Bronx Opera’s 2018 season

OperaMetro (OM) had the privilege of talking spooky tunes and ghost tales with Bronx Opera’s Ben Spierman (BS). This time, in addition to the new season, its 51st actually, Ben is also the newly promoted General Director of the Company.

Ben Spierman, General Director of Bronx Opera

Ben Spierman, General Director of Bronx Opera

OM: Ben, so nice to be talking to you again!

BS: A pleasure as well.

OM: First of all, how is your father Michael?

BS: He’s well, thank you.

OM: And before we start on 2018, I want to repeat that BxO’s Sir John in Love in January last season remains a magical experience for me, my wife, and my friends who were there, really a cherished memory.

BS: As you know, Sir John in Love has a very special spot in our company’s history. It was an incredible experience for us as well.

OM: So this season you’re doing Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz.

BS: We’ve done both before, each a few times. We felt it was time to do them again, but this time together in the same season. Last season we did two Falstaff operas, the Vaughan Williams and the Verdi, more or less variations on a character, but this season we thought we’d do contrasts within a genre, namely early German opera. Abduction from the Seraglio is arguably the oldest German opera in the standard repertory. It’s a delightful piece in the classical mode, Mozart, of course. Freischütz is, one could say, the archetypal German Romantic Opera. Its impact on the 19th Century was considerable. Both operas are groundbreaking but they couldn’t be more different.

OM: Entführung came later in my experience, though I’d known the overture from the radio and my sister loved it, but for me Freischütz especially has a special place in my life: when I was beginning to explore opera, my grandmother told me that when she was a young woman in Germany she sang in the bridesmaids chorus in the third act for a local production of Freischütz. My mother, her daughter, loved the opera as well.

BS: Interesting.

OM: They’re great operas, both of ‘em, but apart from the connection, both “firsts” in the evolution of German opera and both actually wonderful on stage, any other motives?

BS: We’re always with an eye on the budget, so this has to be a more frugal year. We were looking for something a little smaller in terms of principals, supporting cast, production values, rehearsal time and so on. Last year was a big budget year, this year we are going to tighten our belts a bit.

OM: One would agree that the Mozart is pretty compact, but certainly Freischütz is a big piece scenically, even if the number of principals is small.

Falstaff tormented in Windsor Park scene...

Falstaff tormented in Windsor Park scene...

BS: Yes, but we have the sets from last spring’s production of Falstaff in storage, more or less intact.

OM: Ah, so Windsor Park relocates to Central Germany!

BS: And I’m also playing with a bunch of different ideas about how to make the Wolf Glen scene work for modern audiences.

OM: No black boar breaking through the bushes on casting the second bullet, eh?

BS:  Black boars are not a big source of fear in the Bronx these days.

OM: But y’all did have some coyotes, yes?

BS: Must have missed them.

OM: So a wait-and-see on the scary parts.

BS: Right.

OM: Casts?

BS: Abduction is pretty much cast and we’re rehearsing the principals as I speak. David Morrow is one of our Osmins…

OM: Ah! I spoke with him last January and shook his hand in the lobby at the performance of Sir John in Love.

BS: Our other Osmin is Michael Hearn. Our sopranos are new, and so on. As I say, it’s cast, in rehearsal, with a combination of familiar artists young and older, some familiar, some new ones to the company.

OM: Tell about your relationship with Der Freischütz and Carl Maria von Weber.

BS: Okay, for starters, I directed our last production back in 2000. I think it’s a great opera, too often ignored. Weber was a master musician of the early 19th century. He was so well known in Eastern Europe: Vienna, Prague, Dresden, Leipzig, Berlin…famous as a conductor as well as a composer. Weber’s use of the orchestra was quite unique for the time. He gave more voice to woodwinds, bringing the clarinet, among others, to the fore and working with the tonal color of the instruments. His contemporaries, certainly Hector Berlioz and a young Richard Wagner learned much from him.

OM: I remember being struck by how prominent the woodwinds are in Wagner’s Romantic Operas, meaning here Der fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin, especially for the heroines, Elisabeth and Elsa in particular, when they become more inward and solitary. But even in the Ring the woodwinds are often conspicuous, especially in the quiet interludes. Unfortunately they're often buried by the big horns in recordings. One of the joys of hearing an opera in a live performance to discover one's own proper new balance.

BS: It’s fascinating how Weber uses his orchestra. It comes out in the characterizations: Freischütz is about the collision of two worlds both in orchestral sound and in vocal writing. The young women, Agathe and Ännchen, are from a more innocent world, like Da Ponte and Mozart’s women without the art and sexual undercurrents. Their relationship is positive, supportive, connected…the duet opening Act II and their ensuing arias are a completely different tonal place from that of the spooky Wolf Glen Scene later in the Act.

OM: Agathe and Ännchen in the first scene of Act II. It’s one of my absolute favorite scenes. I play their opening duet in my classes every chance I get. I’m a fan of the voice types and the vocal writing is so lovely.

BS: Ännchen is aware that this is a difficult time for Agathe, whose happiness and future depend on Max winning the shooting contest, and while Ännchen is not fully aware of the depth of Agathe’s angst and certainly can’t change the outcome of the contest, she can at least be a little goofy and cheer Agathe up. Put the orchestral sound for them in contrast to that of the woodsmen and hunters.

OM: And then there’s Kaspar…

BS: Right, who’s conspiring with Samiel, the devil. Kaspar needs a deal fast, get someone else damned in his place. He knows Max is desperate and weak: Max has lost the trial match at the opening of Act I and, if he blows the next contest, will most likely lose Agathe’s hand. Kaspar makes him an offer he can’t refuse. Very Faustian and very dramatic: sell your soul to the devil so that you’ll get what you want: Power, Wealth, Immortality, Sex…want to sleep with Helen of Troy? Want to win a World Series? So what does one do?

OM: The townsfolk aren’t helping him either.

BS: No, they are not. But the hunters and the townsfolk make for some grand choruses!

OM: Back to the nuts and bolts of production values: how does one realize the Wolf Glen Scene on a small stage? The Met couldn’t pull it off on the big stage in 1971, which was the only time I saw it there. You can’t exactly relocate and update it to Central Park, coyotes notwithstanding.

BS: No, you’re right, it’s a deep forest piece, very much out in the woods. I’m still working on this one.

OM: You’ve not done Euryanthe or Oberon, but you have done another Weber opera, right? We touched on this briefly last year.

BS: Yes, The Three Pintos is by Weber. At the time of his death he’d completed the first Act, but a total of fifteen out of the twenty four numbers were left at most in sketch form. Gustav Mahler restored it, composing from Weber’s themes and orchestrating everything he needed to. it. You can tell immediately what Mahler touched. Interesting that since the musical themes are mostly by Weber himself, it’s not obvious at a piano rehearsal how much Mahler’s genius is in the orchestral score. But as soon as you hear the orchestra you’re suddenly in a different world. I’d love to direct it again.

OM: Shifting gears here, congratulations on your new title: General Director.

BS: Thank you! It really doesn’t change the work I do, it just better reflects what I do and cements it with a new title.

OM: How is BxO doing?

BS: We’re doing well. But, as I said, we’re tightening our belts a bit. Sir John in Love and Falstaff were big shows in many ways, costly and the price of our venue in Manhattan, the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College, has gotten suddenly too expensive.  We’re doing all of our performances at the Lovinger Theater at Lehman College in the Bronx this season. Check out our website for dates and ticket information. But our community outreach is still very strong. We do choruses for senior citizens who find joy in singing together and we still go into the local schools for presentations and workshops. It’s really exciting to see them, all ages, light up with music. I feel too that we have a strong audience base here in the Bronx and in Manhattan. We’re always looking for more funding and support, but all in all we’re pretty healthy.

