The Play

Figaro is the hero of an earlier show, The Barber of Seville, a play by the French author, Beaumarchais. In it Figaro runs a barber's shop and, because barbers are in and out of people's houses, shaving their customers, he gets into the tyrannical Doctor Bartolo's house and helps his unhappy ward, Rosina, escape. The Marriage of Figaro is really The Barber of Seville Part 2.

Beaumarchais wrote a second play, The Marriage of Figaro, only to have it banned by the French king, Louis XVI. Beaumarchais retaliated by organising some private readings which were so popular that the King had to backtrack. The Marriage of Figaro was first performed in Paris in 1784 and the demand for tickets was so great that, on the first night, three people died in the rush for seats.

However, Louis XVI had a point, the play has a hidden revolutionary agenda. Napoleon once said that 'The Marriage of Figaro is the Revolution in action.'

Most of The Marriage of Figaro is straight comedy and in it Beaumarchais sends up noblemen, servants, clergymen – and the English. Here's Figaro talking about ghastly English grub, and the minimal amount of English you need to survive in London.

Figaro: "English is a great language. You need so little of it. Suppose you fancy a nice chicken, you go to a pub and say 'Dammit!' and they bring you a slice of beef. Amazing! Or perhaps you want some wine, you say, 'Dammit!' And in they come with a pint of beer. Marvellous! It's true that the English put in a few other words into their conversation but 'Dammit!' is all you really need."

The Libretto

A libretto is the text of an opera. ('Libretto' is Italian for 'little book', people used to take the book of words into an opera before the days of surtitles). Mozart's librettist was Lorenzo da Ponte, a very dodgy priest – not unlike Don Basilio. Da Ponte started off as a priest in Venice, but he had so many girl friends that he was banished from Italy and turned up, penniless, in Austria.

He got a job, writing the words for court operas, for the Emperor and met Mozart. The two men took to each other and Da Ponte wrote three of Mozart's most famous operas, one of which was The Marriage of Figaro.

Unluckily for him, the Emperor Joseph II died in 1790, Da Ponte lost his job and drifted around for a bit, before marrying an English girl and emigrating to New York. There he became a grocer. But nothing could keep Da Ponte down, and he ended up as America's first Professor of Italian.

Writing the words of Figaro was no joke. It takes three times longer to sing something than to say it, and Da Ponte had to slash Beaumarchais' text to turn the play into an opera. More than that, he had to get it past the Emperor.

Joseph II was a liberal monarch, but he still disapproved of the play – just as Louis XVI had done in France – and when he heard it had been turned into an opera, he looked very disapproving. Da Ponte apparently sidled up to him and said he'd taken out all the offensive speeches, this wasn't quite true, but the Emperor calmed down and let the show go ahead.

The Music


Opera is a play set to music and, in Mozart's day, most of the music in an opera was written for the solo voice.
An opera would go like this: the plot would zip along in recitative and, every now and then, a character would interrupt the action to come downstage and tell the audience exactly how he, or she, felt about life. They would sing an aria. An aria is always a solo.

Towards the end of the opera, the lovers might sing a duet together and (very rarely) three people might join up for a trio, but on the whole an opera was made up of solos. Any section written for more than one person was called an ensemble.

Mozart opera

Mozart changed all that. He loved writing ensembles. He liked the way people reacted to each other on stage – how they talked to each other in music – and he constructed scenes in which more and more people joined the others on stage, all singing together.

In The Marriage of Figaro over half the music is written for ensemble and there's a famous moment, at the end of Act II, when Mozart gets seven people on stage, singing seven separate musical lines, in a furious septet.


Arias are usually about private emotion, feelings you don't want to share with other people. The Countess starts off Act II with a melancholy aria – but she bucks up the moment Susanna arrives. In the same way, the Count and Figaro give way to furious arias when they think their wives are unfaithful, but bottle up their feelings when they are joined by the rest of the cast.


Recitative is the operatic equivalent of ordinary conversation. The characters barely sing, their music follows the patterns of normal speech, and only a couple of instruments accompany them – usually just a harpsichord and a cello.


An ensemble is a musical number written for several voices. It might be a duet (2 voices) or a trio (3) or a quartet (4), a quintet (5), sextet (6) even a septet (7).
Sometimes a chorus appears on stage, they can be any number of people and their ensemble is called after them – a chorus.

Mozart wrote ensembles to bring the drama to life. In them the characters collide with each other, get on people's nerves, yell, scheme, fall in love – and forgive. All the ways in which we interact with other people.

The Orchestra

The singers are accompanied by an orchestra: who sit in front and below the stage, tucked just out of sight in the orchestra pit.

Without them the opera couldn't work: they give the show pace, speed, and what musicians call 'colour'. Orchestral colour is the distinctive sound instruments make when they're used to describe a scene. So, for example, Susanna is accompanied by a tiny wind band as she sings in the garden at night, while Cherubino is sent off to the army with trumpet fanfares.


