The Berkshires, Jonathon Loy said during a recent phone conversation, are “the most culturally rich place in the country in the summer. I don’t know anyone who would argue with that.”
He would know. A freelance opera director and guest director on the staff of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, Loy spent his childhood summers visiting family members in the Berkshires, some of whom have lived there for decades. So the region’s artistic riches — music, dance, theater — are well-known to him.
He even worked on a 2002 production of Benjamin Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw” at the Berkshire Opera Company, the Lee-based troupe founded in 1985. But the company went dark in 2009. Since then, staged opera has been all but absent from the Western Massachusetts cultural oasis. That seemed wrong, at least to someone like Loy, who’s dedicated his life to the art form.
So in the spring of 2014 he invited a friend, conductor Brian Garman, to visit the Berkshires. As Loy had predicted, Garman fell in love with the place; and both of them found the absence of opera “almost unfair.” Someone had to restore it, and Loy and Garman decided they were the ones to do it.
Last August, Berkshire Opera Festival, which they cofounded, made its debut with three performances of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.” It had not been an easy task: “two Sisyphean years,” as Garman put it during the interview, of planning, organization, and fund-raising. Especially fund-raising. “We knew it would be difficult,” Garman said of the endless quest for funding, “but it proved to be even more difficult than we expected. It’s the daily struggle of all nonprofits.”
“The great thing about our relationship,” Loy interjected, “is that we can take turns talking each other off the ledge.”
But they prevailed, and perhaps the most satisfying thing, Garman said, was how the excitement about their first production spread by word of mouth. “Our opening night sold reasonably well, but after that ticket sales really exploded for the remaining two performances. And that allowed us to say we’re going to have a second season.”
Not that things get a whole lot easier the second season, both of the cofounders said. Garman recalled a conversation he had with John Crosby, the founder of Santa Fe Opera, who advised him that “everything is more expensive the second season. Because a lot of things happen in the first season — people do favors for you, they throw things in for free.” Those freebies, however, generally do not last past an organization’s rookie year.
In addition to returning staged opera to the area, Loy and Garman want Berkshire Opera Festival to explore repertoire that doesn’t often appear in most houses. That’s why they chose Richard Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos” for their second production, which opens on Aug. 26. While not obscure, “Ariadne” has never enjoyed the high profile of Strauss staples like “Salome” or “Der Rosenkavalier.”
That may be in part because of the opera’s enigmatic conceit, which involves a wealthy gentleman who, for his birthday, has planned the premiere of a new opera seria about Bacchus and Ariadne, followed by a performance by a commedia dell’arte troupe. Time runs short, however, and he demands that the two be presented simultaneously. This engineered clash of high and low art, complete with sharply etched characters who can’t stand one another, leads to some aptly operatic comic hijinks.
It also gives rise to what Garman called “some of the most breathtakingly beautiful music Strauss ever wrote,” which, considering the standards set by Strauss’s other operas, is quite a claim. Garman points, in particular, to the final 20 minutes of the opera, an extended duet between Ariadne and Bacchus that, Garman said, “doesn’t ever seem to end. It seems like one long line that lasts 20 minutes.”
For his part, Loy said that the presence of the comedy troupe in “Ariadne” made him want to explore “exploring real physical comedy, and comedy, as anyone in theater knows, is the hardest thing to direct.” The activity of the comedians, he explained, is balanced by the much more restrained and graceful movement of the opera’s characters. “So whenever Bacchus and Ariadne and the nymphs are moving, it’s one long flow line that never ends. And I think the dichotomy between the two will be really stunning.”
Loy and Garman are serious about making the company a permanent feature of the Berkshire summer landscape. Casting for their third season, which they plan to announce in a few weeks, is complete, and they are making “final decisions” about their 2019 production. And though they have lots of ideas about how to expand their company, including training and educational programs, they are cautious about moving too quickly. “I think a lot of organizations get into trouble,” said Garman. “They have a lot of ideas and they try to do too many things too soon.”
Still, they made it clear they were in it for the long haul. “When we’re in the room,” Loy said, “working and doing what it is we do best, it puts everything in perspective. Why we’re doing this, the excitement of knowing we’ll get to put this in front of the audience and give them what has been missing here for quite some time. It’s what we all live to do.”
ARIADNE AUF NAXOS
Presented by Berkshire Opera Festival. At Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield, Aug. 26-Sept. 1.
Tickets $20-$98. 413-213-6622, www.berkshireoperafestival.org