OM: I think one thing that becomes pretty obvious is that you and BxO are at the center of several communities, obviously one arc on the side of the communities of audiences and supporters, but another also on the side of a community of artists who get an opportunity to perform, get stage experience, maybe learn a thing or two and launch themselves into a serious career.

BS: It takes a village…or an opera company.

OM: Thank you, Ben, and my best, again, to your father.

BS: Thank you!

Photos supplied by Bronx Opera.

The Bronx Opera performs Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio on the weekend of Martin Luther King day in January, 2018; Weber’s Der Freischütz will be performed on two weekends in May. Both are sung in English with supertitles. The Abduction from the Seraglio translates just as that, but Der Freischütz translates roughly as “the marksman who doesn’t have to aim because the magic bullets hit their target anyway.” Stick with Der Freischütz.

Casting, tickets, etc. will be accessible soon at the Bronx Opera’s website, which is: Wait!!! Don't leave this site! Ben tells me that tickets are now on sale for Abduction: go to and click "Click here to buy ABDUCTION tickets". We'll see you at Lehman! See you there, Ben!

In 2014 OperaMetro posted, then reposted in 2016 a review of great recordings of Der Freischütz on CD and DVD. This can be found on the page Historical Recordings. 

Support your local opera!! Abduction from the Seraglio, hey, of course, Mozart, say no more, but Der Freischütz is a great opera. As my dear friend Dick frequently says, “you never know when you’ll see it again!” Right? Dick is often right on these things, except for Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito...he's seen it several times by this point in time.

Endure the cold. If your face freezes while smiling you’ll more likely make friends quickly.

Just a thought.

Review of Dvořák’s Dimitrij at Bard

The strength of Bard’s presentation of Dvořák’s grand opera Dimitrij lies with the performers, both onstage: soloists, chorus, dancers, and in the pit. The word ‘heroic’ comes quickly to mind.

Dimitrij is a big work, three hours and a decent amount more, not counting the two intermissions, and, like most grand operas, it has several extended moments during which one bathes luxuriously in waves of opulent sound, then one more time, but not much happens plotwise. Albeit it moving along slowly but surely, the drama is clearly etched.

Basically, Dimitrij assumes the throne of Russia after the death of Boris Godunov. His claim is promoted by Marina, a Polish princess, a Catholic, of course, and her retainers. They’re ultimately looking to take control of the country from the reigning Russian Orthodox culture. The clash between the Polish Catholics and Russian Orthodox, prefigured in the Polish Act of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, is more prominent in Dvořák’s Dimitrij.

Marina’s nasty little secret is that Dimitrij is not in fact the son of the late Tsar Ivan the Terrible, but rather a lowly serf raised to believe that he is Dimitrij and goaded into action. Not all the Russians are fooled either, certainly not Shuisky, who knows that Ivan’s son was murdered when an infant. Certainly not Ivan’s widow Marfa either: she knows he is not her son Dimitrij Ivanovich, but…she falsely claims that he is because she thinks he can be useful to settle old wrongs against her family.

Add to the confusion, Xenia, daughter of the late Tsar Boris and legitimate heir to the throne, is still alive. She evaded the thugs who murdered her brother Fyodor and mother and happens to be hiding with Prince Shuisky.

So Dimitrij is caught in the middle of a lot of powerful scheming people and on top of it doesn’t know the truth about his identity. Good guy, he rescues Xenia from some lusty Poles, falls in love with her, which angers Marina, who reveals the truth about Dimitrij’s origins and has Xenia killed. At Xenia’s death, Shuisky demands justice, has Marina arrested, denounces Dimitrij, hauls in Marfa again to attest to his identity…not looking good for our boy by the end. I won’t give away the ending, but Shuisky shoots Dimitrij right then and there.

Melissa Citro as Marina and Clay Hilley as Dimitrij at Bard

Melissa Citro as Marina and Clay Hilley as Dimitrij at Bard

Clay Hilley’s Dimitrij is heroically sung throughout, with a bright ring in his tenor range. This is a long, strenuous role, for sure. His body speaks of the language of a man whose character is not comfortable with the demands of absolute power, his softer side coming out during his first encounter with Xenia in the tomb of Ivan and Boris. Lovely duet and the beginning of a romance. Attend to the way Hilley moves.

The sensitive Dimitrij’s no match for the brazen lust for power exhibited by Marina, forcefully sung by Melissa Citro. Tall and regal, Citro has a clean dramatic soprano voice that easily cuts through chorus and orchestra. Dvořák gives her ample opportunity to shine. Mother Marfa, too, has a regal voice. She is Nora Sourouzian, rich in tone and thrilling vocally. Then, in contrast, petite Olga Tolkmit charms by sweetness and introspection, if plagued by despair. More demure than the others, she captivates Dimitrij (and the audience) with a bright silvery tone.

Iov, the Orthodox Patriarch is sung by Peixin Chen with a cavernous bass that gives gravity to his every utterance. Shuisky, the prince whose plotting hastened the fall of Boris Godunov (in Mussorgsky’s opera), is faithfully Russian to the end, which (after the opera’s over) will lead to his coronation as Tsar. Levi Hernandez gives urgency to Shuisky’s conniving loyalty. Joseph Barron is a loyal Basmanov. The chorus must wear many hats, literally: pay attention to their attire! They are in and out, here and there, sometimes Russians, sometimes Poles, sometimes priests, court officials and serfs…and so on. I liked their energy on stage throughout the long afternoon.

Praise again to Leon Botstein for choosing a fascinating opera which, sadly, we’re not likely to see again. The American Symphony Orchestra played wonderfully under his baton.

Dramatically, this Dimitrij had mostly high points, though my emotional reactions were enhanced from preparation by emersion in the orchestral and vocal picture and text from the complete recording. The singers onstage fit their music and their characters and I responded accordingly. Director Anne Bogart ’74 kept the players moving in what easily could have settled into a lot of standing around. The coordination of it all must have presented a staggering challenge.

I completely understand their general reasoning and decisions, but I fault the production design team for, bottom line, an ugly production visually, particularly the costumes. I mean, I get it: it’s the collapse of the Soviet Union, certainly a Time of Troubles for them as it was for the Terribles and the Godunovs, Hardly the moment when making a fashion statement is a priority over survival. And no, I’m not saying that I’d prefer it set in 1605/06: the cost of the costumes and the time for the chorus to change them are both prohibitive. But…Led Zeppelin? Really?

Don’t miss Dimitrij. It’s likely your only shot at it in this lifetime.

The final performances of Bard’s rendition of Dvořák’s grand opera Dimitrij are tonight, August 4 @ 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, August 6 @ 2 p.m. For tickets, call 845-758-7900 or check out their website.

As an added treat, Bard presents in concert Stanislaw Moniuszko’s Halka, often called the Poland’s National Opera, on Saturday, August 19, in the Sosnoff Theater, pre-concert talk at 7:00 p,m. performance follows at 8.

Photo: Todd Norwood

Performance date: Sunday, July 30, 2017

Note: Check out also the two previous OperaMetro pieces on Bard’s Dimitrij, a preview right below this and additional historical background on the page Addenda; Bard provides excellent program notes. If you see it, you won’t go into the experience empty minded.

It was one of the lovelier days of the summer of 2017! A great experience on every count, this Bard SummerScape. If you haven't indulged yourself, go for it! Next season is an unjustly neglected Russian opera. Happily, Maestro Botstein says some previous productions may soon be released on audio or video! My short list of acquisitions is being prepared as I type this.

Happy trails! J.

Dvořák’s Dimitrij at Bard Summerscape

Antonin Dvořák’s grand historic opera Dimitrij fills the stage of the Sosnoff Theatre as the centerpiece of the 2017 Bard SummerScape and the Bard Music Festival. Tenor Clay Hilley sings the demanding title role; Melissa Citro sings his 'can't live with her, can't live without her' wife Marina; the production is directed by Anne Bogart; Leon Botstein, Music Director, conducts the American Symphony Orchestra.

