Opera Saratoga: As it was in the beginning

Opera Saratoga celebrates its 50th anniversary this season with a change of name from the Lake Georg

Opera Saratoga celebrates its 50th anniversary this season with a change of name from the Lake George Opera, extra concerts and the presentation of the two operas that launched the company: Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus” and Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte.”

But for Nelson Sheeley, who directs “Fledermaus,” which opens Wednesday, and David Lefkowich, who directs “Cosi,” which opens Thursday, the hoopla is extraneous to their concerns.

“Opera singers tend to look down their noses at operetta, but it’s difficult to do,” said Sheeley, who has directed “Fledermaus” twice before. “They must bring a musical theater savvy.”

Premiered in 1874, the perennially popular operetta in three acts has delicious waltzes, a frothy plot that includes the famous masquerade in which one of the characters is dressed as a bat (hence the operetta’s title) and brilliant coloratura singing.

Opera Saratoga

Strauss: “Die Fledermaus”: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday; 2 p.m., Tuesday, July 5, and Sunday, July 10

Mozart: “Cosi fan tutte”: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Saturday, July 9; 2 p.m. Sunday and Wednesday, July 6

WHERE: Spa Little Theatre, Saratoga Spa State Park

HOW MUCH: $80-$45

Other Opera Saratoga events:

— Opera ball: Friday, Saratoga Hilton Hotel, $150

— Concert: 5 p.m. Monday, Congress Park, free

— Menotti’s “The Telephone”: Sembrich Opera Museum, Bolton Landing, 7:30 p.m, Thursday, July 7. $25.

— Anniversary concert: 7:30 p.m., Friday, July 8, Spa Little Theatre, $50-$45

MORE INFO: 584-6018, www.operasaratoga.org

Eager performers

Fortunately, Sheeley said, he has not only worked with many in the cast before, several of whom have appeared in past company productions, but the singers have a good handle on the material. They’ve also proven to be very enthusiastic.

“I’ve had to pull the reins back,” Sheeley said, laughing. “It’s so much easier to have to turn it down than to urge them on.”

There are five leads, but the chorus is large at 17 members. Those include seven singers from the company’s apprentice program, six from its studio artists’ program and four local singers. Artistic director Curt Tucker auditioned and chose all of the singers and will conduct. The show will be sung in English.

“I trust Curt’s casting. He has a good eye and we think a lot alike,” said Sheeley, who has worked with Tucker on several productions over the past several years.

When Tucker asked him which of this season’s shows he wanted to do, Sheeley said he chose the Strauss because he’d already done “Cosi” twice this year and felt he was “Cosi-ed out” and wanted to give the opera a rest for two years. But more, he loves light opera; he has directed everything from Gilbert and Sullivan to Broadway shows and currently serves in the theater department at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio.

“It’s my favorite stuff,” Sheeley said.

There is, however, no such thing as an easy opera, he said. The operetta is set in 1890s Vienna and requires three different sets. Clothes must be ornate, and bustles and trains had to be modified to accommodate the Spa Little Theatre’s smaller space. The 30-piece orchestra must also be seen in Act 2 because they’re playing at the ball.

Sheeley recalled thinking: “I’m sure there will be a train wreck at the first dress rehearsal.”

More problematic was that the singer who was cast as the jailer in the third act got sick and had to leave.

“The part is written for a man, but we chose to fill it with a woman,” he said. “We’re making her be a Carol Burnett-washer woman kind of character, so we had to rewrite the script a bit.”

Sheeley said he’s been looking forward for months to doing the show.

“I just want people to enjoy the opera . . . and have them leave with a smile,” he said.

Different circumstances

Lefkowich has a completely different set of issues with “Cosi.”

“I performed it in college and worked on it, but I’ve never directed the opera,” he said.

Considered one of the masterpieces of the repertory, “Cosi” premiered in 1790 in Vienna with a libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte. With a title that translates as “women are like that,” the plot of disguised lovers who eventually forgive their seemingly errant ladies has comedy, poignancy and even a little tragedy. That is something that Lefkowich discovered only when he examined the libretto in detail.

“My biggest surprise was to discover how dense the material is,” he said. “It’s very rich with human emotion, interactions, what happens when a third person is introduced into the mix. Mozart explores it in an unscandalous way.”

The story will be updated to “just after the milennium but before Facebook to a villa/swanky hotel,” he said. There will be no changes to the text, but creative ways were needed to deal with some of the ideas or physical elements that referenced the 18th century, such as using baseball bats in lieu of swords. The opera originally played out at three hours and 15 minutes. This was cut to just less than three hours.

“It’s become common these days to modernize an opera so as to have listeners understand the world we’re now in rather than a look back,” Lefkowich said. “We started with some trepidation [to cut], but this is a piece of theater and we needed to stay cool and calm. We needed to know what we’re doing every moment of the show.”

There are six leads with a 13-member chorus. It will be sung in Italian. To get an idea of the libretto’s intent and to help the singers develop their characters, the first rehearsals focused only on the recitatives.

“We talked and then acted through them,” he said. “It took two weeks to stage just in the rehearsal room, then one week of set, costumes and lighting before adding the orchestra. It will be 21 days of rehearsal in total.”

Miller to conduct

To add to the suspense, the conductor will be David Alan Miller, the music director of the Albany Symphony Orchestra, who is making his first fully staged opera conducting debut.

“I’ve been looking at the score for months. I’m deep into it,” Miller said in April. “I’ve done arias from the opera before, but the recitatives are tricky. They are spoken and carry the drama’s pacing.”

Despite Miller’s inexperience with doing a complete opera, Tucker said he had no qualms about asking him to conduct. Besides, Miller said, the director will help him with any issues.

“Miller is so wonderfully collaborative, and he wants to learn,” Lefkowich said, laughing, then adding that tempos are sure to be faster with Miller on the podium. “Symphonic conductors focus on pacing. Operatic conductors tend to indulge the singers.”

Lefkowich, who comes from the Albany area and has directed operas from the Metropolitan Opera to Glimmerglass Opera as well as being a fight choreographer, will also be directing Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffman” at Schroon Lake’s Seagle Colony July 27-30.

Opening night Opera Saratoga champagne receptions will be held at 6 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday. Tickets are $25.

Categories: Life and Arts

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