SFOpera - The Barber in Love: How Musicians Irina and Lucas Meachem Found Romance Through Figaro

The Barber in Love: How Musicians Irina and Lucas Meachem Found Romance Through Figaro

His career has been defined, in no small part, by one of opera’s greatest heroes: Figaro, that champion of love and toppler of hierarchies, rascal and wit rolled into one.

But for Grammy-winning baritone Lucas Meachem, Figaro has given him more than success. A matchmaker on stage, the fictional Figaro played the part off-stage as well, helping to spark romance between Lucas and his wife, the pianist Irina Meachem.

This April, as Lucas prepared to take up the role once more in director Matthew Ozawa’s new 2021 production of The Barber of Seville, he and Irina found themselves reminiscing about how Figaro laid the ground work for their marriage, as well as Lucas’s career.

It all started in 2013 in Minneapolis, where Lucas was running late for rehearsals at Mill City Summer Opera—about a week late, in fact. He had been on a fishing trip that delayed his arrival.

Irina was already there, contracted as a rehearsal pianist for Mill City’s upcoming production of The Barber of Seville. It was hard work, and she was tired. She barely paid any attention to the fisherman who’d just waltzed into the rehearsal space.

“I was so into what I was doing that I didn’t notice him until he came over to me and started talking,” Irina told San Francisco Opera with a laugh. “I didn’t even know he was singing in the opera. I thought maybe he was one of the stage manager assistants.”

Lucas, on the other hand, says he instantly noticed Irina. “Whenever you see Irina, right off the bat you think: What an amazingly beautiful woman.” But it was her skills at the piano that made his jaw drop.

The baritone was no stranger to The Barber of Seville. Over the course of his career, he would have the chance to perform it around the world, from London’s Royal Opera to multiple outings in San Francisco. He knew to listen for a particularly tricky passage of music—right before The Barber of Seville’s famous shaving scene—where the pianist’s right-hand had to dash across the keys with impossible speed.

“I’ve heard it butchered so many times in other rehearsals, and I always wait for it,” Lucas explains. “But Irina got there and played it as though she had fallen out of bed playing it. It was easy as pie.”

He was impressed. He wanted to talk to her. But for the time being, he satisfied himself with leaning over and offering a quick “brava.”

Meanwhile, it was dawning on Irina that this was no mere assistant. When Lucas walked to the center of the rehearsal space, it clicked: This man was the opera’s star, its Figaro. And she instantly had a million questions. “I started geeking out. ‘Oh, I need to talk to him about his recitativo. I need to talk to him about his style. I need to talk to him about his high notes.’”

After rehearsals, the cast and crew went out to dinner, and Irina remembers watching as Lucas went around the restaurant, grabbing empty chairs and making sure everyone was seated before him. “At that moment,” she says, “I thought this man was going to make some woman very happy one day. I just didn’t know I would be me.”

A first-generation Romanian-American—her father fled communist Romania in 1985, crossing the Danube River under gunfire—Irina grew up playing the piano. But while she loved the instrument itself, she didn’t love being alone on stage, performing as a soloist.

“I had a glow about myself when I would just play the music, but I didn’t feel like I belonged,” she explains. “I always felt that that was for somebody else to do. But I loved when I got to collaborate with other musicians. That’s where the magic of what I did really came to life.”

It put her on the path to become a vocal coach, performing at rehearsals and recitals with artists like Emmy-winning soprano Danielle de Niese.

But while nowadays she frequently collaborates with husband Lucas, that first meeting at Mill City Summer Opera didn’t immediately forge a relationship. The opera world was demanding, and their travels took them in different directions.

“We went months without speaking,” Irina says. In the year that followed, they would reach out to one another off and on, with questions about opera programs or a simple “Hey, what are you up to?”

But gradually, Irina was getting to know the karaoke-loving baritone who credits an impromptu rendition of “I Believe I Can Fly” with landing him his first big break.

Born in the small town of Carthage, North Carolina, Lucas grew up singing whatever he could hear on the radio. He was a natural mimic. Pop music? No problem. Jazz? He could do that too. Gospel? He nailed it. But all that changed when he received a cassette tape of The Three Tenors, an opera-singing trio composed of José Carreras, Plácido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti.

“I couldn’t do it, and I could do almost anything vocally,” Lucas says. He adds that he hadn’t really been aware of opera as an art form up to that point. “Here was this genre that was untouchable for me.”

