The Vermont Youth Orchestra sure sounds like a kid-friendly operation. But for Lori Lewis and her two young sons, last Sunday's Flynn MainStage concert ended on a bad note. She had both boys -- ages 2 and 5 -- in tow when she bought tickets to the matinee show, and chose seats near the stage so her oldest, a violin student, could get a better look at the star attraction: Midori. But during the intermission, an usher asked the three to leave their seats for "causing a disturbance" and relocated them to the back of the theater. Lewis claims they never raised their voices above a whisper. Later, when she pressed for an explanation, the house manager noted that she'd been breastfeeding. Lewis, who had "discreetly" suckled the 2-year-old, put two and two together.
"I was dumbfounded! I told her that it was outrageous that breastfeeding was considered a disturbance!" Lewis wrote in a letter to the Flynn that she copied to Mayor Peter Clavelle, Governor Jim Douglas, the Vermont Youth Orchestra, Midori and the Vermont ACLU. The mother of two, who also happens to be a licensed attorney, insists the Flynn's actions were not only unconscionable but illegal. Citing Vermont statutes she quotes, "A mother may breastfeed her child in any place of public accommodation in which the mother and child would otherwise have a legal right to be."
Flynn Executive Director Andrea Rogers admits the house manager misspoke -- and "had forgotten about the law" -- but claims the breastfeeding had nothing to do with the decisions that were made. "The usher who asked you to move was not even aware of the breastfeeding and did not mention it," she wrote in a response to Lewis. "It was apparently mentioned by someone else to the house manager, who unfortunately brought it up to you when you spoke to her after the concert." All this was going on while the youth orchestra was preparing to play a composition by Middlebury composer Su Lian Tan entitled, ironically, "U Be You."
The real reason for the expulsion, Rogers writes: "You and your sons were disturbing many patrons and the noise was noticeable on stage and as far away as the balcony . . . We have had numerous calls and emails asking why we did not do something sooner."
Classical music may be desperately seeking a new generation of listeners, but the old folks sure are a lot quieter in their seats. While the Flynn aims to be family-friendly, with changing tables, student matinees and educational programs, "It is our policy to ask parents with children who are disturbing others to move to the back under such circumstances," Rogers writes. "We hope they can still experience the performance from there without negatively affecting others."
Unfortunately, annoyance is subjective. What's squirmy to one member of the audience may be exemplary behavior to another. Ditto obstructive hairdos and offending perfume. "You have to weigh whether the disturber or the disturbed is to be moved," Rogers says of such situations. She adds that it might be a good time to review and standardize policies for all presenters who rent the Flynn -- and post them somewhere more public than the playbill.
The Mad River Valley sure is crazy for opera. Come June, the area could be hosting back-to-back rival festivals with all the requisite backstage drama. Six years ago, Russian pianist Carmen Or and her Spanish baritone husband Eduardo del Campo decided Warren would be a great place for a small group of professional vocalists to share a working vacation. The Vermont International Opera Festival became an annual, two-week event with in-kind support from the Joslyn Round Barn and the Pitcher Inn. In exchange for room and board, the vocalists, some of whom were Metropolitan Opera veterans, literally sang for their supper. Their intimate rehearsals -- and public performances -- were free.
But Or describes herself as an artist, not a businesswoman. Last year, she turned administration of the festival over to the Waitsfield-based Green Mountain Cultural Center. The nonprofit instituted some ticketed events and raised money to pay the artists. But at the end of the festival, President Doreen Simko discovered the talent had received amounts significantly less than what the board had allocated. There was "some misappropriation of funds," she notes. In a recent Valley Reporter story, a GMCC spokesman asserts, "We're asking Or to explain what happened to $18,000."
"We had to sever ties with her. We were very upset," Simko explains. "It was a choice of dropping the festival completely or continuing without her." The organization opted for the latter, hired a new artistic director -- a singer who once worked with Or -- and started marketing itself initially as the Vermont International Opera Festival. But Or had registered the name with the Secretary of State's office. Hence the new moniker: the Green Mountain Opera Festival. Its first fundraiser, "An Evening of Sweets and Songs," is this Saturday at Waitsfield's Bundy Center for the Arts.
The show is going on, too, for the Vermont International Opera Festival. "We are coming back -- as usual," Or promises, noting with some bitterness, "They are copying everything we do."
Both opera organizers are planning June festivals with culminating performances at the Barre Opera House. It remains to be seen: Are there enough opera lovers in central Vermont to take in all of this hot aria?