The Berkshires in Massachusetts is about to welcome the Berkshire Opera Festival which aims “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”. No mean task in 2016, but its founders, Jonathon Loy and Brian Garman, are capable and confident.
Certainly, there is Tanglewood and Jacob's Pillow, so the area certainly isn't artistically barren during the summer but, I asked Loy, is the Berkshire Opera Festival filling a gap?
Yes, Berkshire Opera Festival is absolutely filling a void in the community. There has been no professional, fully-producing opera company here since 2009.
And there's a real desire in the community to have a fully-producing opera company in the Berkshires again. In such a culturally rich area, Berkshire Opera Festival should be a welcome addition.
Jonathon Loy is BOF's General Director, Co-Founder and Stage Director of the company's first production, Madama Butterfly, and Brian Garman is its Artistic Director, Co-Founder and will conduct Butterfly. That's quite a lot of hats.
Yes – says Loy – men of many hats! The disadvantage of multiple roles is the lack of time in the day to accomplish everything that always needs to be attended to, but the advantage is making sure that everything is as we believe it should be to bring opera back to the Berkshires at the highest artistic level.
The two men have known each other for over 18 years, after they first met in Pittsburgh.
We started speaking about collaborating on our own venture in the year 2000, and we have worked together before in a few different capacities.
In 2014, several factors presented themselves that lead them to once more explore the idea of creating a summer festival. Why the Berkshires?
I have very strong familial ties to the Berkshires – says Loy – with family in Stockbridge, Monterey, and Lee. I see the Berkshires as being one of the most culturally rich places in the country in the summertime. Everything aligned enabling us to incorporate the company in 2014.
The last two years have seen the two fundraising and creating an infrastructure to arrive, now, at the eve of their inaugural summer 2016 season. Finding sponsors in a time of economic uncertainty cannot be easy?
It's extremely difficult – says Garman – I can't overstate this. For two years, we've been fundraising and asking people to believe in an idea and a plan, since we hadn't yet produced an opera for people to see and hear. We're extremely fortunate to have found a fairly sizable group of folks who love opera, who very much want to see this company succeed, and who have been quite generous over the past two years with their time and financial resources. Opera is a very expensive art form, and we are forever grateful for their help. Without it, Berkshire Opera Festival could never have gotten off the ground.
We are selling potential donors on our vision. We're asking people to make substantial gifts that haven't seen our product. Checks are written because of a belief in us personally and what they believe we will accomplish. Even folks that are donating at a smaller level are taking the same leap of faith. It's difficult, as it always will be in the arts, even after you have a product to show. But, that is a part of our job, to cultivate and bring people to share in our vision of having fully-produced opera in the Berkshires.
Of course, if the first year is a success, it will be easier to attract sponsors for the following year. To have a future, BOF must hit the bullseye with their first shot. Choosing the right opera and the right cast is fundamental, so I asked Garman: why Butterfly?
The primary reason is that Madama Butterfly is an absolute masterpiece. I can think of very, very few pieces that are as dramatically and musically effective in such an immediate and heart-wrenching way.
There's also a practical — which is to say, economic — significance to the choice. Part of our mission for Berkshire Opera Festival is to produce a wide range of works from across the entire operatic canon. This involves presenting many famous (and favourite) operas, many lesser-known pieces, and even commissioning new works. But opening the festival with an opera almost no one has heard of, and chancing the potential loss in ticket sales was a risk we couldn't afford to take. So, Butterfly ticks a lot of different boxes.
Arguably, with Baroque operas it is easier to get away with less than a top notch voice, but with this repertoire if you haven't got sufficient vocal clout even the backstage techie will notice. So I asked Loy how they assembled their cast?
Between the two of us, we have worked with everyone in the cast. I have worked with Inna Los, Eduardo Valdes, and John Cheek, all at the Metropolitan Opera, where I spend my winter season as a Guest Director and a member of the Staging Staff.
Moldovan soprano Inna Los is in the title role, one which she's sung across the country and globe to great acclaim. Butterfly has become one of her calling cards, and our audiences will immediately hear why.
Inna, Eduardo, and John — says Loy — are all incomparable artists at the highest level. It was an easy decision to cast them in our Butterfly.
Brian is the Artistic Director, but we do collaborate on casting. We both share the same artistic values and hold similar tastes which makes that easy. It also makes it easy for me to defer to Brian, as I trust his ear implicitly.
They're all genuinely first-rate artists. Jason Slayden, who has been garnering a lot of acclaim for his portrayal of Verdi and Puccini heroes, will be singing Pinkerton. The American baritone Weston Hurt will be our Sharpless, which is one of his signature roles. The fast-rising mezzo-soprano Sarah Larsen — a graduate of my Young Artist training program at Seattle Opera — takes on Suzuki, and Eduardo Valdes from the Metropolitan Opera sings Goro. Rounding out the cast as the Bonze is the legendary John Cheek, who hardly needs any introduction.
So on paper it all looks good: tickets are being sold, costumes and sets are being made. On 27 August Butterfly will open at the stunning Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield. There are also two musical antipasti, recital ‘primers' for Puccini and his world. The first is on 10 August, Breaking Down Barriers, at Ventfort Hall in Lenox with songs by Amy Beach, Cécile Chaminade, Ethel Smyth, and others female composers of Puccini's time. The second, The “Unknown” Puccini, will be at Saint James Place in Great Barrington on 16 August. Both recitals will be performed by cast members of BOF's Madama Butterfly.
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If all goes well, as it surely must, what happens next, I ask Garman.
Prudent, measured expansion is always part of our goal. We have a year-long education program in the works that we hope to incorporate very soon. Then, within the first five or six years of the festival itself, we hope to have expanded the season to include three productions.
One more “traditional” work, one lesser-known or newly commissioned work, and the third work that would be performed by our young artist program — also a part of our long range goals
And not just opera, Garman says.
Expansion of the non-operatic programming will happen as well, with more recitals, lectures, and perhaps even a bit of chamber music and film. But these are quite a few years down the line.
At the forefront of our minds, however, is to serve the entire region and not have the festival defined by a particular location. There are many wonderful — and often unconventional — venues in the Berkshires that would lend themselves well to specific projects.
As their website states,
We believe that opera is a living, breathing, relevant art form, and must be nurtured as such in order for it to survive and thrive.
There is no substitute for experiencing the power of the live, unamplified human voice in a theatre, and opera has the inherent, transformative ability to greatly enhance one's quality of life.
Tickets are priced from $20 to $98, and are available through www.berkshireoperafestival.org or by calling the box office at 413-997-4444.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.