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The Summer Seasons of Vermont’s Two Opera Companies Are All About Edgy Updates

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Published June 1, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


Lucas Levy and Bevin Hill of Opera Company of Middlebury - COURTESY OF DAVID DEVINE
  • Courtesy Of David Devine
  • Lucas Levy and Bevin Hill of Opera Company of Middlebury

This year, Vermont's two opera companies, Barn Opera in Brandon and the Opera Company of Middlebury, offer summer seasons that diverge in just about every way — except in their impresarios' shared goal to get people to love opera.

Under the artistic direction of founder Doug Anderson, OCM, now in its 19th season, will present live performances starting this Friday, June 3, of Jacques Offenbach's Orphée aux enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld), a lark of an operetta that makes wild fun of the Greek myth.

Meanwhile, Barn Opera founder and artistic director Joshua Collier chose to pivot away from live performance this summer after many of the 5-year-old company's regular fans expressed fears of COVID-19. Instead, Collier, a tenor, is filming the two operas he had planned to present, Cavalleria rusticana by Pietro Mascagni and Il tabarro by Giacomo Puccini. Both are heartrending one-act tragedies that end with body counts.

Both directors hope to fight the perception of the art form as snooty and to update its stories for modern audiences.

In Anderson's Orphée, the underworld is Las Vegas, and at least one scene takes place in a sports bar. In the past, the director has updated Jules Massenet's Cendrillon (1899) with a ukulele-playing prince and a Cinderella who wears thrift-store finds.

Offenbach's send-up of the Greek myth, which premiered in 1858, is still funny. Orpheus and Eurydice aren't the myth's famously loving pair, separated by Eurydice's death. Instead, they despise each other, and Eurydice is thrilled to escape to hell. Orpheus heads to the underworld to retrieve her only because a character named Public Opinion pressures him to.

Meanwhile, Anderson said by phone, "The gods are bored out of their minds and sick of drinking ambrosia. When Jupiter says he's going to hell to help out Orpheus, everyone says, 'Take us!' They have a wonderful time down there."

Offenbach's music, which Anderson called "effervescent and tuneful and giddy," constitutes a large part of the fun. Everyone's doing the can-can in hell — to a cabaret melody that audiences are sure to recognize.

Atlanta-based soprano Bevin Hill, who sings Eurydice, has performed in six previous OCM operas; Connecticut-based baritone Joshua Jeremiah, who plays Jupiter, has done five. Vermont couple Allison and Cameron Steinmetz, a soprano and tenor, play lesser gods. Guest conductor Clinton Smith will lead an orchestra of Vermont musicians.

Reached by phone at the start of rehearsals, Hill said that working with Anderson is "like playtime. I feel so guilty because it's like a paid vacation. Doug is all about wanting to entertain this audience. He has such a fresh perspective on these operas."

Jeremiah has sung tragic roles such as Macbeth and Rigoletto around the U.S., including with Houston Grand Opera. Jupiter is a new role for him and one he's enjoying.

"You get to see me transform into a fly and buzz around the stage," he promised.

The baritone added that Orphée is "not often done in the States because it's almost a French musical theater piece" with a lot of French spoken dialogue — which will have English supertitles. "It's very silly, and [our production] will be as close to that kind of French cabaret farce as we can get away with."

For the first time, OCM is offering free tickets to anyone under 26. "This is a great gateway opera: full orchestra, fabulous singers and a supergood time," Anderson said. "Any of your preconceptions are going to be smashed in the first five minutes."

Jacob Collier of Barn Opera - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Jacob Collier of Barn Opera

Meanwhile, Collier of Barn Opera hopes film is the way into the hearts of potential opera fans.

"I love the opera and the theater and the film medium, and I think that [film is] the point at which all my loves intersect," he said. "There are people who think opera is not for them, and with my evangelism, this is a way to say, 'Yes, this is for you.'"

Using their scheduled rehearsal time, the cast recorded Cavalleria rusticana and Il tabarro in two days inside the company's rehabilitated barn to piano accompaniment by assistant music director Felix Jarrar. Music director Cailin Marcel Manson conducted.

Then, over the next three days, they filmed Cavalleria on location in Salisbury, Brandon and Pittsford, with the singers lip-synching to the recording played from a speaker on set. Currently being edited, Cavalleria will be released at the end of the summer.

Il tabarro will be filmed in late July in New York City — most likely in a gritty riverside locale filled with graffiti, Collier said, that fits his film-noir conception of the opera.

Between the release of Cavalleria and the filming of Il tabarro, Collier will launch Castellopera, a summer training program at a 1,000-year-old Tuscan castle. Eight young American singers will study with six faculty, including Collier, and a "Barn Opera family" of 11 opera fans will tag along to enjoy recitals, castle living and fresh Tuscan cuisine.

As a director, Collier often reinterprets operatic stories to modernize characters' motivations. With Cavalleria, he envisions a story driven by the main character's isolation and the complicity of her community.

In Mascagni's opera, first staged in 1890 and set in a small village in Sicily, young Santuzza has been banned from church, the center of village life, because she was seduced by a soldier who has no romantic interest in her; he seeks only revenge against his former fiancée, who wed another while he was at war. In two short scenes connected by a famous hymnlike intermezzo, jealousy among the four main characters drives the action, with tragic results.

Collier transforms the Sicilian town into a present-day Vermont one. The company filmed scenes in the Congregational Church of Salisbury and beside Brandon's waterfall.

"Vermont worked just as well," Collier said. "Everyone knows everyone's secret. I believe that everyone is complicit. No one is really good, which is why these events unfold."

Cavalleria rusticana translates as "rough chivalry," he added, which "sounds very American."

New York City-based soprano Marie Masters Webb sings Santuzza. Collier sings Turiddu, the soldier, with Pittsford soprano Kasey King as his ex-fiancée.

Collier's conception of the role of Santuzza, Webb said by phone, "allowed me to put myself in her shoes and understand her. She is isolated in this community," and that isolation "really heightens where her desperation takes her."

Barn Opera's Cavalleria is Webb's first experience with filmed opera. "It was great. During filming, I got to focus on the acting and the drama because the singing part was done. It was very freeing," she said.

"When this opera was premiered," Webb continued, "the story would have felt extremely immediate to people. Today, the medium of film, I hope, will make it seem quite relatable again."

Learn more about the release of Cavalleria rusticana at barnopera.com and about Castellopera at castellopera.com.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Arias for All"