Though Rusalka has at long last made its way into the hearts, minds, and ears of today’s opera audience, Dvořák’s other operas (listed below with the dates of first composition and subsequent revisions during his lifetime) are heard stateside through recordings at least, though occasionally in concert. Like Dimitrij, for one, in 1984. But this summer Bard offers up Dimitrij, this time up on stage, fully dressed to kill.

The opera's origins come at a time in Dvořák’s musical journey when his sights are not only focused on writing for the stage, but also set on penetrating the music scene in Vienna. There Johannes Brahms reigned, late comer Anton Bruckner was ascending, albeit awkwardly, but a young Gustav Mahler stood, waiting in the wings in Budapest. Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances op. 46 make a splash; conductor Hans Richter asks him to compose what will be his Symphony in D major, now cataloged as his 6th. Dvořák’s Stabat Mater (1880) will be well received in Royal Albert Hall in London a couple of years later. He will befriend Brahms soon.

Melissa Citro as Marina and Clay Hilley as Dimitrij

Melissa Citro as Marina and Clay Hilley as Dimitrij

But opera remains a fondness for him, especially with Bedřich Smetana as a national role model, and let's not forget his various gigs in the orchestras of opera houses as a source of income. Here Dvořák plays his viola to the scores of Meyerbeer, Wagner (once with the Meister himself conducting), Smetana, probably Weber…At this point he's five operas in, but no notoriety outside of Prague.

In late 1880 Marie Červinková-Riegrová supplies Dvořák with the libretto for Dimitrij, more or less the sequel to Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. He sets the text between May and October, 1881, finishing in time to premiere it at the New Czech Theatre in Prague in October of 1882. But Dvořák continues to tinker with the score, adding this, rewriting that.

Is our boy ready for prime time? Vienna, perhaps? Well, Eduard Hanslick, the powerful Viennese critic, warns Dvořák that to have even a prayer of getting Dimitrij produced in Vienna he’d best change Xenia’s final scene. Červinková rewrites it, as requested: Xenia now goes into a convent rather than die at the hands of Marina and the Poles. A few more changes: the final tinkered version is published in 1886, now to be called ‘the first version.’

Alas, Dimitrij never makes it to Vienna, alternate final curtain for Xenia notwithstanding; Dvořák, busy with other projects, loses faith in it. He also travels to America, where everyone loves him and his music. Oh, and there he writes the Symphony Nr. 9 in E minor 'From the New World' and the Cello Concerto in B minor, Op 104. Not too shabby.

But just as the vision of the murdered Dimitri plagues Tsar Boris in Mussorgsky, Dimitrij haunts him. Dvořák rewrites the music entirely, eventually producing it at the National Theatre in Prague in November of 1894, called here ‘the second version.’ Dvořák waffles again near the end of his life, cobbling not really a new third version, but mixing parts of the first version with parts of the second; it’s produced in March of 1904, the last year of Dvořák’s life. Enter Karel Kovařovic, director of the National Theatre, who, for a 1906 production of the opera, uses the first version, but cuts it to pieces, mixes in two cups of the second version, but also a dash of monkeying with the instrumentation, some alterations of the text to top it off, salt to taste, and so on. This last supposedly was, like, ‘it’ until the appearance of Milan Pospíšil’s critical edition, back to the first version; this score is used, minus a few small cuts here and there, in the 1989 recording of Dimitrij under the baton of Gerd Albrecht.

Supraphon's 1989 recording of Dimitrij conducted by Gerd Albrecht

Supraphon's 1989 recording of Dimitrij conducted by Gerd Albrecht

The recording is great preparation! And as long as you’re up, a quick listen to Boris wouldn't hurt either, though Dvořák’s music is of course not Mussorgsky’s (your call on 'for better or for worse' here). Dvořák would not have known the Mussorgsky score. In answer to the question ‘what does Dimitrij sound like?’ It sounds like Dvořák. Could I be more specific? It sounds to me more like his opera Wanda. Helpful? Of course not. Nor does answering that every white meat, rabbit, for one, tastes like chicken. But wait, Wanda? So you mean it's not like Rusalka? Well, no, for the first version of Dimitrij he seems to be modeling himself more on structure and style of Meyerbeer's grand operas, maybe early Wagner like Lohengrin, and of course Smetana's Libuše. Yes, like the plot of Rusalka, Dimitrij does have the tenor's pretty soprano love interest bumped aside by an assertive, brash mezzo...but Dimitrij is grand and heroic, public, big choruses, not a fairy tale in the steamy summer moonlight with water nymphs, wood nymphs, gnomes and all sorts of magical goings on from a sorceress. How could Dimitrij sound the same? Okay, then why is Dimitrij not performed more often? The tenor role is long and high; if you set the production in the correct time period, sets, costumes and all, it probably is very costly, and the plot is a little wooden. Speaking of which...

Thus follows the plot of Dimitrij (Czech spelling of the title character throughout):

Act I: The crowd in Moscow awaits the announcement of the new Tsar after Boris’s sudden death. They’re split between supporters for Fyodor, Boris’s son, or supporters for anyone else who is not a nasty Godunov and also can improve the nation's health insurance. Someone claiming to be Dimitrij, son of Ivan the Terrible, is outside the city gates with the Polish army, they having just defeated the Russians (remember the end of Boris). Basmanov tells those assembled that all of Russia is already on board with this Dimitrij, but Prince Vassily Shuisky calls the newcomer the Polish Pretender (aka ‘the False Dimitrij’). You remember Shuisky: he's the shape-shifter, the 'friend' who drives Tsar Boris to hallucinations in the so-called Clock Scene in the Kremlin Act. But the people are swayed to support the triumphant young leader. Boris Godunov’s daughter Xenia (remember her from the Kremlin Act in Boris) escapes from the mob. They've just murdered her mother and Fyodor her brother (son Fyodor, though not yet crowned, sits on the Boris's vacated throne as his successor at the end of Boris's Death Scene). Xenia is protected by Shuisky’s cover. Marfa, mother to the Real Dimitrij, the real son of Ivan the Terrible, confronts the False Dimitrij, but opts not to reveal the latter's hoax in favor of Dimitrij’s promise to revenge her wrongdoers from back in the day. Take notes. This might be on the first quiz.

Act II: Dimitrij and Marina Mnishkova (recall her conniving for his love in the Polish act of Boris Godunov) are married in the Kremlin, but, first marital squabble, she is really put off by his request that she become Russian in all things. Subsequently, at a gathering of Russians and Poles, Marina raises a glass and calls for a mazurka. The rival factions exchange words, quelled only by Dimitrij’s intervention. Later, in the vault of the Uspenski Cathedral, at the tomb of Ivan the Terrible, Dimitrij observes pretty young Xenia, who visits her father’s tomb with flowers while also hiding from the rabble rousing Poles. Něborský a negative Pole, has followed her, he being prone to unclean thoughts, but Dimitrij intercedes. Alone with her, Dimitrij is clearly affected by her gentleness and beauty (certainly compared to the head-strong power-hungry Marina!), but he does not reveal his rank or identity. Xenia departs safely, just as Shuisky and followers arrive at the crypt. Shuisky briefly tells anyone listening the story of the Real Dimitrij, dead for years, and tries to form some degree of solidarity among the rebellious Russian followers. Our Dimitrij overcomes their doubts and also orders Shuisky's arrest.

