In classical music "the three Bs" usually refers to Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. NZ Opera's latest production, The Barber of Seville, references three different Bs: Beaumarchais, Bugs and Basil.

Pierre Beaumarchais was the French writer of the comic play Le Barbier de Seville, upon which Gioachino Rossini's opera is based. Bugs and Basil are, respectively, Bunny and Fawlty.

"I'm unashamedly influenced by the Warner Bros cartoon, The Rabbit of Seville," says Lindy Hume, one of Australia's most respected artistic figures and director of NZ Opera's Barber.

The 1950 animation takes place during a production of The Barber of Seville and makes use of Rossini's music. As with many people, it was Hume's initial exposure to the opera; unlike most people, she sees connections between composer and cartoon.

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"That was my first Barber of Seville, so it's hard to get that out of my system in a way. I do a lot of Rossini comedies and I love them, they are like cartoons, that co-ordination between music and action, which I'm trying to choreograph."

And Basil Fawlty?

"I'm interested in sitcoms, and interested in what is funny, as opposed to what is opera funny, which is really not very funny. So, I'm interested in doing something fast and furious that genuinely makes you laugh."

Fawlty Towers, Hume believes, is the greatest sitcom of all time. She describes it as a classic "door comedy", with doors opening and closing and the wrong people entering and exiting at inopportune moments, all with perfect timing.

Tracy Grant Lord's set draws on that idea in what Hume calls "a chaotic collage of doors of all kinds". The key with comedy, Hume says, is not the set itself so much as the way it enables a sense of jeopardy.

"It's not just people mucking about and having a good time, there needs to be a situation in which there's a fundamentally dangerous or unpleasant proposition that is so compelling, everybody's responding to it."

Barber's unpleasant proposition is the likely but unwanted marriage of the beautiful young Rosina to the elderly Bartolo. Chaos ensues. Chaos is a central theme of Hume's Barber, too, and there is historical precedent.

"It was a disaster on opening night in 1816," Hume says. "They would hardly have rehearsed and they were almost improvising, so it had a very strong sense of chaos. I liked the idea of trying to capture that sort of anarchy, the notion of something being a bit messy."

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Too much anarchy might cause an audience to overlook that Barber contains some of Rossini's finest music, were it not for the fact it also contains the composer's most famous music. Even casual listeners – and Bugs Bunny fans – will recognise the overture, while the baritone aria Largo al factotum, with its repeated 'Figaro, Figaro, Figaro!' refrain, represents five of the best-known minutes in opera.

Opera singer Morgan Pearse takes the demanding role of Figaro in the Barber of Seville. Photo/Eric Melear
Opera singer Morgan Pearse takes the demanding role of Figaro in the Barber of Seville. Photo/Eric Melear

Morgan Pearse, who takes the role of Figaro, the titular hairdresser in this production, is the singer tasked with bringing life to the iconic tune. No pressure.

"I was petrified the first time I had to sing that," admits Pearse. "It's the first thing you sing [in Barber], as well; it's bloody scary."

He has no intention, however, of making a radical reinterpretation of an opera standard.

"One of the hard things as a singer, is not to get sucked into trying to do things that make you different from everyone who's sung it before. You don't want to do something different; you want do something relevant to the show you're producing."

Figaro was Pearse's debut in a major role, when he sang it in the 2015/16 season with the English National Opera. However, that production was in English, so this will be the first time he's performed Barber in its original Italian. He says the switch in languages makes this a different Figaro to his previous portrayal.

"Part of the joy of being a performer is growing with characters. When you get to do some of these really famous works, it's great that they're not all the same. We're cover artists, we're not doing these things for the first time, but in this case, I get to see something fresh."

While the language makes a difference, Pearse insists that's not as important as the director's vision. Hume's concept - rascally rabbits, rude hoteliers, chaotic anarchy and all - is for a production that's friendly and accessible but with a hint of the surreal.

"Someone gave me a very nice compliment and said they liked my productions in the same way they like Wes Anderson's movies," Hume says. "So, it's that kind of idea: quirky and leftfield."

Lowdown
What: NZ Opera presents Rossini's The Barber of Seville
Where & When: ASB Theatre, from June 6; Opera House, Wellington from June 29; Isaac Theatre Royal, Christchurch, from August 1