Miriam Ellis

By Scott MacClellandMusée d'Art moderne

SHE CALLS her project FIG, or alternately “Flexible Figaro.” Retired UC Santa Cruz humanities lecturer Miriam Ellis and retired UCSC music professor Sherwood Dudley have worked for several years on revising Lorenzo da Ponte’s Italian-language libretto for Mozart’s masterpiece, Le nozze di Figaro—The Marriage of Figaro. Ellis (seen visiting the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris) has taken the lead in translating between languages with the purpose of reconciling the opera libretto and the Beaumarchais play on which it is based, a work that in the opinion of many historians ignited the French Revolution of 1789. (Napoleon described it as “the revolution already in action.”)

Following historic precedent, in which Beaumarchais substituted spoken dialogue from his play for da Ponte’s recitatives at the Paris premiere of the opera, Ellis and Dudley provide producers with the choice of substituting spoken dialogue, taken from the play, for any of the sung numbers in the opera.

To recap the plot: Knowing that Figaro and Susanna are soon to be married, the master of the house, Count Almaviva, wants to revive the long-abolished ‘droit du seigneur’ by which medieval feudal lords gave themselves the ‘right’ to bed the brides of the servant class on their wedding nights. From the beginning, Figaro is determined to thwart the count’s repugnant presumption. In the original comedy, he paints the whole of the aristocracy with the same disdainful colors. “Figaro says about the count, you have this façade, this power, wealth, and what have you done to deserve it,” Ellis capsulates. “You merely took the trouble to be born. It was a tremendous put-down of the aristocracy.”

The play was very successful in Paris, and especially popular with the very aristocrats Beaumarchais lampoons, laughing at them while they laughed at the comedy. But da Ponte knew Figaro’s harangue would never get by the opera censors, so he recast the attack on the aristocracy as an attack on women, which bothered no one—except women. One woman in particular, Miriam Ellis, who, fired by her own robust feminism, refused to translate the words of that scene. “I’ll translate that sexist garbage, but only on one condition, and that’s if I can write alternative lyrics for the aria taken from Figaro’s speech.” When she hears baritones singing the scene from the da Ponte libretto, “It really galls me.”

The purpose of FIG is to provide new, revised translations of da Ponte’s texts and offer the choice of substitute spoken dialogue for them, in order to give opera companies more flexibility to make adjustments that suit their productions. “I was translating bits from the play putting them in the relevant places of da Ponte’s libretto, as spoken dialogue,” Ellis explains. Dudley’s role is to make sure the new translations fit the existing musical meters and to reproduce Mozart’s score and markings faithfully. “I’m the words, he’s the music.”

Ellis arrived at UCSC in 1971 to pursue her PhD studies. “I’m the woman who came to dinner,” she says, “because my son and daughter were accepted as students here.” It was an interim start-up, one quarter in the French Department. Ultimately she was rehired regularly until her retirement in 2004. “I taught French, theater and literature, and participated with Sherwood in establishing and teaching the opera workshop which is still going strong. I started doing French theater in 1972.” She found that workshopping Figaro “was too much for the students to master in ten weeks. So we did Act I with spoken dialogue to replace some of the recitatives.” This collaboration with Dudley started in the ‘80s. So far there have been “seven or eight” different versions of FIG. “In April the Shrewsbury [High] School in Shropshire, England, did a production. I’m waiting for the DVD of it.”

Ellis says their previous versions have been very successful, in workshops, small theaters and at universities. “Berkeley Opera did one and a Southern California little theater group did another. Each version has been a different take on it. It’s very adaptable.” She gives an example, “A singer who doesn’t have the tessitura to fit an aria can substitute dialog, then move on to the next piece.” The latest of many versions of the edited libretto is 571 pages and Ellis and Dudley are trying to figure out the best way to publish it.

Though Figaro may seem like an obsession to Ellis, her taste for opera is both broad and deep. In 1973-74 she did an opera program on the university’s radio station, KZSC. “In 1976, Sherwood and I staged [Donizetti’s] Don Pasquale, in English, at the woman’s club downtown, with costumes and sets, for four free performances. We had full houses and realized there was an interest in opera in this town.” So they founded SCOSI, Santa Cruz Opera Society Inc., which over the years has attracted many members from the community, both Town and Gown. “We have regular monthly meetings with programs presented by members. We sit around and watch, discuss and listen and when the music touches us we share our emotions openly,” adding. “When I hear the last scene from La bohème, I start to blubber.” John Dizikes, another UCSC faculty member and author of the well-known “Opera in America” is a member, but SCOSI is primarily a community group. “John and I did a class together on Romanticism for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. I did French, he did American.” Of SCOSI today, “Happily we’re getting a few youngsters, in their 60s,” she chuckles.