The first time the Opera Company of Middlebury performed — Carmen, in 2004 — the singers shared the newly gutted Town Hall Theater with a colony of bats.
"The interior demolition had already been done, so it was just a big brick oven," recalls artistic director Doug Anderson. "I mean, the bats were flying around, [and] it was 90 degrees in there." Yet the show sold out. It was a "huge, huge hit," he says.
The unlikely opera company has come a long way. Six seasons and a $5 million renovation of the downtown Middlebury theater later, the company is gearing up to present an earlier, lesser-known work by Georges Bizet, The Pearl Fishers.
After a successful run of familiar and beloved operas such as La Boheme and Tosca, Anderson and company decided it was time to take a risk. "Part of our mission is to educate our audience and stretch their minds a little bit," he explains.
When Bizet wrote The Pearl Fishers at 25, in the mid-19th century, operas set in exotic locales were all the rage, Anderson says, even if the composers knew nothing about those places. This one takes place in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and the cultural stereotypes traditionally employed in its production — everyone is decked out in harem pants and shoes that curl up at the toe — are as outdated as the storyline is silly, Anderson admits.
In the story, the pearl fishers have been having a tough time. Too many storms and tsunamis have struck. So they bring in a beautiful woman to stand on a rock and sing while they fish, believing she'll keep the evil spirits away. But it turns out she has a bit of history with the tenor (she was supposed to be a virgin); the two are caught in the temple together, which infuriates the baritone.
"At its heart, I see a very real story," Anderson says. "The two men, the tenor and the baritone, love each other. They've been boyhood friends; they've traveled the world together, they're closer than brothers. This woman splits them up."
Anderson sits back and allows a smile to creep over his face. "I used to write soap operas,” he confides. “I know a story when I see one."
In another life, he likes to say, before he began directing the Town Hall Theater and teaching classes on musical theater at Middlebury College, Anderson was the head writer for daytime TV's "Guiding Light." And while he hasn't always been an opera fanatic — he saw his first production in 1995 when a friend gave him free tickets to the Metropolitan Opera in New York City — he has fallen hard for it.
"I'm trying to tell the story in as real a way as I can tell it,” he says of Pearl, “so we really start to care about these people in the middle of a terrible love triangle, for which someone's got to lose."
It's been Anderson's intention, since starting the company, to offer a more intimate and subtly acted type of opera than purists might be used to.
"Because we have such a little house — 232 seats — bombastic, stock operatic acting doesn't work," he says. "You come out and start doing all of that and people are going to be, like, 'Whoa, back up.'"
That's why Anderson and his musical director, Mark Shapiro, who go to New York City each year to audition singers, look for individuals who are a little less traditional, who are open to trying out new interpretations and don't just "park and bark," as Anderson puts it. So far, that strategy has worked beautifully. The pair have attracted a lot of emerging talent, singers in their late twenties who are itching to learn new material, improve their singing and, of course, score a three-week getaway in Vermont.
Performers aren't paid much, but they're given housing — this year they're shacked up in the Lake Dunmore waterfront properties of OCM patrons — for their three-week stay.
"Do I wish sometimes I had $15-20,000 to throw at a real star? Yeah," Anderson says. "But it would be a different experience."
For now, at least, Anderson is content with what he's got: a steady flow of young and promising singers, the kinds of people he'd want to "invite to my party," he says. The company has actually written into its bylaws that one of its key objectives is to have fun. Oh, and not to work with difficult divas.
They've come a long way since sharing the stage with thousands of bats, but Anderson still considers himself an outsider in the opera world, "which is both my problem and my strength," he says. "I don't speak Italian. I'm a complete autodidact, not that I haven't seen a lot and studied a lot. But [the performers] all get together and they have a whole world of people in common... I'm not connected to that world, and probably never will be."
"But again," he says, pausing for dramatic effect. "I don't know what I can't do."
The Pearl Fishers by Georges Bizet, directed by Doug Anderson and Mark Shapiro, performed by the Opera Company of Middlebury, is at the Town Hall Theater in Middlebury on June 4, 8 & 10 at 8 p.m.; June 6 at 2 p.m. $35-$40. Info, 382-9222. www.ocmvermont.org