Act III: Dimitrij is in love with Xenia. The Patriarch asks him to counter the Polish arrogance, a request echoed by Marfa, but Marina asserts her power. We learn that Shuisky is to be executed for treason, right then and there. Xenia rushes in to plead for his life, first to Marina, but then to the Tsar. How shocked is she to recognize Dimitrij as that titled person in the big chair! He pardons Shuisky. Marina senses the connection between D and X; she, jealous, reveals to Dimitrij the story of his true origins: he is Grishka Otrepyev! She knows from her father that the Real Dimitri was murdered by Godunov's thugs. Identity crisis ensues, but Dimitrij regains his cool and one-ups Marina.

Act IV: Xenia is in love with Dimitrij, but at the same time she hates him for destroying her whole family. Together again, each waffles a bit emotionally, but they end up respectfully at odds. Dimitrij departs. Marina has Xenia murdered; Shuisky rallies the people. Caught at the scene, Marina reveals the Pretender’s true identity to all, but Dimitrij stands firm, and who can believe Marina, after all?! Marfa, his “mother” is asked to step forward to swear on the Cross that Dimitrij is indeed her son. She, not wanting to rat on him, but a true believer, hesitates. He knows the game is over: Dimitrij says “Do not swear, I do not want the throne by fraud.” Shuisky whacks Dimitrij. And that’s the end of that. Only in The Godfather flicks.

Director Anne Bogart says in the program notes: “For me it was important to set Dimitrij at a time analogous to the “Time of Troubles” in Russia, when the world order had altered and no one knew whether to support or resist the new hegemony. Of course this instability is very familiar and resonant to our own current moment. I could have set our production in the present but instead I opted for the slight distancing of a time reminiscent of 1989 Berlin. Our Dimitrij takes place at the moment in history when Communism had collapsed but it was not yet clear what shape the future might take.”

Leon Botstein will give us a version of Dimitrij probably with a high percentage of the music on the Albrecht recording (which, BTW, runs 190 minutes). Last year in the pre-opera talk he stated he’d be doing the ‘first version’ with some additional numbers.

Photo by Todd Norwood.

Dvořák’s Dimitrij is performed in the Sosnoff Theater on the Fridays July 28 and August 4 at 7:30 p.m., Sundays July 30 and August 6 and Wednesday August 2 at 2 p.m. The pre-opera talk is July 30 at noon. The opera is sung in Czech with projected English titles. Catch the SummerScape Coach from Manhattan’s Upper West Side, but only for selected performances. For details visit  Bottom line: for dates and times, the bus, also ticket sales, can't get in without one, please visit Bard’s website or call the Box Office at 845-758-7900.

Dimitrij: Clay Hilley, tenor; Marina: Melissa Citro, soprano; Xenie: Olga Tolkmit, soprano; Marfa: Nora Sourouzian, mezzo-soprano; Jove: Peixin Chen, bass; Shuisky: Levi Hernandez, baritone; Basmanov: Joseph Barron, bass-baritone; Neborsky: Joseph Damon Chappel, bass-baritone; Bucinsky: Thomas McCargar, baritone.

The American Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Leon Botstein, music director. The production is directed by Anne Bogart, with sets by David Zinn, costumes by Constance Hoffman, lighting by Brian H. Scott, movement directed by Barney O’Hanlon, and hair/makeup by Jared Janas and David Bova.
As an added treat, Bard presents in concert Stanislaw Moniuszko’s Halka, often called Poland’s National Opera, on Saturday, August 19, in the Sosnoff Theater, pre-concert talk at 7:00 p,m. performance follows at 8. Also there are lots of side events surrounding Chopin's music and the culture.

Dvořák’s operas are Alfred (1870); Král a uhliř (King and Charcoal-Burner) (1871) (quite Wagnerian apparently); Tvrdé palice (The Stubborn Lovers) (1874); Král a uhliř (King and Charcoal-Burner) (first revision 1874); Vanda (1876); Šelma sedlák (The Cunning Peasant) (1878); Dimitrij (orginal version 1882); Král a uhliř (King and Charcoal-Burner) (second revision 1887); Jakobín (The Jacobin) (1889); Dimitrij (second version 1894); Čert a Káča (The Devil and Kate) (1899); Rusalka (1901) (shame on you if you don't know this one); Armida (1904).

Enjoy Dimitrij. An evening (or afternoon) of Tsars. See you on the 30th. Support your local opera...I sound like a broken record. J.

Bel Canto at Caramoor presents Bellini’s Il Pirata

Vincenzo Bellini’s infrequently performed opera Il Pirata graces the concert stage of the Venetian Theatre at the Caramoor International Music Festival on July 8. Will Crutchfield, Director of Opera and founder of Bel Canto at Caramoor, conducts. Soprano Angela Meade, who has appeared previously at Caramoor in other rarities of the Italian bel canto repertory, who now sings regularly at the Metropolitan Opera and at other great opera houses around the world, will essay her first Imogene, as well as perform in the Opening Night Gala on June 17. OperaMetro (OM) had the privilege to talk with Will Crutchfield (WC) and Angela Meade (AM) whilst supping a light luncheon, cucumber sandwiches and perhaps some iced tea overlooking the lush property of Caramoor…well, no, truth is I'm down in my dark office at home and I haven’t the faintest idea where they could be as they composed their wonderful answers to my emailed questions. But we can pretend. Here goes:

OM: Will, Angela, welcome again!

AM: Yes, thank you.

WC: Thank you.

OM: You’re doing Il pirata, which, though only Bellini’s third opera, premiered at La Scala in 1827. We know Domenico Barbaja managed Scala and also managed big theaters in Naples, where Bellini’s second opera, Bianca e Gernando premiered. What signs were there in Bianca that would lead Barbaja to commission a new opera from such a young man for the grand La Scala?

Will Crutchfield conducts Orchestra of St. Luke's for Bellini's Il pirata

Will Crutchfield conducts Orchestra of St. Luke's for Bellini's Il pirata

WC: Bellini's very first opera, Adelson e Salviniwas written while he was a student in Naples, and was a "hit" with a student cast. Barbaja had a contract with the conservatories to produce an opera by their most promising student; the composer Niccolò Zingarelli nominated Bellini for this honor, and as a result Bianca was put on at the San Carlo, Naples, with Henriette Méric-Lalande and Giovanni Rubini in the leading roles. When that succeeded, it was natural for Barbaja to propose a commission with the same two singers for La Scala, which was Il pirata. Rubini, especially, would premiere other Bellini operas, including creating the role of Arturo in I Puritani.

OM: Today Pirata sits on the fringe, on the Rings of Saturn, so to speak, around the planet of the standard repertory we know and love...whereas Bianca, interesting as it is, is off somewhere in outer space. If there is a qualitative leap from Bianca to Pirata, what aspects of the latter are the substance of this leap? Is the addition of Felice Romani’s libretto a significant factor?

WC: Romani is THE factor. Bellini's musical gift was almost fully-formed from a very early age. He was equipped both musically and intellectually to respond to the work of a great poet, which Romani was. His librettos have a psychological through-line and unity of atmosphere that make him one of the major figures in the history of opera, indeed, seven of Bellini's ten operas were written with him. Bellini and Romani could sustain a mood or a situation and probe into it profoundly. They didn't need to look for surface variety because they had the ability to go in one direction at a time with powerful eloquence. It's one of the great collaborations in history, like Mozart with Da Ponte or Gluck with Calzabigi.

OM: Epic collaborations, to be sure.

WC: Once Bellini hit his stride by finding the right partner in Romani, I think everything he composed was on the same high level. Yes, Zaira falls below the others due to the hasty circumstances – this is generally agreed, and I think it's fair, but Bellini recovered quickly with I Capuleti e i Montecchi. At the very end, in I puritaniwe see Bellini experimenting with some more adventurous harmonies - I think he got them partly from Chopin - but his early death means we don't get to know where he would have gone with those.

