Opera composer Ruggero Leoncavallo is what you might call a one-hit wonder. His most enduring work is his 1892 opera “Pagliacci,” which tells a short but intense story of love, power, jealousy, and the blurred line between theater and reality in a troupe of traveling performers. “Vesti la giubba,” the wrenching sad clown’s lament that ends the first act, is one of the most well-known arias for tenor in the world. It’s become common, almost expected, that “Pagliacci” be staged as a double bill with Mascagni’s “Cavalleria rusticana,” another short opera from the same time period.
But this fall, Boston Lyric Opera is doing something completely different. While the traditional setting is an Italian village on a holiday, David Lefkowich’s production of “Pagliacci,” which opens BLO’s 2019-20 season on Sept. 27, updates the action to a modern urban carnival — and it includes a full fairgrounds installation in the North End’s DCR Steriti Memorial Rink. Attendees are invited to wander the fair, play games, eat carnival food, and take in performances by local ensembles and entertainers before the main event begins.
In short, the opera audience itself becomes the traveling performers’ “audience,” placed at the center of the action. And when the story spins toward its dramatic, tragic conclusion, the audience witnesses it up close.
“I think the work that you can do in an immersive situation is miraculous,” Lefkowich said over the phone. The New York City-based stage director has a marked passion for site-specific productions; his recent projects have included “Acis and Galatea” (Handel) in an defunct flour mill with Minneapolis-based Out of the Box Opera, where he also serves as artistic director, and “Mahoganny-Songspiel” (Weill) on a film set with Maryland Opera Studio.
“Seeing the audience engaged with the singers, and being excited about being that close to somebody creating music was thrilling,” he said. “People weren’t leaving the opera saying ‘Oh, I had a nice time.’ . . . People were leaving the opera saying ‘This was incredible. I’ve never seen anything like it. I can’t wait to come back.’ And that’s the sort of response I think we need from patrons these days.”
Speaking via phone, BLO general and artistic director Esther Nelson said that Lefkowich’s “tremendous toolbox” of immersive know-how inspired the company to engage him for this production. (He also directed BLO’s 2010 “Tosca.”) “We think that the idea of particularly this opera, which is theater-within-theater itself, lends itself to this approach,” Nelson said. “What environment are we looking at here in this particular show, which is already all about make-believe and reality blurring?”
Lefkowich didn’t share all of his plans for transforming the ice rink into a colorful carnival, not wanting to ruin the surprise — but he let a few details slide. “The fairgrounds are going to take up about half the space of Steriti,” he said. “There’s going to be some magicians and jugglers . . . aerialists and contortionists.” There will be a side stage featuring local choirs, including Cambridge Community Chorus and Boston Symphony Children’s Chorus. When the fairgrounds close, clowns will usher audiences under a big top, where the opera will begin. Different parts will be sung in English and Italian, with surtitles.
“Pagliacci,” Lefkowich said, is an ideal opera for first-time operagoers, because it has the “best of what opera has to offer”: comedy, romance, tragedy. Its relatively short duration (usually about 80 minutes) may also be less overwhelming for newer listeners, he added.
But don’t be fooled: “Pagliacci” probably isn’t the best opera for kids. (Lefkowich rates it at a solid PG-13.) The reason for that is the exact same reason that “Pagliacci” looks like it’ll work well as an immersive opera; it’s written in the Italian “verismo” tradition, meaning it’s about ordinary people in mostly realistic situations. And the story of “Pagliacci,” which ends with a jealous and violent husband murdering his unfaithful wife, has sadly never lost its sense of realism, even in the present day.
That wife, Nedda, will be sung by soprano Lauren Michelle, a Walnut Hill School for the Arts graduate who appeared on the first-ever episode of NPR’s long-running “From the Top” as a teenager. (More recently, she was on Fox’s “Empire.”) “I just want to keep her as real as possible, because otherwise, it’s not really staying true to what was written,” said Michelle, who makes her role debut as Nedda with this production.
Over the phone, the Los Angeles native said that maintaining a fourth wall has never come naturally to her. She called inclusion her “natural instinct,” recounting how she was criticized after her master’s recital for projecting translations of songs behind her instead of handing out printed sheets. But she doesn’t want audiences looking at their laps, she said. “I want you here, present. . . . I want you to experience right here and right now.”
Staging “Pagliacci” in a circus tent, with the orchestra and conductor behind the singers, presents certain practical challenges, Lefkowich said. But to him, the immediacy and closeness are worth the extra effort.
“There’s a visceral feeling, when you’re that close to a singer. You start to feel the emotion inside of you. And for me, that’s ultimately what I want from an audience. I want them to experience the emotion of these pieces.”
Presented by Boston Lyric Opera. DCR Steriti Memorial Rink. Sept. 27-Oct. 6. 617-542-6772, www.blo.org