‘Aida’ to open a varied season of opera at Glimmerglass

Glimmerglass Opera’s artistic and general director Francesca Zambello believes opera should be more

Glimmerglass Opera’s artistic and general director Francesca Zambello believes opera should be more than just an entertainment. It should be a vehicle for social awareness and change. That’s why when opera fans look at this summer’s schedule, which opens Saturday, they’ll see some provocative choices.

“I wanted . . . works that could inspire discussion about our world today,” Zambello said. She started more than a year — actually two years ago, she said — to plan a season that would stretch the boundaries of the company and engage a wide range of ideas. She also wanted to involve other opera companies from other countries as co-producers.

Glimmerglass Opera

• Verdi “Aida”: July 7, Aug. 4, 25 at 8 p.m.; July 13, 27, Aug. 9, 17 at 7:30 p.m.; July 15, 23, Aug. 11, 14, 17 at 1:30 p.m.

• Willson “The Music Man”: July 14 at 8 p.m.; July 20, 26, Aug. 2, 24 at 7:30 p.m.; July 24, 28, 30, Aug. 4, 6, 12, 19, 21 at 1:30 p.m.

• Lully “Armide”: July 21, Aug. 18 at 8 p.m.; Aug. 10, 23 at 7:30 p.m.; July 29, 31, Aug. 5, 13 at 1:30 p.m.

• Weill “Lost in the Stars”: July 22, Aug. 7, 18, 20, 25 at 1:30 p.m.; Aug. 3, 16 at 7:30 p.m.; July 28, Aug. 11 at 8 p.m.

WHERE: Alice Busch Opera Theater, 7300 State Highway 80, Cooperstown

HOW MUCH: $132 to $50; $25 to $15, 18 or younger

MORE INFO: 607-547-2255, www.glimmerglass.org

Her first choice before she even considered another opera was one she’d never seen: Kurt Weill’s “Lost in the Stars.” Based on Alan Paton’s 1948 classic South African novel “Cry the Beloved Country,” the 1949 opera, which was written with Maxwell Anderson, was Weill’s last. It will be co-produced with Cape Town Opera. Famed bass-baritone Eric Owens will debut in the role of Stephen Kumalo, the South African priest who suffers a spiritual crisis during the time of social unrest that led to apartheid.

Owens, who is this season’s artist-in-residence and mentor to the 39 young artists of the company’s apprentice program, recently starred as Alberich in Wagner’s “Ring of the Niebelungen” at the Metropolitan Opera and performed a stunning Carnegie Hall recital in February.

Several young singers from South Africa will also be featured. Sibonakaliso Ndaba will provide choreography. John DeMain will conduct and Tazewell Thompson will direct. The opera opens July 22 in nine performances.

Familiar opener

While many opera fans might have heard of the Weill work, many others probably haven’t. So Zambello chose an opera to open the season that almost everyone has heard of: Verdi’s “Aida.”

Related story

For Gazette music writer Geraldine Freedman’s review of this show, click here.

“I’ve wanted to do all the great standard titles like ‘La Boheme,’ ‘Marriage of Figaro’ and ‘Tosca,’ ” she said. “Many, though, have thought these weren’t right for this venue. But ‘Aida’ feels right. It’s intimate.”

Instead of seeing the opera as spectacle with brass fanfares, elephants, pyramids and panoply, it’s really a love triangle set amid issues like slavery, political tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia and personal trials, she said.

The inspiration for “Aida” is interesting. In 1869, the Italian Theater was built in Cairo. To add luster to the new house, the Khedive, who ruled Egypt at the time, commissioned Verdi to write an opera on an Egyptian subject. Mariette Bey, a noted French Egyptologist, suggested the plot, which was later put into a libretto and translated by Antonio Ghislanzoni. The opera premiered in 1871 and was a success from the start.

