Musically, this summer in the Berkshires, there was one event that was truly exciting, in the sense of something important that was entirely new…or almost, as the people behind it made entirely clear. Several weeks ago I had the pleasure of interviewing the two impressive and engaging founders of the Berkshire Opera Festival, Jonathon Loy and Brian Garman, who promised to “bring fully-staged opera back to the Berkshires.” And this they have just fulfilled with a production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, that was in a way as perfect as an opera performance can get, considering that opera is the quintessence of imperfection among art forms—or perhaps that should be said of art itself. Musical and theatrical ability that was both solid and brilliant, imagination, good taste, and deep knowledge and understanding of the work and its authors flowed together with all the concentration and energy aroused by a new, make-or-break enterprise to create a performance that can only be described as an object lesson in how to perform opera—and a thrilling and moving one newcomers, casual opera-goers, and opera-makers alike can appreciate. The Berkshire Opera Festival has, within less than a week, made itself indispensible.
A most welcome contribution from Ralph P. Locke, Professor Emeritus of at the Eastman School of Music, an unpublished letter to the editor of the New York Times, directed my attention to a review and an article by Zachary Woolfe concerning recent productions he has seen in France of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Così fan tutte. The content of these articles will be clear enough from Professor Locke’s letter and his own commentary.
Two seasoned, enterprising professionals in the opera world has recognized this serious gap in our cultural life and have set in motion an ambitious plan to fill it: The Berkshire Opera Festival, which will present its first season in late August and early Spetember of this year. Jonathon Loy, General Director and Co-Founder is a Guest Director on the staging staff at The Metropolitan Opera and a 2002 OPERA America Fellowship winner. Brian Garman, Artistic Director and Co-Founder, is a distinguished conductor, who worked at the Seattle Opera between 2009 and 2014 in the pit and as Music Director of the Seattle Opera Young Artists Program. As you will learn in this podcast, both know the aesthetics, mechanics, and business of opera from top to bottom, and show every sign of creating and institution that will endure and be highly appreciated in the Berkshires.
The Bard Music Festival, every year since 1990, offers music-lovers a splendid gift in its weekends of immersion in the music of some major composer and others related to him, the intellectual and artistic life of his time, and the legacy that connects us to it all. It equally presents us with a powerful challenge—a challenge to overcome our preconceptions about this partly familiar, partly unfamiliar music, chiefly the product of famous composers. In some cases we discover that a composer’s most popular music is not in fact his best, and our estimation of him rises significantly, as in the case of Sibelius and Prokofiev, or in others, like Schubert, we can become acquainted with genres like the part song, which have fallen out of the repertory because the social context for their performance has become obsolete. Many music-lovers divide Franz Liszt’s output between serious music of high quality and shallow, flashy display pieces. Again, the Bard Festival challenged its audiences to reconsider.
The major news from Boston was the ascendancy of Andris Nelsons, firming up his place as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which included a quickly agreed upon three-year extension of his contract into the 2020-2021 season. This announcement was soon followed by the less happy surprise for Bostonians of Nelsons also accepting an offer from the eminent Leipzig Gewandhaus, the orchestra whose music director was once no less than Felix Mendelssohn, to take on that very position, beginning in the 2017-2018 season, thus dividing the loyalties of the young maestro (who just turned 37), though evidently with the possibility of collaborations between the two orchestras. (Remember when some people were complaining about James Levine dividing his time between the BSO and the Metropolitan Opera?)
If I were one of those opera aficionados who thrives on adding unusual operas to a list, I’d be in heaven. I saw two opera productions this summer — not by Puccini, Verdi, Wagner, or Mozart, but by Friedrich von Flotow and Edith Smyth — and I’d never seen either of them before. One of them was typical summer entertainment, a light and charming comedy, in a modest, stripped down production; the other just the opposite — a grim tragedy that looked as if a lot of money had been thrown at it.
Is there a more passionate art form than opera? In what other mode is the uninhibited expression of feeling—tragic or comic—so central? More central than reason. Given the emotional liberation of great music, what can in a mere plot description appear to be absurd (a woman tossing the wrong baby into a fire; a “fallen woman” sacrificing her entire future and the happiness of her lover for the sake of her lover’s respectable sister; a man killing his best friend in a duel because he has flirted with his girlfriend; a nobleman secretly meeting his own wife in disguise—madness, murder, and deception) can become through music profound and moving, Revelation and Catharsis.
Pergolesi’s comic operas sound remarkably modern—which is to say, like Mozart. Recognizably human characters go through recognizable experiences, singing out their feelings very directly, which the music embodies in fluidly changing tempos and moods, stretching of harmony, changes of key and orchestral color. Much is accomplished through musically creative recitative—a half-spoken way of proceeding—as well as through song proper and duets (there are only two singers in each of these operas, though also some designated silent performers, to which this production added a few dancers). It is like Mozart, but sets the procedure for opera ever since, even Verdi’s with their heroic figures, Wagner’s with their gods and goddesses, Berg or Britten with their neurotics. Characters live, feel, and think—and sing—and the music moves quickly and supply and thinks, as it were, with them.