Challenges abound this summer when Glimmerglass Opera opens its season Saturday with works new to artists and to audiences.
“John Corigliano’s ‘Ghosts of Versailles’ is the first piece of his I’ve ever worked on,” said company Music Director Joseph Colaneri.
Although the opera premiered in 1981 at the Metropolitan Opera and has been performed countless times around the globe, this is the first time Glimmerglass has presented it. (Corigliano’s orchestral work got plenty of coverage recently at the Albany Symphony Orchestra’s American Music Festival.)
Opening July 13 for eight performances, it is a two-act comic opera based on a Pierre Beaumarchais play that invokes characters such as Figaro and Count Almaviva comforting the “ghost” of Marie Antoinette to save her from the guillotine.
The music is written in what Colaneri calls a “controlled aleatoric style,” which means singers improvise at specific places throughout the opera. Colaneri doesn’t actually conduct those moments.
“The performers’ input onstage makes them co-creators,” he said. “I still have to facilitate the improvised passages for musical shape. But the score has tons of meter changes [and] complex rhythms. He also uses three percussion sections and large chorus numbers. It’s tuneful with beautiful duets, very lyric, has beautiful orchestra color, and it’s through-composed as the dialogue is with music. The atmosphere is moody and like an opera within an opera as he borrows 18th-century musical style for the ghost world in a kind of pastiche. It’s a constant juxtaposition of history and ghosts. The opera is a real masterwork.”
Working on 18th-century costumes was also new for costume designer Nancy Leary, who said she did a lot of reading and research to get things right.
“Marie was the queen of fashion. She rebelled against court protocol to wear simple dresses that were considered scandalous,” Leary said. “My costumes were connected to the set, which is opulent to excess, but I picked fabrics that had an ethereal nature. They’re the silhouette of the period but with a modern twist.”
Leary had to design more than 100 costumes for the 33 singers in multiple roles. Women wear ankle-length dresses to show off their shoes, and they wear corsets, which singers don’t mind wearing because they push against it with their diaphragms. It’s still like wearing a brace, she said.
But “Ghosts” is a far cry from the other opera Colaneri is conducting: Verdi’s “La Traviata,” which opens Sunday for 12 performances. He’s conducted the opera’s three acts numerous times; shifting gears is a challenge.
“I need to be creating the right Verdi style and atmosphere, with its 1853 style vs. that of 1991 for ‘Ghosts,’ ” Colaneri said.
The tragic opera tells the story of courtesan Violetta Valery’s life through its eternal themes of decadence, love and sacrifice.
World premieres are an adventure, however, and Jeanine Tesori’s “Blue,” which opens July 14 for eight performances, is only the second commission in the company’s history. Tazewell Thompson’s libretto is about an African-American couple (the husband is a cop) whose son grows up to become an activist and is killed by a white policeman.
“We’ve been waiting for a story like this for a long time,” said bass-baritone Kevin Kellogg, who plays the father. “It is very current and very relevant. And my role is so intimate and familiar. It was easy to get emotional.”
Kellogg, who grew up in Washington, D.C., was involved from the start.
“When Jeanine and Tazewell explained the story it was like a lightning bolt. It was a subject my wife and I had had about raising a black boy in America,” he said.
“Jeanine fleshed out every dramatic moment, so the music is through-composed. She also tailored my part to my voice, so it fits comfortably within my range.”
Other than Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” Kellogg said he knows of no other black operas, so all the black singers he knows of hope to attend. The opera is even more personal in that his own 4-year old son will be onstage in an interlude scene before transitioning to the opera’s teenage son.
“This won’t be the typical-night nerves because it will be very poignant,” Kellogg said. “It will be about the weight of the piece and how it lands, and how it will affect others.”
Opening the season Saturday will be the blockbuster Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein “Showboat” with 14 performances, and a new adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s “The Queen of Spades” in three performances opening Aug. 6. There are also numerous lectures, recitals, readings, a youth opera and other events throughout the company’s season.
Kern/Hammerstein “Showboat”: July 6, 16, 20, 22, 28; Aug. 1, 3, 5, 11, 15, 17, 20, 24
Verdi “La Traviata”: July 7, 15, 21, 27, 30; Aug. 4, 8, 10, 13, 16, 19, 24
Corigliano “The Ghosts of Versailles”: July 13, 23, 25; Aug. 3, 9, 12, 18, 23
Tesori “Blue”: July 14, 26, 29; Aug. 2, 6, 10, 17, 22
Tchaikovsky “The Queen of Spades”: Aug. 6, 11, 19
HOW MUCH: $149-$26
MORE INFO: 607-547-2255; www.glimmerglass.org