“Is this just magical thinking?”
Conductor Brian Garman, cofounder and artistic director of Berkshire Opera Festival, recalls asking himself this during a conversation in May of last year with Jonathon Loy, the company’s other cofounder and its director of production, and Abigail Rollins, its then-new executive director. The durability of the coronavirus and the scope of the pandemic were starting to become apparent, and the three were brainstorming ideas of how they might save their summer season, for which they’d planned a gala concert and a staging of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.”
Over the course of the spring, they would cycle through a number of ideas that might let them continue to bring live opera to the Berkshires, the company’s mission since its founding in the mid-2010s. Maybe they could do a concert version of the opera instead, and maybe it would work if they spaced the performers 6-10 feet away from one another onstage. Maybe they could perform outdoors.
It was, as Garman suspected, all magical thinking. As the pandemic worsened, it became obvious that none of those plans had any hope of actually being enacted. They settled, as so many did, for a streaming concert comprising videos of all the “Don Giovanni” cast members, recorded in their homes and studios. The company charged a nominal viewing fee, and, with the help of a donor, was able to pay the singers, something Garman noted with pride.
While he was pleased with the nimbleness with which BOF had been able to pivot and retain a connection to its audience, there was no question that the company’s size and relative youth also meant that a disruption on the scale of COVID-19 had created nothing less than an existential crisis.
“We were scared to death every day that this would be the end of the company,” Garman said recently, speaking by phone from just outside Great Barrington during a rehearsal break. “We were convinced that if we could find the money to keep things going, we had good plans in place. But it was, I think, months of no sleep. We honestly did not know if we would make it through. And a lot of companies did not.”
Not only did BOF survive, it has returned with its most ambitious season yet. In July, it debuted Second Stage — its vehicle for works that fall outside the operatic heartland and require smaller forces — with a production of Tom Cipullo’s “Glory Denied,” the story of a Vietnam POW returning home to America. After a free, Shakespeare-themed concert this week, the company arrives at its chief undertaking: three performances of Verdi’s “Falstaff” between Aug. 21 and Aug. 27, directed by Joshua Major and with a strong cast that includes baritone Sebastian Catana in the title role and soprano Tamara Wilson as Alice Ford.
“It’s perhaps the very greatest of all the Italian operatic comedies,” Garman said. “When you pair Verdi and Shakespeare, the result could only be extraordinary. ‘Falstaff’ doesn’t inherit any tradition as a comic opera. It’s nothing like the comedies of Mozart, or ‘The Barber of Seville’ or ‘Don Pasquale.’ Verdi here creates something entirely new that, in a sense, starts its own tradition.”
In part, the scale of the company’s season is simply a result of having long-range plans in place, the necessity of which Garman and Loy have pointed to in previous interviews with the Globe. “I try to engage all the performers for our productions at least two years out,” Garman said, “so we already had all of these outstanding contracts.”
When it came to planning this summer, of course, the overriding question was whether they’d be able to put together any kind of season, and Garman said that they’d worked “day in and day out to make Plan B and Plan C and Plan D, contingency after contingency after contingency.
“You’d put something together,” he continued, “and two weeks later the shape of the pandemic would change or the state’s guidance would change, and you’d have to tear it up and start over, from one week to the next.” It was only in late winter, when they decided to institute a vaccination requirement for staff and performers, that they were confident they could press ahead with their plans.
Garman acknowledged that the recent spread of the Delta variant meant that the pandemic had changed shape again. The company is pushing ahead, though he said that “we’re certainly keeping a very careful eye on it.” Likewise, BOF doesn’t currently have a vaccine requirement for audience members, but Garman wrote in an e-mail that they were “in constant communication with [the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center] management and are discussing the best ways of keeping our patrons and performers safe.”
Despite the disruption and financial effect caused by the pandemic — not to mention the uncertainty of trying to sustain any opera company in the best of times — Garman was adamant about how well BOF was positioned for the future, pointing to Rollins’s hiring and a growing board of directors. The advent of the Second Stage productions is one step forward in a multiyear strategy that also includes plans for a training program for young singers.
“I feel like the company is in a very strong place, and it’s primed for real growth,” he said. “And we’ll get through this weird patch — maybe not as soon as I hoped we would, with everything that’s going on these days. But at some point we will.”
BERKSHIRE OPERA FESTIVAL
At Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, Great Barrington, Aug. 21-27. Tickets $20-99. 413-528-0100, www.berkshireoperafestival.org
David Weininger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.