I Pagliacci relates the story of Canio, the leader of a small traveling opera troupe. Just before a performance, Canio learns that his wife is having an affair with another of the company's actors. Shaken by the irony that he must play the clown while his heart is breaking, Canio abandons the script and takes his revenge onstage, injecting a note of realism into the drama that stunned the original 19th-century audience, who must have felt intensely uneasy at their transformation from spectators into witnesses who could do nothing to prevent the comedy from becoming a tragedy.
Golden Gate Opera has taken this blurring of reality and drama even further, encouraging audience members to participate in the action. Opera buffs, newcomers, and even kids can audition in front of director John Fisher at the beginning of the show, mounting the stage to sing just about any piece of music they wish in the hope that they can play a small part in the story. Cast members also participate in mock tryouts, trilling a line or two for Fisher, who sits in American Idol-like judgment, clipboard in hand.
"Pagliacci is about backstage theater life, and we wanted to extend this experience to the audience," says Roberta Wain-Becker, Golden Gate Opera's artistic director, who asserts that one auditionee was so talented he made it into the show's chorus. "Opera should be a lot of fun."
Led in this presentation by Trieste Opera House conductor Fabrizio Ficiur, I Pagliacci is one of the most influential operas ever written. Its realistic style and portrayal of the tribulations of the lower classes were a revelation in its time, and turned composer Ruggiero Leoncavallo into an instant celebrity. It was soon produced in such far-flung places as Budapest, Buenos Aires, and Mexico City, and within two years after its initial run had been translated into every major language, including Serbo-Croatian and Hebrew.
Leoncavallo never met with as much success again, and was relegated to the dusty footnotes of opera history. But his style, termed opera verismo, inspired an entire movement that was directly responsible for such later masterpieces as Puccini's La Bohème and Madama Butterfly. This verisimilitude may be why I Pagliacci was so successful then and is so appealing now -- Leoncavallo knew, as Golden Gate Opera knows, that the audience members are the central players in any grand tale.