Premiere of Berkshire Opera Festival

Berkshire Opera Festival premieres with Puccini’s Madama Butterfly

As part of OperaMetro’s seasonal regional outreach, I talked to Jonathon Loy and Brian Garman, co-founders of the new Berkshire Opera Festival, which resides in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. The Festival opens its doors in late August with a fresh new production of Madama Butterfly and promises of more to come in future summers.

Time scheduling pressures being what they are for us these days, the interview is formatted as an open discussion, even though their responses are to OM’s emailed questions. But imagine that we are sitting together far away from the urban swelter of late July in a cool shaded grove in the Berkshire Mountains. I believe the freshly made lemonade is coming.

Jonathon Loy, General Director of Berkshire Opera Festival

Jonathon Loy, General Director of Berkshire Opera Festival

Jonathon Loy (JL) is the General Director of the Festival. He starts his eighth season at the Metropolitan Opera as a member of the Staging Staff and Guest Director, but also has worked with such prestigious companies as the Santa Fe Opera, Seattle Opera, Washington National Opera, the Houston Grand Opera, to name very few from a long list.

Brian Garman (BG) is Artistic Director of the Festival. He, too, has worked extensively with a long list of prestigious companies such as the New York City Opera, Pittsburgh Opera, Seattle, Santa Fe, Wolf Trap, as well with several university music and opera programs. The duo met at Pittsburgh Opera at the turn of the century when Loy was working as an intern and Garman was resident conductor. Even back then the idea of a Festival company was formulated. This year it is finally realized.

Brian Garman, Artistic Director of Berkshire Opera Festival

Brian Garman, Artistic Director of Berkshire Opera Festival

OM: So you guys are establishing a new summer opera company. Adventuresome undertaking this is indeed! Your Mission Statement reads (clearing my throat, reading aloud) “The mission of the Berkshire Opera Festival is to entertain and enrich the lives of people of all ages and backgrounds throughout the Berkshire region by providing accessible and affordable performances of a broad range of operas with the highest artistic standards.” And your Vision Statement, listing six points of fulfillment, looks forward to this. Impressive!

JL: Thanks.

BG: Thanks.

OM: First on your Festival stage is Madama Butterfly, a popular opera certainly, I’ll bet pretty high on everyone’s list of favorites. But what thinking guided the choice? I mean, it’s also just been telecast in HD from the Met nationwide this past spring, which might prompt the local HD set and those who must come from afar to say “Oh we just saw that.” Why not kickoff the Festival with an opera more unusual or fetching, a real attention grabber, one you’ve always wanted to do?

BG:  Regarding Madama Butterfly, several factors influenced the choice.  First and foremost, Butterfly is an absolute masterpiece.  I can think of very, very few pieces that are as musically and dramatically effective in such an immediate and heart-breaking way.  Its popularity endures for a reason, and it's rare that audiences leave a performance of Butterfly with dry eyes. And it's a fairly well-known opera, which seemed like an excellent reason to launch the Festival with it.  We couldn't afford in our very first season to program something that might be a huge box office risk.

Inna Los is Cio Cio San

Inna Los is Cio Cio San

JL: I certainly have operas that I would love to direct and while we can discuss producing what we love the most, that isn't always what prevails.  Our fiduciary responsibility is always a factor as is box office salability to our audience. As you say, Butterfly is a popular opera, but to that I’ll add that our Butterfly will be different from the Met’s current production. The audience will get a fresh perspective on this timeless story. 

OM: Ah! Okay, how so?

JL: I am interested in seeing these characters in a more present time and how that affects their intentions, so I am updating the production to 1960s Japan. For example, the facts that Pinkerton actively seeks to marry this young girl, who, he learns, is only 15...and yet he still proceeds with it, and that Sharpless, despite all his hand-wringing, attends the wedding make a huge statement about their moral compass. The marriage broker Goro and his team take on a much more sinister and black market feel in this. The geishas, while traditionally dressed, become part of a "traditional performance/experience" for Pinkerton and Sharpless – what, in effect, they are paying to see.
Also Butterfly’s character in this context becomes even more complex. If we examine her through the lens of the 60s, second-wave feminism or women's liberation, we can put a more heroic spin on her than we already do. Yes, we still view her as naïve and in denial, but she tries to use Pinkerton for what she wants, just as much as he uses her as a play thing. Her dream is to go to America, get out of Japan, and never have to be a street performer/geisha ever again. I do believe that she falls in love with the idea of Pinkerton and what he could represent for her - a new life in the great United States...but it most likely could have been any American sailor willing to take her away. To that end, we will see her do everything she thinks is American, including wearing stylish American dress (Chanel inspired) with the little money she has left. Eventually, she sees the reality of the situation, and…I don't want to give away much more.

