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?
JL: Butterfly 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.
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.
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.
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…?
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, www.berskhireoperafestival.org/recitals.
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: www.berkshireoperafestival.org.
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.