Angela Meade to sing Imogene in Bellini's Il Pirata at Caramoor

Angela Meade to sing Imogene in Bellini's Il Pirata at Caramoor

OM: On to Pirata: Angela, first time with the role of Imogene? Or have you performed it before?

AM: This is indeed my first time with Il pirata. It’s been on my wish list for several years; however, finding an opportunity to essay the part was a challenge.

OM: What drew you to it?

AM: I initially fell in love with the final scene, both the beauty of the cavatina and the ferocity of the cabaletta as well as the drama of the situation.

OM: It’s a powerful scene, as well as its evocative orchestral introduction.

AM: Yes, but in addition to that final scene, the entire score is emotionally compelling. Imogene is caught in your classic no-win situation: her lover Gualtiero has fled after a conflict with Ernesto, Duke of Caldora. In order to save her father’s life, Imogene has been forced to marry the Duke and then have a child with him. But she has dark premonitions of Gualtiero’s death, which are expressed in her first aria. Twist of fate here, she finds out her lover is actually alive and has come back to Caldora. Imogene is overwhelmed with anxiety that he will be discovered by Ernesto and killed, thus fulfilling her premonitions.

OM: That’s a no-win situation, for sure!

AM: Ernesto not only finds out that she is still in love with Gualtiero, but, worse, he has seen him, here in Caldora, alive! The tension between Imogene and Ernesto explodes and finally she goes mad when the two men put their own hatred for each other ahead of any concern for her. They leave her to fight it out to the death.

OM: Grim. Angela, you’ve sung Bellini’s Norma and Verdi’s Elvira in Ernani at the Met, Rossini’s Semiramide is coming there in February, but now Imogene at Caramoor. Would we agree that these operas are ‘of a style,’ yet different bel canto roles from, say, Gilda or Lucia? Would you say that vocally you’re most comfortable in these roles? Roles you sing marvelously, I’ll quickly add…

AM: Thank you! I feel like all bel canto roles, including early Verdi, are connected or at least should be. The technique is the same. I believe my voice lends itself to this style of music and I also am passionate about it and therefore I am an advocate for it.

WC: I venture to say it's a good thing for bel canto opera if we restore the idea that contrasting voices can sing the same role and cast different light on it. Angela could sing every single role Bellini wrote for soprano, but I think there are others, with voices to a degree different from hers, who also could sing these roles. You can say that Norma needs more sheer volume than Amina in La sonnambula - ok, fair enough - but after all those two roles were written for the same artist. To an extent I feel we over-emphasize a “type" of voice today. For me it’s more important to have the solid training and the vocal skills and then the artistry and intelligence as a singer to communicate something through these.

OM: Okay, let’s rewind to the beginning. You’re singing Imogene in Pirata, summer of 2017. Is there a general trajectory in time from “Wow! I really want to sing this role” to the actual performance of it on the stage? In other words, in your experience, FYI younger singers reading this, what is the approximate time line from your wish list to a public performance for a role?

Angela Meade actually on stage at Caramoor

Angela Meade actually on stage at Caramoor

AM: Well, I am of the mindset that all singers should have a general outline of when and what roles they should sing and when to add heavier/bigger/different fach roles. I thoroughly enjoy the bel canto repertoire and have never, not even once been bored by the schedule of roles I keep. I would like to keep my voice in the same place, singing the high bel canto and early Verdi roles as long as possible. This said, though, each role in my experience had its own trajectory. Some roles are added at the last minute due to cancellations, no warning, and you have to put them in your voice quickly, shift your schedule around. Others you have months or even years from the first notification through preparation time and onto the stage. Obviously the latter is preferred but not always possible.

OM: Example?

AM: Well, Rossini’s Ermione is a role I had always wanted to sing but I wasn’t sure where or when the opportunity would arise. Suddenly, out of the clear blue, it popped up just 6 weeks before the beginning of the rehearsal period, so I scrambled...and this in the midst of planning my wedding! But then other times, like Alice in Falstaff at the Met I had a three year lead time to prepare it.

OM: I LOVED your Alice Ford in the Met’s new Falstaff! Updated, certainly, but not stupid. The comradery and joy with the other women on stage was infectious. Bravi! Tell me about your experience stepping into the role and working with Robert Carsen and the cast for this production.

AM: Falstaff was a dream. The other women in the production were not only colleagues but also friends. It was such a joy to work in that environment! Working with Maestro Levine in one of his signature and favorite operas was an inspiration and his passion for the piece was infectious. And director Robert Carsen was delightful to work with. He was insightful, kind, encouraging and had a lot of detail specific ideas regarding the production. I thought the idea of updating it to the 1950’s was genius and P.S. I ADORED my yellow kitchen and matching dress!

OM: It was magical, for sure. Will, how about the rest of the cast for Il pirata?

WC: I'm very excited about both Santiago Ballerini and Harold Wilson. Ballerini had a big success here in Donizetti’s La favorite and I immediately wanted to bring him back - he has a strong, focused, beautiful tenor sound and an unusual seriousness as an actor. Wilson is a powerful bass, a Wagner bass, with the expertise to sing fast, precise coloratura right along with a soprano. The role of Ernesto is usually miscast - here we're not talking so much about "type" of voice as simple range of voice. It has a lot of low notes and not many high notes, so a bass with a good upper range can fill it better than a typical baritone. Actually, the character is a lot like Hunding in Wagner’s Die Walküre - honorable by his own lights, but married to an unwilling spouse. That was a big topic for opera at a time when the right of women to choose marriage freely was not yet secure, even in the parts of the world where it is protected now. So I'm glad to have a Hunding-type bass who can also sing bel canto.

OM: You’re doing a few other Bel Canto events this summer, as always. I see one concerning the great bel canto tenor Manuel Garcia. Coincidentally I’ve been doing a lot of reading about soprano Maria Malibran, so I know much about the personality of Garcia the father and the psychology of Maria the daughter. Curious: is the event about Garcia on June 29 a program of arias he would have sung, duets with Maria, maybe about the impact he had on the opera of that time time…or, for that matter, the impact his son had as a master teacher of the voice?

WC: Actually this event is a complete chamber opera García wrote for his students, just after his retirement from the stage. It is an Italian comedy composed in the form of singing lessons - perfect for the young singers in our program!

OM: I interview a lot of younger, upcoming singers for these pages as well. Angela, what advice would you give those who are a few steps behind you, in terms of career coaching?

AM: I’d tell them it’s all about the music and with that your strong dedication to the work. When you’re performing it’s about living the character through the words and how the composer set those words to music. It’s about listening and learning and being actively engaged in the whole process…oh, and being a good colleague.

OM: Make good choices.

AM: That too.

OM: All right, so here it is, summer, nice weather, I always seem to mention the weather at the tail end of my reviews, for most people it's time for a vacation. But here you are gearing up for a major performance at Caramoor! What does Angela Meade do to relax or regroup? I’ll bet you’ll say ‘there is no time to relax,’ you’re always ‘working’ on something…I get it, I do this too, but what not-on-stage-singing projects do you reserve for that little slice of downtime? 

AM: There is some downtime, but this business doesn’t allow for a specific period of downtime with any consistency every year. What’s more, being booked years in advance sometimes brings that issue to the forefront because for various reasons engagements get squeezed together. Often I don’t realize until I’m in the midst of the engagement that I haven’t had a respite in quite a long time. If that happens and I feel like I need some time away, I’ll take myself to a spa for a day.

OM: Relaxing, refreshing.

AM: On the other side of that, I’ve always been a bit of a work-a-holic and I love to be actively doing something, so a lot of times when I’m “on vacation” I’m still learning music or planning something else I’d like to try. If I truly have several weeks off, which hardly ever happens, I enjoy taking in the beauty of nature. I grew up in Washington State, I have to say I very much miss nature when I live in cities almost exclusively throughout the year. I also have a huge love of baking.

