Glimmerglass Opera opens its season on July 18 and, despite tough economic times, it will seem to most viewers that the company has not trimmed its sails. That’s because the current financial climate isn’t a new experience for opera companies.
“The opera world has always been a stressful place ever since the 1720s,” said Michael MacLeod, the general and artistic director of Glimmerglass Opera. “Even Handel suffered reduced ticket sales. That’s why he switched to oratorio and composed them to be sung in English.”
Glimmerglass has always run on a tight budget. So when what MacLeod calls the “financial tsunami” hit, the company had already planned the 2009 season and knew what types of expenses it would incur. To combat the continued spiral, however, full-time staffers took salary reductions and traveled less on business, and the season is starting almost two weeks later to allow all four productions to open closer together. This will result in four fewer performances overall but will encourage more destination opera goers.
Glimmerglass Opera schedule
-- Verdi’s “La Traviata” 8 p.m. on July 18, Aug. 1, 6, 14, 20, 22; 2 p.m. on July 20, 26, 28, Aug. 3, 11, 25; 1:30 p.m. on Aug. 8; 3 p.m. on Aug. 16.
-- Rossini’s “La Cenerentola” 8 p.m. on July 24, 31, Aug. 8, 13, 21; 2 p.m. on July 19, 27, Aug. 4, 10, 17; 1:30 p.m. on Aug. 15; 3 p.m. on Aug. 23.
-- Menotti’s “The Consul” 8 p.m. on July 25, 30, Aug. 7, 15; 2 p.m. on Aug. 18, 24; 1:30 p.m. on Aug. 1, 22; 3 p.m. on Aug. 9.
-- Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” 11:30 a.m. Aug. 2, 9, 16, 23.
WHERE: Alice Busch Opera Theater, nine miles north of Cooperstown.
HOW MUCH: $130 to $48.
MORE INFO: 607-547-2255 or www.glimmerglass.org
“We didn’t want to present a watered-down season,” MacLeod said. “So we chose four great operas.”
Focus on women
Although there is no theme as in past seasons, the focus this summer will be on four different women: the alluring Violetta from Verdi’s “La Traviata;” the long-suffering Cenerentola (Cinderella) from Rossini’s “La Cenerentola;” determined Magda from Menotti’s “The Consul;” and the passionate Dido from Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas.”
All the productions are new but MacLeod wanted a special touch given to the Verdi. He asked famed director Jonathan Miller to put his singular stamp on the opera, much as he did 20 years ago when he debuted at Glimmerglass with a production of “La Traviata” that was so compelling it is still vividly remembered today, MacLeod said. Miller went on to direct seven other operas over the years.
Miller said he can’t remember what he did in 1989 that made the opera so memorable. He’s more interested in what he’ll do now.
“The challenge is to make it as real as you can — for people to think how stupid to have not seen it that way before,” he said. “That’s what I want to get.”
He’ll focus on the details of the characters, such as their gestures, their preferences expressed or implied through the libretto, and the little things that happen in conversation or in soliloquy. Miller, a medical doctor who was studying to become a neurologist, reads these details like a book.
“Doctors are trained to see minute details that can give you a diagnosis,” Miller said. “Details fill in the portrait. What others see as negligible details are the essence of the person. As a director, you must be obsessed with the details. Telling the story is not enough. You must be psychologically and physically accurate.”
His job will be to get the singers acting or, rather, to appear not to act because they’re behaving so naturally, he said. He sees Violetta as a provincial girl who becomes a courtesan in the “desert that is Paris,” and finds love with Alfredo, a boy from the provinces.
“She is in the virginity of vice,” Miller said.
As the story continues, Alfredo’s father persuades Violetta to let his son go. She returns to her old life but becomes ill with tuberculosis. Alfredo, now understanding what his father has asked Violetta to do, returns to her, but she dies. And that, too, is something Miller has a special understanding of.
“I know how people die. I make it natural,” he said.
In the 1970s, Miller had been doing a lot of work in the theater when conductor Sir Roger Norrington asked him if he could direct an opera. But Miller, who had never seen an opera, told him he couldn’t read music. Norrington replied that that was all right, because Norrington could. Miller discovered he didn’t need to have the skill but only needed to keep his eyes open.
“My goal became to show what it’s like to be alive,” Miller said, which is why he won’t camp “La Traviata” up and won’t attach elaborate symbolism — something he said he couldn’t bear. The opera will be sung in Italian with English supertitles.
Miller will also direct a dramatization of the Purcell opera, which is considered the first great English opera. Only about an hour long, the story tells of how Dido gives her heart to Aeneas only to be deceived. Miller will work on movement and interaction among the three singers. Premiered in 1689, Purcell was said to have sung the role of Aeneas.
New to venue
The other two operas have never been done in the Alice Busch Theater. “La Cenerentola” and “The Consul” are glorious operas, MacLeod said, and both gave him a chance to spotlight some sensational female singers. The company’s new music director, David Angus, will debut in the Menotti. Angus was chosen after a two-year audition period and was the orchestra’s preferred choice.
Menotti won the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for his opera, which will be sung in English. It is about Magda’s battle with bureaucracy to save her family while her husband struggles with political injustice. The Rossini, which is a retelling of the Cinderella tale, will be sung in Italian with English supertitles.
The Glimmerglass season also includes talks with Miller and Angus and several gastronomic events.