This is the first time Glimmerglass will present the opera; Zambello will direct. It will feature several debuts: Nader Abbassi, the head of the Cairo Opera, will conduct; Bibhu Mohapatra, a rising young fashion designer, will do the costumes. Owens is singing his first Amonasro, the king of Ethiopia. And soprano Michelle Johnson, the 2011 winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, will sing the role of Aida, Amonasro’s daughter, for the first time.

Demanding role

“It’s a challenge. It’s a hard part,” Johnson said. “I’ll need stamina. It’s very emotional for the acting and I’ll have to be quick on my feet. I’ll have to push myself to the limits. The range is all over. It will be hard to keep the consistency since the arias are not less than seven minutes long and I must fill the entire stage by myself.”

Zambello, who often attends the Met’s auditions and actually auditioned Johnson in Zambello’s living room in New York City, said she’d been impressed with her right away.

“She has incredible poise and her voice is creamy, like a young Leontyne Price,” she said. “And this is part of what Glimmerglass is about: to cast emerging artists in roles that can become signature roles for them.”

Johnson, however, wasn’t so sure.

“I took my time to accept,” she said. “It’s a big piece to do it justice. You need to be up to it physically and emotionally. But I decided I want to do these big roles now, let them simmer and then return to them when I’m more mature and established.”

She said she was excited that she’ll get to sing with Owens not only because of his expertise but because he is also an African-American.

“It’s cool,” she said.

Lighting designer Robert Wierzel, who is also lighting the Weill opera, is doing his first “Aida.” After he listened to several recordings and read the libretto, he said he began to consider how lighting could help tell the story visually. Discussions with Zambello gave him more focus.

“The language of the light needs to gel with the music,” Wierzel said. “In the Weill, which is more musical theater, lighting is within the rhythm of the structure of the scenes and their transitions — the arc of the act. But in opera, the lighting is in more aggressive shifts. It can be harsher or softer. In the Weill, it will be more abstract and artful, sort of Brechtian.”

Showtalk series

To further assist in discussions about the opera, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will speak about trials in opera on Aug. 11 and Abbassi will talk on current Arab music on Aug. 4 as part of the Showtalk series. The opera will open Saturday with 12 performances.

Baroque opera is a big component of every season. Zambello wanted to explore the French baroque with Lully’s “Armide.” It is a collaboration with Toronto’s Opera Atelier, which will bring a lavish production that includes a full corps de ballet with the choreography of Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg. Written in 1686 and based on a 1581 epic poem, “Jerusalem Delivered” by Italian poet Torquato Tasso, “Armide” has as a backdrop the Muslim-Christian conflicts of the 11th century’s First Crusade. That setting and the issues of duty and religious conviction interested Zambello.

“Are we in the era of the Modern Crusade? As we watch the modern jihad and the religious right pull at our world, dividing countries, communities and families, suddenly this centuries-old opera is not so distant,” she said.

David Fallis will conduct; Peggy Kriha Dye, who recently debuted with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, will sing the role of Armide. The opera opens July 21 in eight performances.

Musical theater

Last summer, Zambello introduced audiences to unamplified musical theater. This season her choice is Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man.” Although the show, which premiered in 1957, might not seem to have much controversy, Zambello said the musical deals with the loss of deep human values and the connection to community, which we’ve lost, and that we might one day get back.

Cooperstown native Dwayne Croft, who has had a major operatic career and always dreamed of singing the role of Harold Hill, will star. Soprano Elizabeth Futral, who Zambello calls spellbinding, will be Marian, the librarian. John DeMain will conduct; Marcia Milgrom Dodge is the director/choreographer. The opera opens July 14 with 13 performances.

Other special events include Owens in a July 27 concert of Billy Eckstine’s music; soprano Deborah Voigt, who was last season’s artist-in-residence, in recital Aug. 5; and noted actress Estelle Parsons on July 29 speaking with Zambello about performing Weill. Tickets vary. There are also free previews one hour before performances and question-and-answer sessions after many of the shows.

Categories: Life and Arts

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