It wasn’t a light-switch moment, though: Lucas just wanted to sing, no matter the genre. But in college, his teachers started to give him arias to learn. Then art songs. And Lucas discovered he rather enjoyed learning about opera music and performing it. The triumphs he had at competitions didn’t hurt, either.

“All of a sudden, I started realizing I was really having success for someone who was still in college, in a way that I had not had in anything else in my life,” Lucas says. “And I felt, ‘Well, let’s just take this as far as I can go. One day I’ll hit the ceiling of where I’m going, and the upward trajectory will turn into a plateau.’ But I’m still waiting.”

It wasn’t always easy, though. Like many artists, Lucas felt pressure to conform to a certain stereotype of what an opera singer should be.

“When I first started out, I had a Southern accent, but I didn’t know I had an accent because I’d never lived or gone anywhere else,” he says. When he got his first job at an opera company, he remembers asking questions—and instead of getting a response, he would hear, “Do you really talk like that?”

“I started to realize that I sound different than these people,” he says. “I started to learn that opera is not just about best singer wins. It’s not just: You sing great, so you can be an opera singer. There’s so much more to it than that. You have to be marketable.”

He calls it “walking the tightrope”—the need to be appealing to a wide audience, to be fluent in what they care about, whether that’s NCAA basketball or obscure wine from the hillsides of France. Early in his career, he thought that meant ditching his accent—“I devoted a lot of time thinking about how to sound more normal, not so Southern”—but now, he’s become more comfortable being himself. “I could care less who thinks I have a Southern accent.”

He was on the verge of making his debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic when his path once again crossed with Irina’s. It had been a year since they met at Mill City Summer Opera, and Lucas was preparing to star in 2014’s Pagliacci, under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel.

Irina was also in Los Angeles, working as a vocal coach, so Lucas made an appointment with her to practice his role. He booked a rehearsal space in the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

“I was so excited. ‘Wow, I get to make music with him?’ I was so giddy. I had a crush on him,” Irina says, before Lucas chimes in: “I had a major crush on her too.”

But they admit: It was hard to navigate their feelings while staying professional. Irina remembers smiling a lot that day. As Lucas practiced the role of Silvio, Irina filled in for the part of Nedda, his lover. It was clear to both of them that she liked Lucas, and Lucas liked her.

“There’s a part where I sing, and he says, ‘Verrai?’” Irina recalls, using the Italian phrase for: “Will you come?” Her next line was to sing, “Si, baciami.” In other words: “Yes, kiss me.” And on cue, he did.

“I don’t recommend other singers do this with their coaches,” Lucas says between laughs, “unless you’ve known each other for a year and there’s been a lot of flirting leading up to it.”

Irina too can barely make it through the anecdote without laughing: “It would not make HR happy at all!” They got engaged four months later and married shortly after that.

Sharing a life is difficult for any couple, but for Irina and Lucas, their careers kept them constantly on the road. It proved to be an issue when Irina became pregnant with their son Cash.

The couple was flying home from Toronto when Lucas’s agent called. They were still on the plane, pulling into the gate, when Lucas found out he was needed for a last-minute gig in Bilbao, Spain. He went home, packed a fresh suitcase, and returned to the airport that very night.

Cash was due to be born any day. For the three weeks he was in Spain, Lucas says he was constantly checking the internet for flights home to Minneapolis, calculating how to get home as quickly as possible should Irina go into labor. The day after he arrived home from Bilbao, Cash arrived.

“He knew what was happening. He was waiting for his dad,” Irina says.

But scenarios like that have changed the shape of their relationship. Irina and Cash now accompany Lucas to as many performances as they can. “We decided that we want to be together at all times,” Lucas says. “So rather than her staying in our home in Minnesota and me traveling off and doing stuff and not seeing each other a couple months out of the year, we’ve decided this is the life that we want to have.”

Irina, Lucas, and Cash Meachem

Irina also performs alongside Lucas during recitals. “I was reluctant at the beginning to even perform with him,” she says. “I thought that there was nepotism: I’m only getting this because I’m your wife, this opportunity to make music with you.”

But her mindset has changed, she says: She now has the confidence to be on stage with him, knowing she brings an expertise just as deserving of acknowledgement.

It’s also given her a front-row seat to her husband’s career evolution. “Out of all the roles, Figaro is the most like Lucas,” she says. “He’s also performed a lot of Don Giovanni. But he is nothing like Don Giovanni—other than he enjoys fine wine.”