The guitar is the national instrument of Spain and, in the 18th century, every Spaniard seems to have been able to play one. They played them in their drawing rooms, in the street, under the balconies of pretty girls, and in pubs. A guitar starting up in a pub usually set all the customers dancing...

As Cherubino sings his song to the Countess in Act II, the violins in the orchestra imitate the sound of a guitar by plucking their strings and Susanna pretends to play a prop guitar on stage.

Mozart 1756-1791

Mozart had a short life, only 35 years, yet he wrote over 600 pieces of music and crammed in concerts, operas and European tours. How did he do it?

Well, he started early. He was on the road with his family, giving concerts, from the age of 7, he wrote his first symphony at 8, and his first opera when he was 13. He also never seemed to go to sleep. Constanze Mozart, said her husband would sit up, composing, to 2am, go to bed and get up a couple of hours later, to be ready for his barber, who called at 5am.

Sophie Weber (his teenage sister-in-law) watched Mozart as he fidgeted round the flat: "Even when Mozart washed his hands in the morning, he paced up and down the room, never standing still, tapping one heel against the other, deep in thought. He was always plaing with something – his hat, pockets, watch-chain, tables, chairs, as if he were playing the piano."

Mozart worked out most of his music in his head. Writing it down was the easy bit – and one that Mozart found rather boring. Sometimes he'd write down the music between shots on a snooker table (he loved billiards) and sometimes he'd get his wife to sit and chat to him as he filled up the music paper.

She said, "Mozart walked up and down the room as he composed, quite abstracted from everything that was going on about him. Then he would come and sit by me, ask for his inkstand and paper and say, "Now, my dear, speak to me..." And, as I talked, he wrote on undisturbed."


The late 18th century was a time when everything was up for discussion – including women's rights. Mozart appears to have been right in the thick of this debate. One of his operas, The Magic Flute, presents us with a heroine who is as brave as the hero, and, in The Marriage of Figaro, it's the women who run the show. Figaro may think he's Mr Fix-it – but Susanna and the Countess are the people who set up the plan to shame the Count, and risk their reputations by doing so.

The original Marriage of Figaro went even further. The play on which the opera is based included a feminist speech for Marcellina, in which she pointed out how very few jobs there were for women. The male actors cut that before the show reached the stage, however, Mozart must have read it because, in its place, he wrote an aria for Marcellina. The aria is about female solidarity, Marcellina says she's going to back Susanna, because 'we women should stick together!' (That's usually cut as well.)


One morning in 1783 the King of France, Louis XVI, had a new play read to him. It was 'The Marriage of Figaro' by Beaumarchais. The King fidgeted all the way through the reading and, when it finished, he said, "Detestable! It would be necessary to destroy the Bastille before this play could be put on!" And he banned it.

The Bastille was like the Tower of London, a royal palace and prison, and (had King Louis looked into the future) he'd have discovered that not only was the play put on, the very next year, but the Bastille was destroyed – 5 years later, in the French Revolution.

He'd got it absolutely right, The Marriage of Figaro was a dangerous, revolutionary, play.

Reading it now, you can't see what the fuss was about. There are no riots or political rallies in the show. But Louis XVI noticed something that was completely new, and that we take for granted. Figaro assumes he is the equal of the Count just because he's a fellow human being. He doesn't believe in the nobility.

When he's alone he talks to the Count's riding boots as if his master were standing in them: "Nobility, fortune, rank!" he says, " How proud they make you feel! What have you done to deserve such advantages? You managed to get born, nothing more. In all other respects you're extremely ordinary. And you want to measure yourself against me…!

Actually neither Beaumarchais, nor Mozart, were particularly keen on revolution, but they were modern men and influenced by the mood of their time. That mood is summed up in the opening lines of that typical late 18th century document, The American Declaration of Independence of 1776:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

The Emperor

Mozart was a subject of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its Emperor, Joseph II. Joseph was sympathetic to the new ideas that were in the air, liberty, equality, political freedom, and he drafted laws to free up his subjects: they could now do whatever job they pleased, wear what they liked and move away from their masters if they wished.

He himself dressed simply, and went round Vienna with only one servant in attendance. He said, "It would be hard indeed if, because I have the bad luck to be an Emperor, I should be deprived of other people's company. I am not so vain as to imagine that I am in any way superior to other men!"

However there was another side to Joseph...

He fancied the Princess Liechtenstein and couldn't understand why she wouldn't consent to be his mistress. She remembered a ghastly week she spent in his company in a country house: "The Emperor, " she said, "was in an unimaginably bad temper. I didn't know what to do or where to go. I was caught on the stairs, in the corridor, there was nowhere to escape!"

She wrote that in 1786, the year of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, and it gives us something of the atmosphere on Count Almaviva's estate where a large, dangerous, man prowls round his own house, expecting to have his way.