LENOX — It’s midafternoon on a weekend at the new Tanglewood Learning Institute, and Wendall K. Harrington, who has designed theatrical projections for opera, Broadway, ballet, the Talking Heads — you name it, she’s designed it — is on the floor-level stage of the Linde Center for Music and Learning’s largest performance space, Studio E. She’s poised to launch her talk with a quick history of projection design.
A voice cuts in from the audience. “This group always wants to know about you!” pipes up Emily Teller, a retired Renée Fleming fan and self-described “voracious learner” from Westford. “You gotta give at least three minutes of background!”
Harrington collects herself with a wry grin. “Well, I was born in a log cabin in Queens. . .” she starts.
In just a few hours, the Boston Symphony Orchestra will present the world premiere of Kevin Puts’s Georgia O’Keeffe-inspired orchestral song cycle “The Brightness of Light,” starring Fleming. For a day and a half, the roughly 40 registered participants at the institute’s first themed weekend have looked at O’Keeffe and the new piece from multiple angles. They’ve taken in a BSO rehearsal, listened to Fleming and baritone Rod Gilfry dish the messy details of performing new work, and peppered Puts with questions about his evolution as a composer and his favorite operas. From National Gallery of Art curator Sarah Greenough, they’ve learned details about O’Keeffe’s handwriting and spelling (terrible); her sex life with her husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz (very active); and her thoughts on feminist political movements (complicated).
“I just want more,” exclaims Teller’s longtime friend Penney Kimbell after Harrington’s lecture. “Tell me more.”
The Tanglewood Learning Institute represents a tremendous expansion of both facilities and programming at the BSO’s summer home in the Berkshires. It’s based at the new Linde Center, a four-building complex designed by William Rawn Associates that opened last month.
Its educational weekends — there are four this year — are the most immersive option in TLI’s programming, offering blocks of events with some meals included, for $399. For participants looking for less commitment or a lower price tag, other events include master classes by such A-listers as Yo-Yo Ma and Leonidas Kavakos and informal discussions with visiting performers. Film screenings and art classes are offered in collaboration with the Berkshire International Film Festival and IS183 Art School of the Berkshires.
In her small office at the Linde Center, TLI director Sue Elliott emphasizes the importance of offering participants something they can’t get anywhere else. Otherwise, she says, people will just stay home and watch Netflix.
“Time is a very precious resource for most people,” she says. “That goes into our instructional design. Are we creating an experience that you can’t get just by searching on the Internet yourself, or just by watching a documentary film?”
Teller evidently thinks so. She signed up for the weekend because she wanted to see Fleming, but other attractions interest her, too, she says. “This whole weekend has been so intimate in terms of the performers giving us their process, their product, their passion, and their time,” she says. “It’s an access opportunity that most people in the world don’t get.”
The weekend builds in opportunities for participants to connect and socialize, which Elliott considers vital. “The sort of pedagogy of the instructional design, if you will, of these kinds of things, relies as much on people talking to each other and reflecting on their experiences . . . as it does on listening to somebody talk from the front of the room,” says Elliott.
Many TLI events take place in Studio E, an attractive light-filled room with blond wood floors and furnishings and a full-length glass window at the back of the stage. Lecterns and tables onstage are see-through to minimize physical barriers with the audience.
The atmosphere at the O’Keeffe talks is convivial, and in Q&A periods, there’s no shortage of questions from the seats.
“Many people commented to us that they felt that it was just like having a conversation with all of these great artists over coffee,” says Elliott. “There was an intimacy to the experience that they very much appreciated.”
Many of the weekend’s participants are retired. Claire Farrell of Maynard and Joan Slebos of Bowling Green, Ohio, met for the first time at the beginning of the weekend. (Farrell, who grew up in nearby South Egremont, helped Tanglewood first-timer Slebos with directions.) Sitting next to each other, they both say they’re trying to use the free time that they didn’t have when they were working to explore new topics.
But younger participants were there, too. Mishaela Durán works for the United States Department of Health and Human Services. She grew up in the Southwest, she explained, and her longtime love for O’Keeffe’s painting attracted her to the event.
She didn’t have any prior specific interest in classical music, but the weekend exposed her to a “whole different field of thought,” she says. “I think it really expands and broadens your thinking about the world.” Now she’s thinking of bringing her three young children to Tanglewood next summer.
Including time for audience questions is a vital component at the institute. At a Monday night “OpenStudio” master class with Fleming, an eager audience braves the heavy rain to watch the soprano coach Tanglewood Music Center vocal fellows through opera arias. At the end, she takes audience questions about everything from her mother (“behind every diva is an even bigger diva,” she says) to the way she approaches breath support, while Elliott and another staff member sprint up and down the aisles with mics.
With the singers, Fleming is kind but not easygoing, and with the audience, she’s candid about the less glamorous behind-the-scenes challenges of operatic singing. At one point, she invites everyone to join in a breathing exercise: “I call this the chicken wing!” she says with a grin, directing everyone to put their hands in their armpits so they can feel their rib cages expand.
Lisa Pierce-Goldstein, a speech-language pathologist who works in the Boston Public Schools, says she hasn’t been to a masterclass since she participated in one as a voice student “many years ago,” but this was more interactive than any class she’d been part of. She’s on vacation with her family in the Berkshires, and having looked over the TLI offerings, she says, she wishes she had time to explore more.
Soliciting feedback from participants during and after events is critical, says Elliott, and TLI is learning as it goes. She gives one example: After seeing abandoned program books scattered around last summer, Elliott initially decided to not distribute paper schedules at TLI events.
Then, starting at the O’Keeffe weekend welcome breakfast, Elliott says she was asked multiple times — where are the paper schedules? “That was a note that was well taken,” she says.
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.