatic to be directing a fully staged but slightly abridged production, sung in English, of The Marriage of Figaro, which plays tonight (Thursday) and Friday at Pepperdine’s Smothers Theatre.

“What’s interesting,” he says over a quick lunch, “is where we get our performers.” Pepperdine gives its undergraduates the opportunity to perform roles other schools normally reserve for their graduate students. Four freshman will sing, including one in the title role, and three junior women star in the three principal female roles.

He promises top-rate acting. “The issues that come up are so immediate, particularly in the relationship between the Count and Countess.” He notes, “The center of this opera is sexual harassment.” Price says the actors who portray the two central characters, the Count and Countess, are “so powerful and so believable in this version that the moment is magical when he begs forgiveness.”

The set is designed by student Michael Vila, a production design major. “We have a relatively small budget,” Price says, “but advantages that opera schools don’t have — singers who can nail stuff together.”

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At 2 p.m. in the choir room, rehearsal for principal roles begins, with Caroline Carter as Susanna, Shelli Fabiano as Countess Almaviva and Angela Rasmussen as Cherubino. Price bounds down steps and slides heavy furniture into place.

He meets briefly with the production’s hair and wig designer, Carol Ann Hack. Students are amusing themselves and one another by trying on their new wigs, but they also admit it is giving them a bit of characterization. Price warns them not to depend on costuming and wigs for the heart of their characters.

He discusses hair styles with Rasmussen, who plays a 13-year-old boy in what opera refers to as a “trouser role” — women who portray young boys. She reminds him she will be wearing a bonnet at one point. “I have a bonnet in my office,” he says and vaults from the room, returning almost instantaneously with an old-fashioned muslin hat.

The chorus and principal men arrive. Michael Ludlum, a Pepperdine law student on leave of absence, sings the role of Count Almaviva. Prof. Milton Pullen, director of choirs at Pepperdine, sings Don Bartolo. Freshman Daniel Peretto sings Figaro. The cast chats amiably and mills around. Price sits on the edge of his chair, focused on blocking, stage business, dance routines, prop needs and, of course, voices.

“Now, you’re not nobility, but you’ve seen nobility,” he tells Peretto, who must present his arm to Trester to escort her across the stage. Price springs from his chair to demonstrate the walk. Peretto corrects himself and now moves smoothly.

Price shows the chorus how to play with musicality on the word “peasants” — “It’s ts,” he emphasizes. “Relate to one another when you sing. Come to life among one another,” he tells them. “Here’s Cherubino dressed like a girl, and one of your own is moving to a higher status. You don’t get entertainment like this all the time.”

Sara Banta, the piano professor who will serve as orchestra for the performances, is accompanying the rehearsal. “Someone should sing a better C natural,” she urges the chorus, which tries again, and again. Banta’s face relaxes and she nods slightly.

At 3 p.m., the rehearsal moves into Lindhurst Theatre while the set is being readied on the Smothers stage. Price moves furniture here, too. He says he doesn’t mind. “I used to be one of them,” he says of the singers. He now has tremendous respect for those who once directed him.

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Speaking out of the presence of his students, he lists the qualities of each of his leading singers, adding that he foresees professional careers in opera for some. His mentor, Boris Goldovsky, had a theory about becoming a professional opera singer, “The Multiplication by Zero Theory.” An opera singer needs voice, musicality, appearance, movement and an ear. “You couldn’t be a zero in any of these areas.” Price adds to this theory, “Above all, you need the desire to do it. I’d say we have several people in this cast who have a shot.”

“The Marriage of Figaro” plays tonight (Thursday) and Friday at 8 p.m., Pepperdine’s Smothers Theatre. Tickets, $15 for the public, are available at the box office. Tel. 456-4522, fax 456- 4556.

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