Irina sees Figaro in the way Lucas always tries to be helpful, going out of his way to solve problems. He even carries a backpack with a random assortment of items—whatever he needs to fix whatever situation he encounters on the road.

“I’m so thankful for Figaro, because Figaro has shown me the world. Figaro has built my career,” Lucas says. In 2016, Lucas won a Grammy Award for playing Figaro in The Ghosts of Versailles.

“It’s given me so much, the role of Figaro, that I’m just lucky to be able to perform it. Every time I do, I just feel fortunate. I’m like, ‘Okay buddy, here we go again. You and me, let’s go do this.’ I feel like he lives inside of me in a way.”

And the shenanigans the mischievous Figaro lives out on stage have even bled into Lucas’s real life. Early in his career, he decided to audition at Carnegie Hall with one of the toughest baritone arias of all: “Largo al factotum” from The Barber of Seville. But there was just one problem. His ring finger was dripping blood.

He had sliced it—ironically enough—with a razor. Lucas had spent the day helping a friend move from Washington D.C. to New York, and he had had to get dressed for the audition in a U-Haul truck. He reached into his bag, and slice! The razor snagged his finger.

But he figured the cut had healed by the time he reached Carnegie Hall. No such luck. Just as he hit the showstopper moment—a long yodeling cry of “Figaro”—he threw up his hand. A trickle of blood came streaming down it.

“I look down, and there are just big droplets of blood, probably ten of them on the floor,” Lucas remembers. He continued the aria as if nothing was wrong, but the audition panel ultimately did not ask him to perform a follow-up.

Then there was the time at the Royal Opera when Figaro was set to make his grand entrance through the audience—but one audience member caught Lucas’s eye: actor and comedian Stephen Fry. Lucas considers himself a huge fan.

“I look over and out of my mouth pops, ‘You’re Stephen Fry.’” He could hear the orchestra playing the introduction to “Largo al factotum.” He told himself to concentrate. But behind him he could hear in a plummy English accent: “Why yes. I am.”

In true Figaro style, Lucas looped back, asked to meet him after the show, and launched into the aria, without missing a beat. “So now I’m friends with Stephen Fry,” he laughs.

And Irina remembers a time in Oslo when the staging required Figaro to sharpen two razors—but as Lucas was pulling them from his costume pocket, the second went hurling toward the orchestra pit, where it balanced on the edge of the stage.

“I think I dove after it,” Lucas says. But Irina reminds him: “You said ‘oh crap’ first.” She was sitting in the front row.

But Lucas and Irina revel in the reality of those mishaps. “It’s live theater. People thrive off of those moments where things might go wrong,” Irina says.

This past year, however, has tested the Meachem family’s ability to stay nimble and improvise. The coronavirus pandemic transformed their lives, as it did many families around the world. Work disappeared. Theaters closed. And it seemed as if San Francisco Opera’s spring production of The Barber of Seville might be canceled as well.

But instead, the production has transformed—as has Lucas’s role in it. Now he’s singing Figaro in English, not Italian, in a 90-minute version of Gioachino Rossini’s celebrated score. And he’s performing outdoors on a giant stage formerly used at the Coachella music festival, set up to welcome audience members in cars.

He and Irina also have a new project underway: A Perfect Day Music Foundation, an organization designed to promote inclusivity and diversity in classical music. Earlier this year, the foundation held its first-ever virtual voice competition. Applicants had to record themselves performing music from an African-American composer, poet or librettist.

“I think it’s important to every musician to show themselves through their music and to understand other people’s experiences through it,” Irina explains. The goal, the Meachems say, is to make audiences question whose music is performed and why.

“That’s what we’re trying to do—just open people’s eyes to the idea that the standard repertoire is only standard because it’s been repeated a bunch of times in music schools,” says Lucas.

He adds that he feels a particular responsibility as a white man to champion underrepresented music and use his platform to raise awareness about female and minority artists. He and Irina are already planning a second competition, to focus on women in classical music.

After all, it’s that shared sense of purpose that brought the couple together in the first place—that, and a little Figaro magic.

See Lucas Meachem on stage this spring in The Barber of Seville, live at Marin Center from April 23 to May 15, 2021. And catch up with the Meachems on social media by following Irina, Lucas or A Perfect Day Music Foundation on Instagram.

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