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Classical Notes | David Weininger

Bringing a fresh approach to opera in the Berkshires

Director Jonathon Loy with Sebastian Catana and Maria Valdes at a rehearsal for Berkshire Opera Festival’s production of “Rigoletto.” Andrea Yu

When the Berkshire Opera Festival made its debut two years ago, it brought a self-standing opera company back to the culture-rich area for the first time since the Lee-based Berkshire Opera Company folded in 2009. The organization was the creation of opera director Jonathon Loy, a longtime Berkshires visitor who found the virtual absence of opera there “almost unfair,” and conductor Brian Garman.

When the Globe profiled the troupe last year, it had made it through an initial cycle of fund-raising and strategic and artistic planning and was preparing its second production, Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos.” This year’s offering is Verdi’s beloved “Rigoletto,” of which three performances will be mounted in Pittsfield, starting Saturday.

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The Globe checked in with Loy and Garman recently by e-mail; they discussed the burdens of keeping an opera company going, how to strip away “layers of old paint” from familiar operatic fare, and their future in the Berkshires.

Q. What’s the state of the company as you head into your third production?

Loy: We are in year four — our third producing year — of a seven-year sustainability plan. We are always actively courting new major donors and in the process of building our board of directors. . . . In addition to this, we are always rethinking our marketing, community outreach, and PR strategies. In fact, our ticket sales for “Rigoletto” so far are ahead of where we were both in 2017 and 2016. We are also in the process of restructuring the staffing of the company. We will be announcing these changes on Aug. 25 on our opening matinee.

Q. What are you trying to do differently, if anything? And what lessons do you think you’ve learned?

Loy: We don’t try to do anything differently for difference’s sake. We want to — and do — produce opera at the highest level. That means paying all of our artists well, treating our staff with the respect they deserve, and making our donors, supporters, ticket buyers, and volunteers feel like family. All of these conscious decisions lead to the product that one sees on our stage every summer.

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Q. You previously referred to fund-raising as “the daily struggle of all nonprofits.” How much of a challenge has it been to keep the company going?

Garman: Well, it’s never not a challenge to keep the financial ship afloat, although it is easier in many ways now than it was when we started. Many more people know us now, I think we have an outstanding product — which was only an idea three years ago — and our donor base has more than tripled in size since our inception. Generally speaking, years three and four of a new nonprofit are critical, because that’s when the organization typically changes from operating in “survival mode” to a financial model that’s more sustainable over time. And our strategic plan should allow us to do just that.

Loy: I think there is nothing more difficult than starting a company from nothing. Once we achieved that, we struggle, I imagine, equally as much as every other arts organization in the country.

Q. Unlike “Ariadne auf Naxos,” “Rigoletto” is a repertory staple. How are you trying to make the production fresh and interesting?

Garman: We decided to present a more “standard” work this summer, although this decision was not out of any particular programming formula. This amazing cast happened to be available, and Jonathon and I both have a long history with “Rigoletto,” so it presented itself as a logical choice.

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Loy: The first thing that was clear to me was that “Rigoletto” is a piece that has had everything done to it. What was I going to say about it? Certainly, everything that happens in today’s world, everything that happens to me, everything that I experience, and everything that I observe influences my productions. While the opera is most certainly about a curse that throws everything in motion, my production will highlight the most topical elements of a woman’s navigation in a man’s world, the inherent abuses of power and misogyny. All male characters will be in black, and all female characters in white. Rigoletto himself will be in 50 shades of gray, as the most complex character. The sets will employ all black-and-white palettes contained in what is essentially a three-sided neutral white muslin box. The starkness and minimalism will allow the story to speak for itself and present a stage on which the singers can work their magic.

Q. What are the keys to the casting and musical direction of this opera?

Garman: For me, casting always comes down to voice first. (And second, and third. . .) Opera is about singing, so you need the greatest voices you can find. This is as true for Verdi as for any other composer, perhaps even more so. In casting any opera, you identify a few key artists that define the basic sound you want to create, and build the rest of the cast around them.

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From a musical standpoint, in preparing a piece like “Rigoletto,” one of the things that makes it complicated is its familiarity. By that, I mean that when we approach really well-known works like this, there are often a lot of layers of old paint that need to be stripped away — “traditions” that have cropped up over time which come to be regarded as sacred. Musical “tradition” simply for the sake of tradition is not of great interest to me, insofar as it’s not always practical or compelling. But what does interest me are the musical conventions and performance practices of the time the opera was written.

None of us was alive in 1851, so we don’t know what the first performances of “Rigoletto” actually sounded like. But we as interpreters have an obligation to try to determine as best we can what the composer intended. We have to see it through the lens of [Donizetti’s] “Lucia di Lammermoor” or [Bellini’s] “I Puritani,” for example, and look forward to see how Verdi changed and reshaped the musical language and several operatic conventions.

Q. When we last spoke, you said that you were committed to being a long-term presence in the Berkshires. Does it still feel that way?

Garman: Oh yes, it feels that way more than ever! Our company has been so warmly received by the Berkshire community that we intend for this to be a permanent venture. Our donor base continues to grow, and our ticket sales for “Rigoletto” have been sensational, so I think there’s clearly a real interest in, and market for, what BOF is doing.

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Rigoletto

Presented by Berkshire Opera Festival. At Colonial Theater, Pittsfield, Aug. 25-31. Tickets $20-$99. 413-213-6622, www.berkshireoperafestival.org


Interview was edited and condensed. David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.