OM: I too! Bread mainly.

AM: I’m more into the decorating side of baking: I’ve taken several classes on cake/cookie decorating: I would also love to try my hand at evening gown design.

OM: Thank you Will, thank you Angela, thank you Vincenzo! Best wishes with Pirata!

WC and AM: And to you as well!

Photos from Caramoor, also from Angela Meade's website

Tickets for Il pirata may be purchased through the link:

Tickets are $20, $50, $70, $96, $110.

The Box Office is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Outside of normal business hours, the Box Office is also open two hours prior to the start of each performance.

Enjoy! Nice day today! The round bright object in the sky is the sun. J

Princeton Festival to perform Fidelio

The Princeton Festival 2017 offers two performances of Beethoven’s Fidelio at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey, this June. OperaMetro (OM) had the great privilege of again discussing this opera, the production, his artists, and life in general first with Richard Tang Yuk (RTY), who will conduct both performances, I’d say probably the busiest man on the planet right now. We’re doing the brief walk and talk here on the beautiful Princeton University campus. Stage rehearsal in ten minutes. But then later, as he hurries off, I finally meet up with Marcy Stonikas, who sings the title role of Fidelio (aka Leonore) in this production. 

OM: Richard, a pleasure meeting you last year after that wonderful Peter Grimes.

RTY: Indeed a pleasure!

Richard Tang Yuk at Princeton Festival

Richard Tang Yuk at Princeton Festival

OM: Okay, so why Fidelio this year? It was done last summer at Caramoor, just this spring at the Met. Is this a happy coincidence?

RTY: Happy? Yes. Coincidence? To a certain extent, yes. As with other companies, we have to plan ahead. The plan for Princeton Festival to do Fidelio this season was approved long before we knew that other regional companies were doing it.

OM: Fidelio is not done frequently as operas go, yet I imagine it's not particularly expensive to stage, scenically speaking, cast and orchestra size. It's got a smaller cast and fewer scenic demands than, say, Don Giovanni or Zauberflöte, to name two. So why, do you think, it’s not done more frequently?

RTY: A very good question.

OM: Are there any particular musical or dramatic challenges you face, as part of the team preparing Fidelio for the stage?

RTY: Musically, no problem: the score is so marvelous! But I think most stage directors have to be concerned about the dramatic flow of the work, which has often been described as ‘static.’ Plus the libretto is not the strongest. Believe me, it took me three years of discussion with Steven LaCosse, our Director, to see if we could produce a convincing production of the work.

OM: Which means to me that you did a little tinkering, ja?

RTY: We made substantive cuts in the spoken dialogue. Some of it is unnecessary because the gist of it often gets repeated in the arias. We also 'stage' the overture to give the audience an insight as to why Florestan is imprisoned before the opera begins. Steven has created something engaging in every scene. I can assure you: the audience will not be bored!

Marcy Stonikas as Leonore in Fidelio

Marcy Stonikas as Leonore in Fidelio

OM: I plan to talk to some of the principal singers, asking them similar questions for their takes on the opera. But from a conductor's standpoint, tell me about Beethoven's writing for the voice? Is Fidelio written better or worse than Beethoven's other vocal writing? 

RTY: I think Fidelio is quite well written for the voices, much more manageable vocally than, say, the Missa Solemnis, which is so challenging both from a stamina perspective and the tessitura required. All members of our Fidelio cast have said that the vocal writing sits well for them. Leonore's part, of course, is challenging because she is onstage most of the opera. So it's more a question of pacing than the vocal writing for her. What's remarkable about Fidelio is that every principal character has a featured solo aria.

Noah Baetge as Florestan

Noah Baetge as Florestan

OM: I walk away from a good Fidelio feeling uplifted, inspired, as I do from a great performance of Beethoven’s Ninth, as, actually, I did from the Met’s Guillaume Tell this past fall. It must be a deeply moving experience conducting Fidelio.

RTY: It certainly is. The finale of Fidelio is perhaps one of the most inspiring scenes in all of opera.

OM: Are there political characteristics of the time we live in today which beg for a Fidelio?

RTY: Fidelio contains many timely themes relevant to today’s world: political injustice, suppression of the outspoken views of the opposition. Of course. But the opera also celebrates the positive power of love, it’s about the determination and action of the individual for the good of others and it ends with a communal celebration of Leonore’s bravery and strength of character. I feel that underlying this and Beethoven’s Ninth is a universal belief in the triumph of the human spirit. These, I think, come through in the music as well as in the drama. Fidelio is a very special opera!

OM: Best wishes, Richard, on Fidelio this month. And my best wishes to Steven, to the cast and production crew. Have a productive rehearsal too!

RTY: Thank you.

OM: Marcy Stonikas, welcome!

MS: Hi!

OM: Got a minute? So is this your first complete Leonore, whether staged or in concert?

MS: Technically this is my fourth time singing Leonore, all of ‘em staged. I say ‘technically’ because the last two times were with the Wiener Volksoper, same production.

OM: As a singer, what are the biggest challenges one faces with Leonore?

MS: Has to be the sheer length of the role. It’s BIG! I’m on stage in all but the very first numbers in Act I and Florestan’s solo scene in Act II.

OM: Vocally big too?

MS: Well yes, that too, but not all of the singing is full out.

OM: At least three sopranos, one from the Met in the 1990s, one currently at the Met, whom I interviewed in March of this year, and one whom I got to know pretty well on the local summer opera circuit in Maryland several years ago told me that Leonore was a role that opened the door to a new room of the soprano library, namely more dramatic soprano roles. Is this so, in your experience as a singer?

MS: Hmmmm. That's really interesting. I'm not sure that I think of things in those terms, personally. I would say that Leonore is actually a helpful and good stepping stone to sing the soprano repertory in a more bel canto fashion. For example, I would LOVE to sing Norma someday soon. I think that the way one needs to sing Leonore is similar that. I can also see how it would be helpful for approaching almost any of the Verdi soprano roles, particularly the earlier, more florid bel canto ones. I have not had the good fortune to perform a Verdi role in its entirety, but the pieces I know I approach in a really similar manner to the way I approach Leonore.

OM: Leonore, the character, is practically a saint, the embodiment of the marriage vows, in sickness and in health and also in false imprisonment and impending death. Do you feel, as a performer, a mounting tension as the opera progresses?

MS: Absolutely! I think that despite the fact that this is Beethoven's sole opera and the fact that he claimed that writing it was the hardest thing he'd ever done, his music is genuinely written to evoke emotions from everyone involved in its experience: certainly the singers and instrumentalists, and hopefully the audience as well! I feel that if the people performing the music aren't fully, you know, inside it, they run the risk of losing the emotional connection with the audience, of course assuming they’ve established it initially.

OM: So there is something of an emotional release you, as Leonore, feel when the trumpet sounds, announcing the Minister’s arrival, that you’ve saved your husband Florestan. At the end, when everyone is singing praises for Leonore, for her devotion, bravery, etc., do you find yourself feeling the love?

MS: Yes, my yes! But though Leonore is basically the archetypal perfect woman/wife, a large part of her perfection is her modesty, her humility. Sure, she’s elated, as is everyone else around her in the ultimate finale, but she’s not seeking attention or fame.

OM: No selfies, in other words.

MS: Definitely not. But…

OM: Yes …?

MS: I personally feel the most affected emotionally by the discovery that the mystery prisoner is indeed my Florestan. Musically the trio with Leonore, Florestan and Rocco in Act II is epically beautiful and tugs at my heartstrings, for sure, but the text of that trio certainly contributes to the tug as well. Despite Florestan's dire situation and weakened condition, he is immediately thankful and genuine for the small kindnesses Rocco shows him, presumably moments before his death.

OM: The entire Dungeon Scene in Act II is one wild ride.

