Christoph Hagel isn’t afraid to take risks. The German opera director once put on a monthlong run of Mozart’s The Magic Flute in an unused subway station in Berlin. He choreographed a hip-hop ballet to Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, a production that won him the ECHO special award in classical music, the German equivalent of a Grammy. This summer, he’s directing an opera in Vermont.
OK, that last one isn’t so risky, but it’s certainly ambitious. In many American small towns, it would be difficult to scrounge up an entire cast of professional singers who are also proficient in German. But not in Middlebury, where each summer students from classical-music programs across the country come together for Middlebury College’s one-of-a-kind German for Singers and Vocal Coaches program.
This weekend, for the first time in the program’s 12-year history, the students will present a full opera performance — well, slightly abridged; it runs about 80 minutes — of Mozart’s Die Falsche Gärtnerin (The Pretend Garden-Girl) at Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater and the Vergennes Opera House. Mozart originally wrote the work in Italian and called it La Finta Giardiniera, but converted it into a German singspiel five years later.
The opera tells the story of a young woman named Sandrina, who, after a violent fight with her lover, disguises herself as a gardener to escape her past — and her boyfriend. She ends up entangled in even more complicated love triangles before finally reconciling with her former beloved.
Program director Bettina Matthias, who met Hagel two years ago while she was doing research in Germany for her German-for-singers textbook, is excited about his interpretation of the opera. “He’s a really hot item in Germany right now,” she adds.
Here in Vermont, Hagel’s production will be fully staged, yet simple. Singers will all wear the same color and perform on a spare set. “For him, it’s all about the music,” says Matthias.