For its fifth anniversary season in 2020, the Western Massachusetts-based Berkshire Opera Festival had planned to stage a full production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” one of the world’s most frequently performed operas. The cast was booked, the venue reserved — and then the pandemic hit. So the leadership team moved it to the 2022 season.
Then, this past December, cofounder and director of production Jonathon Loy got an e-mail from Boston Symphony Orchestra administrator and director of Tanglewood Anthony Fogg, who gave him a heads-up that the BSO would also be performing “Giovanni” at Tanglewood come summer. But Loy refused to see the unintentional overlap as anything but a positive.
The dates didn’t conflict; what’s more, Tanglewood’s “Giovanni” was a one-night concert in mid-July, while BOF’s staged production at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington will run for three nights in late August. “I said, you know what? Maybe people will be inspired to go, ‘What I saw at Tanglewood was great — now I want to see the full thing,’” Loy said. “It is what it is, and it was bound to happen at some point.”
BOF’s “full thing,” with bass-baritone André Courville in the title role, won‘t look much like a conventional staged production, let alone Tanglewood’s event. ”For me, Giovanni is a very sick guy” who struggles with drugs and alcoholism, Loy said, noting that he added a male principal dancer to represent Giovanni’s id. “We see him in mortal conflict with himself throughout the entire show.” To avoid pinning the production to one place and time, Loy opted for a monochrome marble set full of trapdoors and costuming that reflects Giovanni’s perceptions rather than reality.
Loy and his creative partner, BOF artistic director Brian Garman, are fully aware they’re far from the only player in the packed cultural marketplace that is the Berkshires in the summer. “Tanglewood is at the top of the food chain,” said Loy. There’s also Jacob’s Pillow, Shakespeare and Company, Barrington Stage Company, and any number of other performing arts attractions that vie for the attention of both tourists and locals.
But Loy thinks that BOF offers something unique. Loy and Garman met over 20 years ago while Loy was an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh and Garman was principal conductor at the Pittsburgh Opera; they stayed in touch, bandying about the idea of starting a festival. Loy, who now splits his time between New York City and Monterey, Mass., had spent childhood summers with relatives in the Berkshires and so was familiar with the region.
“We assumed correctly that there’s a hunger for opera,” said Loy. “We knew there was an audience here, and we knew there was a niche that wasn’t being filled.” (That niche was previously occupied by Berkshire Opera Company, which was founded in 1985 and folded in 2009.) Unlike many of the region’s major cultural players, BOF isn’t wedded to specific performance venues, but that allows the company flexibility, said Loy: “We’re not defined by a particular theater, so we can be in the right theater for the right show.”
Loy and Garman wanted to make sure they started out on a strong financial footing — “just because we’re artists doesn’t mean that we can’t make a budget and stick to it” — so the company fund-raised for two years before putting up its first staged opera in 2016, with a budget of approximately $400,000, Loy said. Six years and five mainstage productions later, the budget has doubled, and the festival added a second-stage chamber opera to its season last summer, a practice that continued this year with Jake Heggie’s 2008 opera “Three Decembers” at PS21 in nearby Chatham, N.Y.
“Part of the mission of the company is to explore the entire operatic repertoire. So that’s exactly where the second stage series fits in,” said Loy. Next summer’s second stage will look backward instead of forward, with Handel’s Baroque opera “Alcina” at the Mahaiwe in Great Barrington and Puccini’s “La Bohème” at the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield.
Song recitals have been part of BOF’s season since the beginning, if perhaps not as loudly advertised; this year’s offering is “High on the Ramparts,” an evening of music by Black composers at Pittsfield’s Berkshire Museum on Aug. 10, performed by soprano Kearstin Piper Brown and tenor Joshua Blue, who will also sing the role of Don Ottavio in “Giovanni.”
“It’s an opportunity to sing some rarely done stuff, as well as introduce an audience to a wealth of music,” said Blue over Zoom from Philadelphia the day before he traveled to the Berkshires to begin rehearsals.
The program was “collaborative from the get-go,” said Blue. It includes duets from H. Leslie Adams’s Civil War music drama “Blake” and William Grant Still’s “Troubled Island” as well as art songs by composers including Anthony Davis, Margaret Bonds, and Florence Price. “Names that might be familiar to people on the surface level,” Blue explained. “But odds are they haven’t really listened to a lot of their music, which is exciting. And there’s stuff on here that I’ve never heard before!”
There’s just one more major element that the festival wants to add in a future year: a young artist program. Loy envisions such an initiative creating its own production each season, matching apprentice singers, conductors, and directors with a professional design team. “Brian has his finger on the pulse of all the competitions that are happening in the country,” Loy said. “That would get us to where we see ourselves.”
BERKSHIRE OPERA FESTIVAL
“High on the Ramparts”: Aug. 10, 7:30 p.m., Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield. “Don Giovanni”: Aug. 20, 23, and 26. Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, Great Barrington. 413-213-6622, www.berkshireoperafestival.org