New Opera at Glimmerglass

The Glimmerglass Festival in bucolic Cooperstown, New York is about the only place I can think of where one can kayak in to a performance of contemporary opera—or where people are actually encouraged to do so! Newly-appointed Glimmerglass Artistic Director Francesca Zambello has said in an interview that she’d even welcome anyone who arrives in a bathing suit if they swam here to see an opera.

It’s all part of Zambello’s push to rebrand Glimmerglass Opera—which has been around for over 35 years—as the Glimmerglass Festival, a destination for eating, drinking, and socializing. With tie-in events partnering with the Baseball Hall of Fame and even a local brewery, the festival hopes to attract new audiences; meanwhile, a host of musical events including Q&A sessions with artists, recitals, and cabarets fill out the season. The festival has even decided to open up other events traditionally reserved for donors (such as backstage tours) to the public.

The 2011 season features a variety of works that hint at the diversity of Zambello’s vision for the new Glimmerglass: an old standby (Bizet’s Carmen), a rarely-performed work by lesser-known composer (Cherubini’s Medea), and new production of Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun performed by an unamplified cast led by Wagnerian legend Deborah Voigt. The season concludes with a double bill of new operas: Later That Same Evening by John Musto and librettist Mark Campbell, and A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck by Jeanine Tesori and librettist Tony Kushner—the first Glimmerglass commission under Zambello’s tenure.

The new operas are strikingly different and yet they complement each other extremely well, perhaps due to each composer’s fascination with the popular music of bygone days.

Musto’s Later That Same Evening is structured in five scenes based on paintings by famed 20th-century artist Edward Hopper, reproductions of which are displayed prominently as part of the set design. The story presents us with separate vignettes that are simultaneously taking place around New York City of the 1930s, and at one point these characters come together in a scene where they attend a Broadway show—a real tour de force displaying Musto’s mastery of musical theatre conventions and laden with witty observations of typical theatre-goers. Musto’s jazzy, cabaret-influenced language is in the Bernstein tradition but pulses with a sharper sense of rhythmic urgency; his score revels in driving ostinati and vamps, a nice contrast to the more directly song-like arias for each of the main characters.

The stories that librettist Mark Campbell imagined are effective in how they manage to explode a large amount of character and situational detail from each Hopper painting. Hopper specialized in creating the impression of the lone outsider looking in through unique perspective and lighting, and the theme of being out of place factors strongly in the plot of the opera. Ruth, a young aspiring ballerina returns home to Indianapolis crushed by rejection, while a young poet escapes the “small town sneers” of Lynchburg and resolves to move to the city, where he opines that “you simply can’t be stranger than anyone else”. An increasingly distant couple seem out of synch in a scene where each has a one-way conversation while the other alternately plays piano or reads the paper; another young man barely misses proposing to the aforementioned ballerina but (perhaps) strikes up a new relationship equally by chance. These two themes coalesce into the character of a foreigner who also views the hit musical Tell Me Tomorrow from a box seat: her disparaging aria (sung in Italian) and her laughing at all the wrong times during the show highlight her distance from a culture that Musto captures so vividly in his score.

In Later That Same Evening the themes from the fictional Broadway show are cleverly introduced elsewhere in the show including a scene where a character listens to one of the show’s songs on the radio (accomplished with an offstage singer and some audio FX); but Jeanine Tesori’s score for A Blizzard at Marblehead Neck more directly utilizes pop influences as a way to interface with the past. The libretto by Tony Kushner (Angels in America, Munich) recounts a real whopper of a fight between famed Irish-American playwright Eugene O’Neill and his wife Carlotta, inside a drafty old house near the sea. Carlotta wants to turn up the heat, but Eugene hasn’t had many royalty checks following the initial poor reception of his 4-hour long play The Iceman Cometh and is obsessing over his old phonograph records. The music from these records infiltrates the orchestra, which at one point has a colossal downward glissando as a warped record is slowed down and intentionally scratched by O’Neill’s furious wife. This phonograph music functions as a kind of “found object” and reappears later as O’Neill hallucinates an encounter with the phonograph record’s chanteuse.

Suffice it to say that the fight culminates in the defeated playwright storming out into the blizzard alone and his wife turning off the lights, but the dramatic arc of the story continues much further as O’Neill comes to grips with his demons. Tesori has written lots of music for films and musicals (including Shrek the Third and her Shrek musical), so I was surprised and delighted by her keen understanding of the possibilities of opera as distinct from musical theatre. I believe that this is Tesori’s first opera and I look forward to hearing her future efforts in the genre.

Kudos to the Glimmerglass Festival for making new works a central part of the season! Right now, much is being penned about the NYC scene and the so-called “bandsemble” phenomenon, which has served composers and performers in metropolitan areas extremely well; but those wondering how new music might be made to work in Small Town, USA might do well to turn their eyes and ears upstate.

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