MS: Absolutely. But there are several other moments throughout the opera, of course, and that's the beauty of Fidelio. Think of it, Leonore is on this crazy emotional rollercoaster: she is trapped in an unexpected love triangle with Marzelline and Jaquino, but she has to play along to keep Rocco’s trust. Then she comes face to face with the man who most likely incarcerated her husband, but then and there she is not able to do what she has sworn to do, which is kill him for his evilness. In a dark dungeon she and Rocco dig a grave for an unnamed prisoner, only to find that her husband is that prisoner, as she suspected, he is, in fact, alive, but soon to be murdered. And then the release of all that pent-up tension. Wow!

OM: I asked Richard this before you arrived. Fidelio, the opera, and also Beethoven’s Ninth are members of the “what we perform” repertory when we wish to celebrate the triumph of good over evil, joy over despair. As a performer, do you find these emotions to be a consequence of participating in the experience of Fidelio or the Ninth?

MS: Well, I would hazard to say that part of the reason that I chose to become a professional musician/performer is because of how music affects me. As a performer who has also had the privilege to perform in the Ninth (as well as in Fidelio), the sheer number of people interpreting that beautiful score together is emotionally overwhelming, in the best possible way. It's an incredible feeling to be literally enveloped by those sounds and words.

Marcy Stonikas out of uniform

Marcy Stonikas out of uniform

OM: May the joyful communal experience happen again for you and everyone present in the McCarter Theatre! Thank you, dear Marcy, for your words.

MS: All my best to you, and thanks again for reaching out!

And with that, Marcy smiled, turned, and walked toward the McCarter Theatre. 

Cast photos by Jessi Franko Designs LLC; photo of Richard Tang Yuk courtesy of Princeton Festival; second photo of Marcy Stonikas from another source.

The cast of Fidelio includes Marcy Stonikas as Leonore, Noah Baetge as Florestan, Danielle Talamantes as Marzelline, Gustav Andreassen as Rocco, Michael Kuhn as Jaquino, and Joseph Barron as Don Pizarro, and Cameron Jackson as Don Fernando. Maestro Richard Tang Yuk conducts the Princeton Festival Orchestra; Steven LaCosse is Director, Sets are designed by Jonathan Dahm Robertson, Lighting by Norman Coates; Costume Design by Marie Miller; Chorus Master is Gregory Geehern.

Fidelio is performed on two Sundays, June 18 and June 25 at 3 p.m. and sung in German with English supertitles. Tickets are available from the Princeton Festival website ( or by telephone (609) 258-2787. The McCarter Theatre is located at 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ, 08540; The Princeton Festival can be reached by mail: P.O. Box 2063, Princeton, NJ, 08543.

Program notes for Fidelio are intelligently written for the performance programs, available on the Festival website.

Note that several informative community outreach programs lead up to the performances. These are:

Leonore, A New Kind of Heroine, speaker Marianne Grey, June 1, 7:30 p.m. • Princeton Public Library…as in tonight!!...well, too late! (But see below: the program is to be repeated at a new location).

Season Preview Singers and Directors from the Opera, June 8, 7 p.m. • Princeton Public Library. The Princeton Festival is also performing The Man from La Mancha. This too will be discussed at the Season Preview.

On the Heroic in Beethoven’s Fidelio, speaker Scott Burnham, June 13, 7 p.m. • Princeton Public Library.

Leonore, A New Kind of Heroine, speaker again is Marianne Grey, June 14, 7 p.m. • Lawrence Library. See, told ya!

Rescued by Beethoven’s Fidelio, speaker Timothy Urban June 14, 7 p.m. • West Windsor Library. Rescued by Beethoven’s Fidelio, again with Timothy Urban, June 15, 7:30 p.m. • Princeton Public Library.

All sounds pretty cool to me. Support your local opera! Happy June! Take a stroll on the Princeton University campus while you're there. Enjoy it all.


Berkshire Opera to perform Ariadne auf Naxos

When OperaMetro chatted with the artistic core of the Berkshire Opera last summer they were preparing for performances of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. This summer they speak of Richard Strauss’s sublime Ariadne auf Naxos.

OperaMetro (OM) sat again with Brian Garman (BG) and Jonathon Loy (JL), talking about Ariadne and the challenges posed by this wonderful but, one has to admit, unusual work. I think we’re discoursing in the cool shade of the forest in the Berkshires waiting for that pitcher of lemonade, but maybe it’s just raining and ugly for what should be a lovely day in late May. Haven’t looked out the window lately. Their answers to carefully crafted questions were via email.

OM: Gentlemen, welcome again! And thank you for your responses!

BG: Thank you, a pleasure.

JL: Yes, a pleasure.

OM: Obvious question: how did Butterfly go last season?

JLButterfly was both a critical and audience success, we’re happy to report.  We had such an overwhelmingly positive response from the community, literally it almost tripled our donors, and this just after our first season!

OM: Impressive! Congratulations! The Theatre?

JL: In every way the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield is the perfect space to perform the operatic repertoire we are currently programming. Brian and I could not have been more pleased with it.

OM: Excellent to hear! So now onto Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos. Why this diamond in the rough? Why not, say, Traviata?

BG: It’s the razor's edge we have to walk as the Company’s administrators and at the same time the artistic directors: bottom line versus innovation. We’re balancing on the one hand the need to feed a normal desire that some of our audience members might feel to keep seeing the "tried and true" repertory with, on the other hand, our need to make sure the company grows and remains artistically vibrant. It is, in fact, a component of our founding mission to explore the entire operatic repertoire, both center and periphery. There is an audience for the latter as well.

OM: I raised the question about repertory last year.

BG: Right, and this is part of the reason why a piece like Marriage of Figaro, for example, or La Traviata or La Bohème would be the kiss of death for us in the second season, at least from an artistic point of view.  It would seem to set an immediate precedent on the heels of last summer's Madama Butterfly; it would define us solely as a ‘standard rep’ company, which, we have emphatically said, we are not. Ariadne might not at first seem the easiest choice for the box office, but in this day and age it's not exactly an "unknown" opera, and we're convinced that ticket sales will not be a problem once our audience realizes how very, very funny and extraordinarily beautiful this opera is.

OM: I certainly agree. It's been one of my favorites since I was knee high to a grasshopper. Well, maybe a tad taller than that…But yes, "very funny and extraordinarily beautiful" is right on target. Tell me more.

Marcy Stonikas is Ariadne

Marcy Stonikas is Ariadne

BG: One of the brilliant things about Ariadne is how clearly Strauss defines his characters by their musical styles. And certainly there's a difference between the conversational nature of the music in the Prologue section and the more lyrical music in the Opera section. Perhaps the biggest challenge this poses for a conductor is synchronizing the pit and the stage, especially in the Prologue.  It's not only about negotiating all the changes of tempo, but about making the orchestra's interjections and phrase fragments sound like they're also part of the conversation, and giving the whole thing the rhythmic flexibility it needs to sound like a natural dialogue. This synchronizing is complicated further by the fact that one character in the Prologue only speaks his lines, and never sings.

JL: Speaking from the dramatic standpoint, Ariadne is truly as layered a piece as one can find. It often makes fun of itself, that is to say 'opera' as a genre, but in the same moment it gives us some of the most exquisitely heart-wrenching music. Love, art, theater, meta-theatricality, and so much more are explored in this surprisingly short, funny, and beautiful piece.

OM: Right, in the Prologue we have the Prima Donna and the Tenor asserting that the other’s music should be cut first if cuts are to be made, but then, as Ariadne and Bacchus, convincing us of their eternal passionate bond at the Opera’s end.

Nicole Haslett is Zerbinetta

Nicole Haslett is Zerbinetta

JL: Good example. One of many.

