The Marriage of Figaro: An Ideal Opener for Nicolas Ellis

Actualités lyriques

By Communications et marketing

September 20, 2023

Text: Véronique Gauthier
Photo: Vivien Gaumand

For our first production of the 2023–2024 season, conductor Nicolas Ellis is poised to make his debut at the podium of the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier. And how better to mark this important milestone than with The Marriage of Figaro, Mozart’s flagship work if ever there was one!


Already well-known to Montréal audiences, Nicolas Ellis began his career in the realm of symphonic repertoire before delving into the world of opera. “I was always curious to see what went on in that sphere. Working with singers, exploring the theatrical substance of a work, deciphering how to bring that out in the orchestra and in the text—I have always been interested in this process.”

The opportunity to delve into opera came at the beginning of a fruitful collaboration between the Orchestre de l’Agora, which he founded in 2013, and the Atelier lyrique de l’Opéra de Montréal. After eight years, the resulting projects have only strengthened his affinity for this fascinating art. “As an orchestral conductor, when you study the score and manage to make connections, to understand and decode relationships between the text and the music, it’s as if a door opens and you’ve unearthed a treasure trove. After that, the entire challenge lies with one’s ability to convey that to an audience.”

Immediately after The Marriage of Figaro, Ellis goes on to conduct another collaborative adventure, Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppaea, presented on November 18 and 19 at the Salle Pierre-Mercure.

A Cornerstone of the History of Opera

Besides Montréal, Nicolas Ellis paid visits to the Aix-en-Provence Festival and the Opéra Comique in Paris to broaden his operatic horizons, assisting with major productions before flying off to Austria twice this past summer. There, he refined his work on The Marriage of Figaro in Salzburg, Mozart’s birth city, alongside young conductor Raphaël Pichon and the Vienna Philharmonic. The enjoyment Nicolas Ellis derives from probing the score of The Marriage of Figaro is beyond satisfying.

“All Mozart’s genius lies in his synthesis of everything that was done before him, while taking it even further,” says Ellis. “At several points, we get a glimpse of how opera was subsequently going to evolve. In various vocalise passages, for example, we can already hear Rossini. Mozart also played around a lot with codes. While Beaumarchais’ play elicited amusement from criticizing the aristocracy of his day, Mozart did the same through music. We can feel all the joy he finds in turning the plot into something very sarcastic.”

A Still-Relevant Critique of Society

Throughout the opera, the character of the Count attempts to exercise his feudal privilege to continually delay Susanna’s wedding by attempting to lure her into his bed before the nuptials take place. It’s a story that may seem absurd, if not outrageous, from our contemporary perspective.

“The work is an all-out critique, packed with humour, and some very acerbic moments. It is a reminder, especially with what has come to light in recent years that we should never take for granted that abuses of power won’t happen anymore,” stated Nicolas Ellis.

A Debut with Family

With his debut at the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier fast approaching, how does this young conductor feel? “It’s very exciting!” he beamed. “It’s very heartwarming, because I myself have enjoyed attending many Opéra de Montréal productions. I also feel that we are doing it as a family, since it’s been five years that I have collaborated with the Orchestre Métropolitain, which I will conduct in the pit. I connect beautifully with the musicians, so I really do feel confident.”

The same goes for the opera artists, many of whom the conductor has gotten to know through his collaborations with the Atelier lyrique. “That’s truly why I perform music, to share experiences with people I appreciate and with whom I enjoy working. So, yes, I’m overjoyed, but I’m also looking forward to connecting with them through such an iconic work as The Marriage of Figaro.”

This collaboration has, incidentally, been a powerful driving force in Nicolas Ellis’ career. “Collaborating encapsulates all the joy of being a conductor. We might think that a conductor makes all the decisions, when actually, the conductor is a person surrounded by a whole range of expertise. With opera, we present the achievement of all this teamwork involving many highly gifted and skilled people: singers, orchestral players, a pianist—in this case Holly Kroeker, who besides being the rehearsal pianist, will also accompany the recitatives at the fortepiano,—a stage director, and set and costume design teams. You end up learning so many things.”

The Perfect Gateway to Opera

These performances of The Marriage of Figaro are a perfect opportunity for audiences to acquaint themselves with the two great minds of Mozart and da Ponte, and to acquire that first-time experience, that introduction to opera.

“It’s really the ideal work for that. Theatrically, it’s a masterpiece—it’s hard to imagine better! I would love us to perform it in such a way that audiences are completely astonished by this music’s genius, and I hope that audiences will enjoy sitting together in a magnificent hall to dive back in time and witness a work coming alive. Opera is an amazing experience, one you can’t possibly get in any other way.”