Glimmerglass Opera to open season with ‘Madame Butterfly’

Opera fans may not know that what they’re seeing and hearing are revised versions of their works tha

COOPERSTOWN — Opera fans may not know that what they’re seeing and hearing are revised versions of their works that composers have made before they’re satisfied to let posterity take its course.

Tomorrow, Glimmerglass Opera will open a season in which all four productions are revised versions.

“We’ve had several years to make it better,” said composer Tobias Picker about his opera “An American Tragedy,” which opens on July 20.

Initially in 1998, when the Metropolitan Opera commissioned him to write an opera for the 2001 season and approved of his choice to write about an American tragedy, Picker was already busy composing two other operas (“Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “Therese Raquin”). But he did settle on his inspirational source: Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 novel, “An American Tragedy.”

“It’s a great story, a love triangle. It’s very operatic and has a natural structure,” Picker said. “When I was born it was considered the great American novel and was my father’s favorite book. The subject of the disparity between rich and poor is even more relevant today.”

Glimmerglass Opera

— “Madame Butterfly” July 11, 13, 17, 21, 24, 26, 29, Aug. 3, 9, 15, 18, 23

— “Carousel” July 12,18, 26,27, Aug. 1, 4, 10, 12, 14, 16, 19,22

— “Ariadne In Naxos” July 19, 22, 28, Aug. 2, 8, 17, 21, 23

— “An American Tragedy” July 20, 25, 31, Aug. 5, 7, 9, 11, 16, 24

HOW MUCH: $144-$10 (18 and younger)

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

MORE INFO: 607-547-2255;

But in 2001, Picker, who likes to work to deadline, was told there would be delays. The Met’s music director, James Levine, had become the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s music director and the Met had cut back on its new opera commitments.

Another year went by. Finally, around 2003, Picker was given the green light. He asked Gene Scheer, who had worked with him on “Therese Raquin” to write the libretto.

“I’d read his stuff before and knew he was a lyricist and a performer of song,” Picker said. “So I asked him to give me a treatment as to how he’d shape the novel. He read the book and knew it inside and out.”

In 2005 the Met gave the world premiere. Reception was mixed. But Francesca Zambello, the artistic director of Glimmerglass, who had directed Dallas Opera’s premiere of “Therese Raquin” and later productions of “An American Tragedy,” wanted to schedule it for Glimmerglass. Picker and Scheer wanted to make some changes.

“It will be brand-new, a different look,” Picker said. “Originally, it was in the novel’s time period of 1906. This will be in the 1920s. We also cut the first 20 minutes out, wrote new arias, and changed the ending of Act II. The Met’s set was elaborate and luxurious. This will be a spare production but beautiful.”

Familiar opener

Opening the season tomorrow will be Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly,” an opera that Glimmerglass music director Joseph Colaneri said he has conducted hundreds of times. It’s also a work Puccini revised several times.

“Puccini left metronome marks for music speeds but they’re not hard and fast,” Colaneri said. “It depends on the singers, how they shape a phrase, their voice. Puccini was also working from the Italian words, so some words are slightly longer or shorter. I need to be flexible.”

The opera will be set in its original time of 1904 but Zambello, who is directing, has set the location in the U.S. Consul General’s office. Because of this focus, singers must work harder to develop their characters.

“The music won’t change but the visual take will make the story more immediate. Audiences will experience its poignancy more,” Colaneri said. “My toughest job will be creating the overarching shape of the piece, being sure everything we rehearsed is musically there.”

Teaching dancers

Choreographer Daniel Pelzig’s main concern is teaching the many singers in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel,” which opens Saturday, how to dance.

“I give them imagery and as much attention as possible. It can be fearful,” he said. “But I never choreograph for the lowest common denominator. Everyone must look good and tell a story.”

He first showed them some simple steps to see how they moved. Then he made it harder and added the arms and asked them what they were thinking about. It’s a layered approach that works, he said.

Although he was in pre-med studies at Columbia University when he discovered his talent for dancing, he has since worked with enough opera or theater company casts to know how far he can go to challenge non-dancers.

“They’re a pretty smart bunch. They’re good listeners,” he said laughing. “I tell them it’s their job to learn as fast as they can. It will be more skills in their toolbox. The singers will rise to the occasion.”

Right costumes

Richard Strauss made substantial changes to his “Ariadne in Naxos,” which opens July 19, but costume designer Erik Teague wants to be sure he’s got the right combination of high fashion, rural wear pertinent to upstate New York — the show’s locale — and some eye-popping fantastical costumes. The hardest part was finding the fabrics, trims, jewelry and shoes.

“I went to New York City — a great treat,” he said, “but I also went to Marshall’s, TJ Maxx, thrift stores and Macy’s a lot.”

Glimmerglass is creating many of the costumes with a shop that includes a master draper and several seamstresses, who have extensive experience sewing costumes. Initially, Teague researched traditional ways designers had costumed the cast of the opera.

“I decided to put these costumes in context,” he said. “It’s culture vs. agriculture and quirky. But a diva [Ariadne] is a diva no matter where she is.”

In all, Teague said he made numerous sketches for the 35 costumes and worked with the set and lightning designers for the right palette. And the fit should be a good one.

“They’ve had plenty of time to get them comfortable so it won’t be too tight and they’ll look good,” he said laughing.

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