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Barn Opera’s New Season Promises to Delight and Challenge Audiences

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Published September 14, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated September 14, 2022 at 10:23 a.m.


Joshua Collier - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Joshua Collier

Barn Opera has officially completed two and a half years of renovations on its 19th-century barn in Brandon. At an open house in late August, the public toured the venue, which now has 104 reused cinema seats, complete with cupholders. Its lobby features an electric fireplace, a bar repurposed from a Vermont post office counter, bathrooms papered with opera scores and an original painting of the opera house by Brandon resident Warren Kimble.

The warm, casual setting fits the vision of opera that tenor Joshua Collier had in mind when he founded the company in 2017: an unpretentious art form that everyone can enjoy. Barn Opera's ambitious new season promises the same.

Two operas are planned for the barn before the winter holiday: Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos and Collier's own adaptation of Jules Massenet's Werther, titled The Letters of Charlotte. Between those productions, the company will do a three-day residency at Castleton University, where Collier teaches, culminating in a performance of Giacomo Puccini's Tosca.

Then, in late December, Barn Opera will perform Gian Carlo Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors in the nearby Congregational Church of Salisbury — a holiday tradition in its third year. On New Year's Eve, the company will stage Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta The Pirates of Penzance back at the barn, followed by fireworks at midnight. And that's just 2022.

Strauss may sound daunting, Collier admitted in a phone call, given that the composer is known for "very intense" operas such as Elektra and Salome. But Ariadne is lighter fare, and the director will have fun with it. The original story pits opera singers against a troupe of comedians. Both scheduled to perform for the richest man in Vienna, those two groups are forced at the last minute to combine their shows into one, a mashup of an opera called Ariadne in Naxos.

In Barn Opera's production, the rivalry is a more current-day one between opera singers and musical theater folks. The richest couple in Vermont has rented out "the most beautiful venue in Vermont — which is, of course, the Barn Opera barn," Collier said with a laugh.

Helen Lyons - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Helen Lyons

"Josh is always trying to find ways to give opera new meaning and challenge audiences' preconceived notions of what opera should be," said Helen Lyons, a Ferrisburgh soprano who will sing Ariadne. "In this version, he's really sending up opera singers: We're insufferable people; we do 'park and bark.' That gradually morphs into the more authentic characterization that the theater people have."

Lyons, who sang professionally in Germany for three years and is a classical music host and the music manager at Vermont Public, added that Strauss is "bar none my favorite composer, but sometimes he needs more than one listen." She recommends listening to Jessye Norman sing Ariadne ahead of Barn Opera's performance.

The cast of 12 also includes Vermont-born mezzo-soprano Brooke Larimer, who lives in the Bronx, as the Composer; and Brooklyn tenor Chad Kranak as the god Bacchus. Kranak has sung everything from the solo part in Sergei Rachmaninoff's Vespers at the Bard Music Festival last month to a robed monk in Madonna's surprise Met Gala performance at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2018.

Collier is particularly excited about The Letters of Charlotte, his interpretation of Massenet's Werther, which is itself a Frenchman's interpretation of Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther. Collier tells the doomed love story of young Charlotte and Werther — Charlotte marries Albert; Werther shoots himself — from the perspective of Charlotte at the end of her life.

"She's reliving or imagining [their relationship] as she rereads his letters," the director explained. His approach, he added, "gives people the space to reminisce about their own memories."

Collier streamlined the music but kept "all the arias, duets and famous pieces" and inserted monologues for the older Charlotte.

"The thing is, why would I do everything that's already been done?" Collier said of his approach. "These stories have other stories to tell that haven't been told. If I can do that using existing constructs, that interests me."

Barn Opera's productions manage to convey the emotion of opera with remarkably pared-down resources. Presided over by pianist Felix Jarrar, the curtainless stage's nine-foot Steinway provides the sole music accompaniment, and the company's music director, Cailin Marcel Manson, often steps in to sing baritone roles.

The company relies on small casts, supplemented by a community chorus that it invites to perform each year in Amahl and the Night Visitors. The 45-minute opera was the first to be commissioned by and composed for television; it premiered on NBC on New Year's Eve 1951. Collier is currently looking for chorus members, if any readers are interested.

Lyons, who will sing Amahl's mother as well as the title role in Tosca, commented that singing with Barn Opera is "great fun" because "They have limited resources, and there's no ego going on. There's something about Josh. He really instills a great sense of warmth in the community."

Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss, Friday and Saturday, September 16 and 17, 7:30 p.m., at Barn Opera in Brandon. $50. For full season schedule and ticket information, visit barnopera.com.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Aria Ready? | Barn Opera's new season promises to delight and challenge audiences"

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