OM: Then we shall move on. Scanning down your Vision Statement I read the Festival will create “dramatically compelling productions…that engage the audience in meaningful ways.” Sounds like your Butterfly will be true to that goal.

Jason Slayden is Pinkerton

Jason Slayden is Pinkerton

BG: On the other hand I’ll add that we are consciously trying to avoid a steady diet of the standard repertoire. La Traviata, Carmen, Barber of Seville -- they're all excellent pieces, and some companies do reasonably well by programming them over and over.  But we feel, first of all, that sticking to the "top five" does a disservice to our audience, and second of all, it's also part of our mission to explore the entire range of the operatic repertoire in our programming. This includes, at some point in the near future, commissioning new works as well. 

OM: Certainly important to keep opera as a living art form. As to that, items Four and Five on the Statement talk about outreach to schools and provision of “educational experiences throughout the community to develop future audiences and increase appreciation for opera.” Back to “why Butterfly,” being supportive here, I’m thinking it would be far easier to focus on this opera for any sort of outreach program to new audiences than to focus on something like, say, Dalibor. No point in developing audiences for operas they’re not likely to see ever in their lifetime.

JL: Exactly. The challenge for all arts organizations at all times is, one, to continue to find an interested ticket buying audience, and two, continue to find an interested philanthropic audience. Young audiences in particular need to be educated and cultivated, and since arts education isn't very much a part of the American culture anymore, it is up to the arts community to figure out how to do it.

Sarah Larsen is Suzuki

Sarah Larsen is Suzuki

OM: Having participated in outreach efforts over the years for local opera companies to groups of all ages, either through the companies themselves or through my own presentations, I can tell you that the magic for opening that hidden passageway from the outside loosely called “Opera? What’s that?” to the inside called “Wow! Opera? I love it!” is varied and unpredictable, often random. You hear a voice or a melody by chance or listen to a friend describe the joy of an evening at the opera…could be a start certainly, but in my mind the key is to follow through, to explore further, sample more, don’t be afraid of the enormity of it all. It is very formidable certainly from the outside looking in, or “listening in” I should say too. So I understand when someone says “I don’t understand opera,” I remember being there. I think one of the big factors is having others with whom to share your love for this music. It’s why I created OperaMetro.

BG: I'm glad you mentioned the Met's HD broadcasts earlier. They provide a great service in bringing opera to many people who might not otherwise be able to attend one. It’s an easy and inexpensive way to “sample.” But that said, we, Jonathon and I, believe that there's no substitute for experiencing the power of the live, unamplified human voice in a theater. This can produce a visceral, overwhelming reaction that can hardly be duplicated by watching a broadcast on a movie screen or listening to a recording. A live performance just offers a different experience, is all, and one that we think can be more rewarding.

Weston Hurt is Sharpless

Weston Hurt is Sharpless

OM: Agreed. But we three are coming from the perspective of persons who cut their teeth on live performances. Most folks today I’ll bet have no idea what unamplified voices and an orchestra sound like or imagine any perspective apart from that of the camera.

JL: Technology is fancy and flashy today and attention spans are shorter, but I think there is a reason that opera lovers are so die-hard: it is an escape from all of that. It’s the living combination of all the great arts: dance, orchestra, voice, visual, and so on, real artists communicating with a real audience. That’s a big part of the magic.

OM: Again, I agree. Well, tell me about your singers.

BG:  We cast our singers from all over the country, and it's an important part of our mission to present well-known, veteran artists on stage alongside younger, up-and-coming artists.

OM: I know from speaking with the artistic directors of other opera companies over the years that sometimes they want to do a particular opera, then they go out to find the singers, but just as often they have a particular singer or director they wish to work with, then go out to find the opera. 

BG: Ha! Well as for that chicken/egg question, I'd have to say "it depends." That sounds like a cop-out, I know, but it's actually true.  For example, we knew we wanted to open the Festival with Madama Butterfly and we also had this particular cast in mind. On the other hand, the choice of the opera we're producing next summer (which I can't yet announce) was largely dependent upon the availability of one particular singer, who, fortunately, seems to be available...but that’s next summer.

OM: Gentlemen, best wishes for your premiere production of Butterfly! Hope to continue our conversations in the future. Thank you both for your time.

JL & BG: Thank you.

The Berkshire Opera Festival’s premiere production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly opens on Saturday evening, August 27 at 7:30 p.m., followed performances on the evenings of Tuesday, August 30, and Friday, September 2, each also at 7:30. The production is directed by Jonathon Loy, with Brian Garman leading the orchestra; sets are designed by Stephen Dobey.

Ticket information, directions to the theater, artist biographies, opportunities to support the Berkshire Opera Festival, all may be found at the Festival’s website, directly accessed through the link .

Visit the beautiful Berkshires and take in a fully staged performance of Butterfly while you're at it. Enjoy! JRS