Visiting Glimmerglass Opera

I'm a great fan of the musical theater: musicals, operetta, and opera, more-or-less in that order. A typical summer vacation for my wife and me involves driving from Toronto to the East Coast, stopping off to see musicals (and some plays) at places like the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, MA, the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, CT, the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ, , and the Ogunquit Playhouse in Ogunquit, ME. The Glimmerglass summer opera festival, near Cooperstown, NY, is not far from the route we usually take, but I never thought of visiting it because my impression has been that they specialize in performances of modern and obscure operas, which are not quite our cup of tea.

My discovery of the fact that Glimmerglass has greatly expanded the range of its offerings came about through sheer serendipity. Last summer, we were on the way to Pittsfield, MA, following the route prescribed by iPhone's GPS software. The GPS guided us off the New York Thruway sooner than I had anticipated, but I figured it must know a shortcut, so I kept driving. But wait a minute: we were going south, and Pittsfield is to the north. Better check the GPS settings. Oh, no! It was set to Pittsfield, New York, not Massachusetts! Having reset the GPS, the route took us through gently rolling hills, and then we saw a sign with an arrow that said "Glimmerglass," and decided to take a side trip to explore. As we came around a curve in the road and saw what I later learned was the Alice Busch Opera Theater, on top of a hill and with a small lake in the foreground, I got the strong feeling that we were in a special place. The opera being performed that afternoon was Carmen (decidedly not modern and far from obscure) and the season's lineup included Annie Get Your Gun, one of my favorite musicals (which I have done twice in community theater). We got tickets for it, extending our vacation by a couple of days, and this ended up being one of the highlights of our entire vacation. Annie Get Your Gun starred Deborah Voigt, best known for performances of operas by Wagner and Richard Strauss, and Rod Gilfry, who has done everything from Don Giovanni to Sweeney Todd (and whose CD My Heart Is So Full of You, Narratus 07, I subsequently picked as one of my 2012 "Records to Die For"). We also attended a concert by Deborah Voigt entitled Voigt Lessons, in which she not only sang beautifully, but talked openly about her problems with her weight, alcohol, relationships, and depression. It was one of the most moving performances I have ever witnessed.

This summer's Glimmerglass performance schedule—which, as I write this on August 18, still has a week to go—includes The Music Man, one of the classics of American musical theater, as well as productions of Aida, the Kurt Weill/Maxwell Anderson Lost in the Stars, and Lully's Armide. There are also numerous concerts—including a concert by Deborah Voigt (not Voigt Lessons), and by Artist In Residence, baritone Eric Owens. There's a show talk (free) before each performance. Glimmerglass has a Young Artists Program, which includes singers (who are in the ensembles and are featured in informal concerts), coaches, and assistant directors. We saw The Music Man, in which internationally renowned baritone—and Cooperstown native—Dwayne Croft showed that Harold Hill's numbers can be actually sung without losing their meaning or dramatic impact, and the concert by Deborah Voigt, in which she again showed the special rapport she's able to achieve with an audience.

But Glimmerglass is more than just performances of opera and musicals. Under Artistic & General Director Francesca Zambello (see photo below), who took over this position in 2011, there has been an expansion of Glimmerglass's mandate to include classic American musicals and concerts, which led to a "re-branding" of the enterprise from Glimmerglass Opera Festival to Glimmerglass Festival. Zambello has made a deliberate effort to make connections with local institutions and the artistic community, like museums and galleries. Zambello takes a decidedly hands-on approach to her leadership role, talking to audience members, making sure that people are happy about their Glimmerglass experience. And all of this effort is working: ticket sales are up 20% since her appointment. Zambello's creativity and ambitions for the Festival seem to have no bounds: there's even a limited-edition opera-inspired beer available, a collaboration between Cooperstown's Brewery Ommegang and the Glimmerglass Festival. (I found out about this too late to request a "review sample.")

Glimmerglass Artistic & General Director Francesca Zambello

One of the distinctive features of the performances of musicals at Glimmerglass is that they use no amplification for the orchestra or the singers. This is never done in current Broadway productions, and even where plays are performed without amplification, such as the Shaw and Stratford festivals, they use amplification for musicals. There is, of course, a special pleasure to be had in hearing voices and instruments as nature intended, but I wondered whether today's audiences are too used to the louder-than-life presentation of voices that is now standard in performances of musicals. I asked Francesca Zambello whether they get complaints from people about not being able to hear well enough, and she said they've had no complaints about this. And, I have to admit that, apart from a few muffled lines in the opening "Rock Island," I had no trouble hearing any of the dialogue or song lyrics in The Music Man. One factor that may be responsible for Glimmerglass being able to do away with amplification in their musicals is that their singers are almost all operatically trained, with the technique that allows them to project their voices without benefit of amplification, something that most of today's Broadway performers have difficulty with.

Planning for the 2013 Glimmerglass season is now in place. There are new productions of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman, Verdi's King for a Day (Un giorno di regno), Lerner & Loewe's Camelot, and a double bill of Pergolesi's Stabat Mater and David Lang's The Little Match Girl Passion. Baritone Nathan Gunn, who will appear as Lancelot in Camelot, and pianist Julie Gunn, will serve as Artists In Residence. Camelot is another great favorite of mine (yes, I've done that, too, once as Lancelot); I can't wait to see the Glimmerglass production.