Opera producers take on unfamiliar projects at Bard Summerscape

“I had seen Richard Strauss’ ‘Die Liebe der Danae’ on a list of his compositions, but I never heard
Noël Coward’s operetta “Bittersweet†will be performed at Bard Summerscape.
Noël Coward’s operetta “Bittersweet†will be performed at Bard Summerscape.

Kevin Newbury, an opera and theater director whose credits range from Broadway to Lincoln Center, and James Bagwell, a noted choral director whose choruses usually perform at Carnegie Hall or Alice Tully Hall, took a leap into the unknown this summer. Both signed on to do productions at the Bard Summerscape that they were entirely unfamiliar with.

“I had seen Richard Strauss’ ‘Die Liebe der Danae’ on a list of his compositions, but I never heard it,” Newbury said in June after he’d started rehearsals. “I was very intrigued and interested.”

The Strauss opera, which has three “big” acts, Newbury said, will run July 29, 31, Aug. 3 and 5. It will be sung in German, and the American Symphony Orchestra under Leon Botstein will play.

First encounter

Bagwell was encountering Noël Coward’s shows for the first time.

“I’ve always been a big fan of his music and read his published letters and been fascinated by his wit. It has a lot of depth,” he said.

He’ll conduct “Bitter Sweet,” the first operetta that Coward wrote, which premiered in 1929. The show will run Aug. 4–7, and 10–14.

Bard Summerscape

WHERE: Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson

— Strauss: “Die Liebe der Danae” July 29, Aug. 5 at 7 p.m.; July 31, Aug. 3, 7 at 3 p.m.

HOW MUCH: $90-$30

— Coward: “Bitter Sweet” Aug. 4, 6, 11 at 8 p.m.; Aug. 5, 10, 12–14 at 3 p.m.; Aug. 7 at 7 p.m.


MORE INFO: 845-758-7900, www.fishercenter.bard.edu

James Bagwell will give a pre-opera talk at 5 p.m. Aug. 7. Leon Botstein will give a pre-opera talk on “Die Liebe” at 1 p.m. July 31.

The challenges both men faced ranged from the formidable (Strauss) to getting the dialect right for a stylized text (Coward).

Strauss began writing “Die Liebe der Danae” (“The Love of Danae”) in 1937 but because of illness, working on what became his final opera (“Capriccio”), and the growing threat of war, he didn’t complete the score until 1940. Although the libretto, which Strauss based on an idea from Hugo von Hoffmannsthal, has a Mozartean kind of comic/romantic/dramatic blend, it draws on Greek mythology.

Danae, whose father King Pollux is bankrupt, dreams of a wealthy husband, with visions that his wealth will be like a shower of golden rain. Midas — who in this story is both a donkey driver and the king of legend who could turn all into gold — and Jupiter vie for her hand. Disguises, betrayals and forgiveness follow, with themes that Newbury said are aptly contemporary: power, sex, love.

“What does it mean to be a god today . . . to have the Midas touch. To be filthy rich and go to have-nothing-at-all poor. If that’s not Bernie Madoff, then I don’t know what is,” he said laughing.

Consequently, the singers will be in a 2011 setting even as the story requires numerous “magical and transformative moments,” such as a woman turning to a golden statue and back and the shower of golden rain.

Newbury’s more immediate challenge was where to find a tenor, baritone and soprano for the three leads who had vocal range, great stamina and were terrific actors. He also needed seven other top singers for the remaining roles and a 55-member chorus.

“This is a very big sing,” he said. “It was like casting a ‘Ring’ cycle.”

Because of its demands, the opera is not performed often, although Botstein did a concert version in 2000 and fell in love with the music, which is why he wanted to have the opera performed, Newbury said. The music is romantic and very Straussian but with an edge and with allusions to other composers, such as Kurt Weill and Wagner.

Since the choice was to make the time frame contemporary, noted architect Rafael Vinoly was brought in to design an ultramodern set and Todd Norwood, a well-known fashion photographer, took pictures from a helicopter of New York City, which were enlarged to 30-foot high graphic images.

“All this cross-pollination of arts . . . it helps me to think out of the box,” Newbury said.

While this is Newbury’s first Strauss opera, Bagwell was very familiar with the milieu that Coward wrote in.

“It’s not Broadway but more Viennese operettas like Lehar or Offenbach,” he said. “It was the late 1920s when musical theater was in its infancy.”

Timeless story

The story is timeless, he said, which allowed director Michael Gielata to update the time frame to the 1960s. A young opera singer falls in love with her teacher and makes a career out of singing his music, but at a heartbreaking personal cost. There are many great songs, some of them surprisingly written as waltzes, Bagwell said. These include “If Love Were All” and “A Talent to Amuse.”

Because this was Coward’s first attempt at operetta — he’d written many plays and songs by then — his style was a hybrid between English music theater and operetta with the music integrated throughout the show. The operetta is rarely performed but it’s often written about, Bagwell said.

“There’s a movement to go back and examine these old shows . . . to let their words be heard again,” he said. “Too often we get stuck in the same five. We need to dig deeper.”

When he did that on this operetta, he discovered there were unexpected challenges besides getting the right lilt to the dialect.

“Coward’s mastery of words . . . they live in those texts,” he said. “His music is so much a throwback to Viennese opera. I needed to find a natural approach. You must be zoned into this style of music.”

To keep the sound right, only 12 musicians will be used, most of them wind players and a pianist.

“Some will be on stage. There are new orchestrations. We had to re-create the show,” Bagwell said.

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