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What Makes ‘Sorry’ So Hard to Say?

Updated: Jun 28, 2019

Revisiting ¡Figaro! (90210) in the Age of Resistance

In writing ¡Figaro! (90210) my goal was to scrub off the artificial veneer of reactionary respectability that The Marriage of Figaro has acquired over the years to reveal the bracing and vibrant combination of pathos and politics, humor and humanity that I know the original creators of The Marriage of Figaro were after. From our first workshop in 2012 through the LA Opera premiere in 2015 and two Off-Broadway runs that bookended the last presidential election, I am proud that ¡Figaro! (90210) managed to create waves for the controversial parallels it made between pre-Revolutionary Europe and life in today’s America.

As they say, however, history isn’t just for the history books; it keeps happening… especially nowadays.

At this point, it is no longer shocking to assert that America’s failed immigration policy has created an entire class of modern-day serfs, and despite – or even because of – our best intentions, we continue to perpetuate a system that facilitates their exploitation.

The recent past has similarly taken any controversy out of the idea that anxiety over their loss of status in a multicultural world might lead some white men to wildly unjustifiable extremes – on par with those implemented by 18th Century European aristocrats – as they seek to preserve their own privilege.

This shifting cultural environment had an interesting impact on our second off-Broadway run in 2017. There were still laughs in all the right places, but New York audiences navigating the brave new world of Trump’s first 100 days were not quite as punch-drunk as they had been the previous years. Reviews had praised the original production as “uproariously funny”; the revival generated think pieces that used words like “chilling”.

I have been asked a lot if I had Trump in mind when I wrote the part of Beverly Hills real estate developer Paul Conti, an updated version of the villain/buffoon of the original play and opera. My response is that I wrote the adaptation well before Trump was even a Republican, much less a presidential candidate, or worse... And yet, Trump’s path from slick, liberal businessman to right-wing xenophobe is, in some ways, just a more extreme, and complete, version of the journey that Conti flirts with in my adaptation; if the gods of madcap comedy did not intervene to expose the ludicrous hypocrisy of his position, perhaps Conti too would have wound up running for office.

So it makes sense that some audiences at the Trump-era revival of ¡Figaro! (90210) had no problems at all with what the adaptation said about inequality, race relations or liberal hypocrisy, but were troubled by an ending that granted forgiveness to an entitled white male, who also appeared to be a stand-in for the 45th President of the United States.

Questions of what can and cannot be forgiven, and the conditions under which that forgiveness may be granted, have only become more pressing now that the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements show signs of bringing lasting, and long-overdue, change to a culture that has tolerated, even rewarded, abuses of power for far too long.

For my part, the focus on these questions has clarified why I chose to adapt Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro rather than construct from whole cloth, and why I am excited for this adaptation to form the basis for new collaborations between performers and audiences keenly attuned to issues of racial privilege, sexual harassment and restorative justice.

With all of the amazing music that he composed for The Marriage of Figaro, Mozart saved the absolute most sublime – some have argued of his entire career – for the moment when the Count apologizes for all the hurt he has caused, and his wife, in turn, forgives him.

The age and popularity of The Marriage of Figaro hopefully saves me from the need for a “spoiler alert” right there. Knowing the moment is coming, however, does nothing to diminish the emotional power of the music, which hits – every time – like a stunning revelation. So many operas of that same period climax with a deus ex machina; so too here, as the skies seem to open and the Count’s heartfelt apology is met with a musical representation of divine mercy.

I can’t say whether justice is served by this ending, as justice is a collective act and must necessarily be hashed out through public discussion until consensus is reached. Forgiveness, by contrast, is a personal act and, while victims have every right to demand justice from society at large, society has absolutely no rights when it comes to dictating how, when, or if a victim chooses to forgive.

So, as a writer, my focus was on finding the right words for Paul Conti’s apology that would not only be worthy of Mozart’s music but ones that might credibly inspire forgiveness from the people he has hurt. He starts with a literal translation of the Italian, “My darling, forgive me,” but this is as much demand as plea, and his wife remains unmoved. So he tries a more direct route, “I’m so sorry.” This is closer to the point, but his wife is unsure he understands the scope of what he should be sorry for, so she points to Figaro and, especially, Susana. After struggling to find the right response, Paul Conti, who only a few short scenes ago railed against the refusal of “illegals” to learn English, addresses them in their own language: “Lo siento,” across a musical interval that leaves no question as to the sincerity of his remorse.

Does that mean in this case that forgiveness is earned? Is it ever? In my adaptation, I felt the need to acknowledge this, so that Roxanne’s initial response to her husband is, “You sure don’t deserve to stay.” Granting Susana a voice as well, given what she has been through at the hands of her employer, seemed even more important, so it is only with her consent, and under the condition that they all “start fresh today” by acknowledging each other as equals, that Conti is allowed to remain.

As society collectively works through whether any of the disgraced individuals that #MeToo has taken down can be redeemed, and what steps are necessary for that redemption to happen, we will continue to navigate the delicate dance between personal forgiveness and public justice necessary for lasting reconciliation. In doing so, Conti’s actions at the end of ¡Figaro! (90210) can serve as an interesting test case, a hypothetical counterbalance to how things keep playing out in the real-world, where non-apologies that abnegate responsibility and intimate that the real problem is the victim’s inability to “move on” justifiably fan the flames of escalating resentment.

Maybe one day soon, public humiliation might regularly inspire unequivocal admissions of guilt, apologies for the damage done, and humble resolutions to do better. While we wait for that to happen, however, it is only natural that Paul Conti’s misconduct will be conflated with the high crimes and misdemeanors of much, much worse men in the real world, and the ending of ¡Figaro! (90210) will remain a conflicted one, as head and heart pull in different directions. And yet, this too I think is what the original authors intended.

Those feeling that our country is coming apart at the seams would feel quite at home in the Europe of 1786, when The Marriage of Figaro premiered. Three years prior to the storming of the Bastille, it was not only in France that economic crisis, political polarization and the viral spread of “dangerous” ideas combined to fan the flames of revolution.

In creating his Count, Beaumarchais only stayed as far away from direct indictments of real-life nobility as required by the censors; Figaro’s speeches railing against the Count’s corruption seem designed to invite audience testimonials of even worse behavior. And yet, perhaps recalling that this reviled stand-in for the worst abuses of the ancien régime started out life as the idealistic young hero of The Barber of Seville, Mozart grants him a supremely transcendent musical moment of grace.

What precipitates this moment of grace is not forgiveness – that is the outcome; its inspiration is an apology – not an “I’m sorry you feel that way” or “I’m sorry my intentions were misunderstood” but a simple, genuine apology for the hurt he has inflicted.

Considering the original opera, written as a continent-wide revolution was brewing, I can’t help but think that its creators meant to offer a way out of the madness. Without forgiveness human community is doomed, they tell us; but forgiveness requires responsibility, remorse, and a resolution to do better. Perhaps it’s not too late, this time around, for us to heed their advice.


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