OM: After the success of Der Rosenkavalier, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Richard Strauss conceived the original Ariadne auf Naxos as the entertainment performed for Monsieur Jourdain (in Moliere’s Der Bürger als Edelmann, en francais, Le Bourgeois gentilhomme), in effect recreating a festive show for guests mounted by a nouveau riche, circa the days of Louis XIV. Max Reinhardt was to direct the evening. But, if I remember correctly, the audience didn’t know what to make of it: the theater lovers didn't cotton to the opera afterwards and the opera lovers were bored sitting through the play. Clever as it was, the theater/opera combo was a flop. But Strauss and Hofmannsthal resurrected Ariadne, trimmed it, ditched the play altogether, added the Prologue to give the Opera a frame, but with new characters, the Composer and Music Master to name the important two.

JL: Yes. Note that both the Prologue and Opera are made-up of stock characters, not persons with family names. Here, as you just said, we have, in the Prologue, a Prima Donna, who will play Ariadne in the Opera, and a Tenor, who will play Bacchus, the god who rescues her, but each squabbles and frets like the ‘backstage’ often does. Even the Composer, though quite complex in his emotions and thoughts, is a caricature of the creator, the ‘artist.’ In our production the commedia troupe will explore a world where they aren’t quite real people, especially considering that they do not have real names, only the name of their stock characters. In one way or another the characters are actually caricatures of themselves.

Adriana Zabala is the Composer

Adriana Zabala is the Composer

However, there is one real person who appears in both the Prologue and the Opera: Zerbinetta. She shows us the way, as in “what is reality?” at least from her perspective. She has growth and a real arc from beginning to end. I could go on and on about this, but let’s save it for the stage!

OM: One of the other things Strauss does here is to ‘recreate,’ but I don’t mean this literally, a, shall we say, ‘baroque’ sounding orchestra. Tell me about that, Brian.

BG: Sure. Most people hearing the name Richard Strauss think of the gigantic orchestras of Salome or Elektra, for example.

OM: Even Der Rosenkavalier this season at the Met.

BG: Exactly. But Ariadne is in many ways the opposite. For a handful of reasons, mostly having to do with how the piece was originally conceived, as you mentioned above, Strauss scored it for a relatively small orchestra -- only 37 musicians. Not even triple digits! The result is an absolutely fascinating, intricate tapestry of sound.

OM: It is a prominent but unique feature of the opera, from the introduction to the very end, although you’ll admit that Strauss gets some maximum sound and complexity out of that small pit.

BG: Yes, but it also makes things much more difficult for the orchestra because, well, there's nowhere for the players to hide.  In a normal opera orchestra (whatever ‘normal’ means!), a violin part, for example, might be played by 10 or 12 musicians at the same time. But in Ariadne, every part is a solo part, and a virtuoso part at that. It’s a marvelous score, it really is!

OM: Okay, ‘fess up: what are your favorite parts of this opera? I have lots, but this is about you. Like, what parts stand out for you?

BG:  For me, the musical catharsis comes at the end of the opera with Bacchus and Ariadne's duet.  Strauss spins out these almost inhumanly long phrases that never seem to end, and the result is absolutely rapturous.

OM: I shake just thinking of the duet. Jonathon?

JL: For me the most dramatic moments are the moments where I think Strauss/Hofmannsthal mean to poke fun at opera, yet by doing so, give us the most exquisitely heightened moments, both dramatically and musically. Specifically, at the end of the Prologue, after his rapture with Zerbinetta, the Composer sings Sein wir wieder gut, as in ‘so, we’re good to go again?.’ He wants to make up with the Music Master, his teacher. But then he steps back and waxes poetic about 'what is music? The most sacred of art forms', he says, forgetting, momentarily, that he has agreed to allow the comedy troupe, the clowns, to perform alongside his serious opera about Ariadne. In these very last moments of the Prologue, as everyone is getting into their places on stage, after Composer has sung about music and art, he snaps back to reality and immediately regrets his decision to allow the collaboration of low art (la commedia) with high art (l‘opera). He runs off as the orchestra plays this tremendously fast upward scale, ending in three crashing chords, and we are all left stunned, wondering what the second part, the opera, will look and sound like; what is art…?

Kevin Ray is Bacchus

Kevin Ray is Bacchus

OM: The Composer’s ‘ecstasy’ about Music has to be Strauss himself talking. In our last chat you both mentioned the Company’s mission to engage in educational outreach. How has that panned out?

JL:  We’re doing our best to implement as many educational experiences in the community as we can, both in New York City and the Berkshires. As we do this, we strive to raise the money to fully implement an Education Department run by a Director of Education who will be responsible for taking programs into the Berkshire schools as well as for adult learning.

OM: Cool! Programs, specifically?

JL: Currently, there is an educational webcast series, Opera and Beyond, that explores everything Richard Strauss and specifically delves into Ariadne auf Naxos.  They are viewable on our website and are always included in our e-newsletter.  Our Director of Marketing and Community Relations, M.C. McAlee, has started a Library Liaison Program that helps connect Berkshire residents to their local libraries to view and discuss the webcasts as a community. It’s just one example of how we plan to get the Berkshire and surrounding communities excited about a piece they may be unfamiliar with.

BG: Also we're presenting two additional programs this August, featuring our wonderful Ariadne cast members and some special guests. I think people will really enjoy these programs and our artists! The first, called Gods & Monsters, will be performed on August 8 at our headquarters at Saint James Place in Great Barrington. This concert will spotlight the Berkshire Opera Festival Chorus in a program of operatic excerpts and songs on texts about gods and demons. I'm also delighted to announce that this concert will feature the world premiere of a set of songs, commissioned especially for this occasion, by composer Evan Jay Williams. The second program, called "Reluctant Revolutionary," is a recital of Strauss songs performed at Ventfort Hall in Lenox on August 16. Elektra notwithstanding, Strauss was one of the world's great art song composers, and many of his songs remain popular today.  He wrote around 215 of them, and we'll be performing 17 on this program.  Tickets for both events and for Ariadne can be purchased through our website,

OM: Thank you, gentlemen, for your insights about Ariadne and the good news about the Berkshire Opera Festival, last season and this! Wishing you all a successful second season! We'll talk again.

Photos plucked from the Berkshire Opera Festival webpages.

The Berkshire Opera Festival’s production of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos is performed at The Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, MA, on the evenings of August 26, 29, and September 1 at 7:30 p.m. The Colonial Theatre is located at 111 South Street, zip code is 01201.

Sets for the production are designed by Stephen Dobay; costumes are by Charles Caine.

Tickets may be ordered through the website:

Support your local opera! Best wishes Berkshire Opera Festival! Maybe next spring for the lemonade.

Okay, so as to my favorite moment in Ariadne: in the Opera, Najade, Echo, and Dryade announce the approach of the god Bacchus, giving lively description of his youth and beauty and his escape from the sorceress Circe. Ariadne anticipating Hermes, the messenger of Death, here at last to fetch her, ease her suffering, and all that, singing Belade nicht zu üppig mit nächtlichem Entzücken voraus den schwachen Sinn! Die deiner lange harret nimm dahin! (Do not too lavishly woo my weak senses with nocturnal enchantment! She who has waited so long for you, take her hence!). Her eyes are closed, hands raised in supplication. The music gives sound to her sudden terror, when for an instant thinks he is Theseus, the youth she saved and brought to Naxos, only to be abandoned by him. Theseus!, she cries! but just as quickly she realizes Nein! Nein! Es ist der schone stille Gott! (No! No! It is the beautiful quiet god!). Bowing, she sings Ich grüsse dich, du Bote aller Boten! (I greet you, messenger of all messengers!) The tension is quite seering, albeit brief; but the ensuing repose is sublime, followed by Bacchus more or less saying, “Now what do I do?” Love this opera.