The brilliant Lillian Groag has been a favorite stage director for the Virginia Opera for the past 20 years. When former VO Artistic Director Peter Mark convinced her that her pristine reputation as a theater director, playwright and actor was an ideal requisite for tackling opera, she plunged into "Tosca" and loved the experience so much that she has returned every season since. Her wit and imagination are the forces behind the company's latest production of Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro," coming this week to George Mason University's Center for the Arts.

"My family went to operas for entertainment, and I grew up regarding them as plays with music, so this seemed a natural direction," she said. " 'The Marriage of Figaro,' a continuation of 'The Barber of Seville' plot, is a direct descendant of commedia dell'arte from 16th-century Italy. The story is about the personal and private drama of two couples, Figaro and his bride-to-be, Susanna, and Count Almaviva, who has his eye on Susanna, and the scheming Countess Almaviva, who has other plans for her husband. The challenge is to solve the troubling question of how the couples will survive.

"All good plays are about how to live life and offer a message of forgiveness. Somewhere in the second act, Mozart chose to skirt disaster. If you listen to his music, you will know at the end that the Count is a changed man and that a woman can change the world by forgiving her husband. This is going to be the funniest production of the opera that anyone has ever seen."

The triple-threat artist has acted on Broadway, Off-Broadway and in regional theaters. She received a Helen Hayes Award in 1994 for Outstanding Supporting Performer as an ensemble cast member in "The Kentucky Cycle" at the Kennedy Center, a role she repeated on Broadway. Her original plays and adaptations ranging from farces to tragedies have been published and enjoyed long runs. As a director, she has worked with the New York City Opera, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the Chicago Opera Theater, the Boston Lyric Opera, and numerous theaters in this country and abroad. Not only does she have an enormous sense of humor, as "The Marriage of Figaro" audiences will discover, but she also abounds in imagination. Last season, she surmounted the need for elephants in the VO production of "Aida" by replacing them with ballet dancers who fit nicely onto the small stage.

'The Marriage of Figaro'
» Where: George Mason University Center for the Arts, 4400 University Drive, Fairfax
» When: 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Sunday
» Info: $44 to $98; 888-945-2468;

Canadian soprano Katherine Whyte is thrilled to step into the role of Countess Almaviva, one she has sung before. Earlier this season, she sang with the National Symphony Orchestra in performances of "The Messiah" before returning to the Metropolitan Opera for the new production of "Parsifal."

"That was my first Wagner ever, and it was such a thrill to be presented with a Wagner-sized orchestra," she said. "It was a wonderful opportunity to project and allow my voice to sing out. Now I'm excited about working with Lillian for the third time. The first time was while I was a student at Juilliard. She is hands down the funniest director I know, and I love the idea of taking this show to the three venues in Norfolk, Richmond and Fairfax and having time to sink your teeth into a role."