This is the opera whose music everybody knows, but it might take some Italian blood to pronounce the title — "Pagliacci" — correctly. (For the rest of us: "Paul-YACHT-chee." No hard G.)

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This is the opera whose music everybody knows, but it might take some Italian blood to pronounce the title — “Pagliacci” — correctly. (For the rest of us: “Paul-YACHT-chee.” No hard G.)

The title of this opera, which opens Saturday in a Seattle Opera production, means “clowns,” and the opera is a prime example of “verismo” style: gritty, slice-of-life realism, which was all the thing when Ruggero Leoncavallo composed this opera to his own libretto in 1892.

Conductor Dean Williamson, a longtime Seattle Opera stalwart who’s back in town for these performances, says the show is “incredibly exciting in rehearsal. The cast is so Italian, so experienced, and the opera has what I’d call lots of spaghetti sauce and Parmesan cheese.”

It’s Williamson’s first “Pagliacci,” and the experience is so draining that during the Christmas break in rehearsals, he slept for 11 hours a night.

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“It’s so intense! One of the more difficult verismo operas to conduct. It’s not the most facile or beautiful orchestration — it’s more rough and tumble, reflecting the emotional mess of the story.”

The story, set in the mid-19th century, tells of the fatal love and jealousy in a traveling troupe of commedia dell’arte players, who enact a play that parallels the troupe’s amorous entanglements in real life. Canio, one of the players, is justly suspicious of his wife, Nedda, who has a lover (Silvio, though Canio doesn’t yet realize his identity). A third man, Tonio, is also in love with Nedda, but she rebuffs him; in his anger, Tonio tells Canio that Nedda is unfaithful.

During the troupe’s performance that evening, as the players enact a similar story of passion and betrayal, Canio stops acting and demands that his wife tell him the name of her lover. He stabs her; she reveals Silvio’s name, and Canio stabs Silvio, too, finally giving himself up with the words, “La commedia e finita” (the comedy is finished).

No wonder Williamson calls the opera “an emotional mess.” A relatively short work (it’s two hours with an intermission), “Pagliacci” often is paired with another short opera (“Cavalleria Rusticana,” by Mascagni) in a double bill; here it will stand on its own, with staging by Bernard Uzan that Williamson promises will be hair-raising.

Williamson’s own story is considerably more upbeat: A long and much-valued apprenticeship at Seattle Opera has led to a conducting career that now is unfolding across the country with considerable success. For 12 years he was principal coach and pianist for Seattle Opera; Williamson also was an indispensable part of Seattle Opera’s Young Artists Program since its inception, conducting all the program’s performances.

Gradually, the word got out about this talented young conductor. In 2001, he was asked to conduct a new production of “Lucia di Lammermoor” at the Minnesota Opera, and the following year came his debut at the Wolf Trap Opera with “Don Pasquale.” Subsequent engagements took Williamson to companies in St. Louis, San Francisco and other cities, and two years ago, he conducted his first main-stage production for Seattle Opera; he’s back next season for the company’s just-announced “Marriage of Figaro.”

Recently, Williamson was appointed artistic director for Opera Cleveland, a company that had been struggling to find its way following the merger of Cleveland Opera with Lyric Opera Cleveland. This past September, four staff positions were cut, and this season’s roster of five operas has been trimmed to three for the 2008 season.

“Unfortunately, we inherited some financial difficulties,” says Williamson of Opera Cleveland, “but we have a newly invigorated board, and we are working to rebuild our audience base. I think we’re turning in a wonderful direction.”

Trying adventurous programming in the past was not a recipe for audience success, Williamson believes. Now they’re planning to pull the audience back in with three well-known pieces: “La Bohème,” “The Marriage of Figaro” and “Hansel and Gretel.” Williamson has his eye on the bottom line: “I’m a realist. We have to answer to our audiences. I think we build an audience community, and then take them on a journey with us. But we also have to give the audiences what they want.”

Cleveland reviews have been favorable, with the respected critic Donald Rosenberg calling last June’s “La Traviata” an “admirable production.”

Meanwhile, Williamson is getting an apartment in Cleveland but keeping his Bellevue home. He’s also a finalist for the music directorship of the Mid-Columbia Symphony (in this state’s Tri-Cities area).

“I’m really happy, doing what I’m doing,” Williamson says, “and I’m really enjoying this ‘Pagliacci.’ It’s a soap opera in the best sense of the word. It’s something we all can relate to. We’ve all felt anger, frustration, jealousy. Everyone is giving 150 percent up there on the stage. It’s a fantastic production.”

Melinda Bargreen:

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