Intimate Attractions
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Intimate Attractions

HEIDI WALESON discovers that the small scale of many boutique opera festivals is a big part of their charm.

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The Colorado Rockies, setting for the annual festival in Crested Butte
© H. Mark Weidman Photography/Alamy 2014
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Town Hall Theater in Middlebury, Vermont
© Paul Boisvert 2014

Small is decidedly beautiful for a handful of summer opera festivals around the U.S. In the foothills of New York's Adirondack Mountains, the Seagle Music Colony is getting ready to launch its summer season — The Italian Girl in Algiers, Susannah, Camelot and West Side Story — accompanied by two pianos and performed in a 175-seat converted barn. Across the U.S., in a turn-of-the-century Victorian mining town in the Colorado Rockies, the Crested Butte Music Festival will present Rigoletto and Suor Angelica, playing a total of five performances in a 220-seat theater. Seagle's budget is $475,000 to $500,000; Crested Butte devotes about half that amount to its opera program. (Bluegrass, gypsy jazz and a children's choir are among its other activities; the festival's total budget is $1.2 million.) For both, an avid local audience shows up year after year to see the operas. "The opera singers are rock stars in the community," says Alexander Scheirle, director of Crested Butte. "We sell out every show." 

At these festivals, production costs are kept low, creativity replaces lavishness, and audiences are encouraged to get excited about hearing rising singers — not famous ones — in leading roles. The economics of these operations bring their own challenges — with such small theaters, ticket income tends to be a fairly low percentage of their annual budgets — but they build on their local character, attracting residents and summer visitors alike.

For the Seagle Colony and Opera in the Ozarks at Inspiration Point in northwest Arkansas, both long-standing institutions, staged opera performances are a by-product of the primary purpose, which is training opera singers. Both have large properties (Seagle has twenty acres; Inspiration Point has sixty) and are run as residential summer colonies for an auditioned cadre of young, pre-professional singers, who pay tuition or are offered scholarships. 

Repertoire choices are thus made with the singers in mind. Many of the thirty-two young singers at Seagle come for two years. "That factors into repertoire selection. We want our returning artists to have a great role to put on their repertoire list," says Tony Kostecki, the general director of Seagle, who works in tandem with Darren K. Woods, its artistic director. "We also give everyone at least one featured role in a show, so we look at how many parts there are. We do consider what we think we'll be able to sell tickets to. However, we are fortunate to have a great core audience that loves to come to the shows, and to see the journey that the artists make." Seagle occasionally does some contemporary repertoire, such as Mark Adamo's Little Women and Ricky Ian Gordon's Morning Star.

At Seagle, ticket income represents only about 20 percent of its budget. (Tuition is another 20 percent, and the rest is donations.) Its audience comes from a seventy-five-mile radius, and tickets are priced at $25 for opera and $30 for musicals (considered high by locals; not so much by the second-home owners). The musicals sell out. Summer attendance patterns aren't the same as those for winter institutions. "Thursday is the golden night for us — the second-home owners are here, and they get their night out before their weekend company comes," says Kostecki. 

Opera in the Ozarks casts its three operas from its forty-five young artists. (This year's program features seven performances each, with orchestra, of Così Fan Tutte and Suor Angelica/Gianni Schicchi, plus eight of Into the Woods, running in repertory nearly every night for a month.) The audience is drawn from locals as well as tourists en route to such spots as Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. Performances are given in a 300-seat theater; each opera also is performed once in a 1,000-seat theater in nearby Bensonville. Ticket prices are kept low ($20–25).

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Opera Theater of Pittsburgh's Shining Brow at Fallingwater, 2013
© Amy Crawford 2014 

Opera Saratoga and Opera Theater of Pittsburgh, two veteran professional companies, have undergone some rethinking in the past several years. Founded as Lake George Opera in 1962, Opera Saratoga performed for much of its life in the town of Glens Falls but began using the 500-seat Spa Little Theater in Saratoga Springs, forty miles south of Lake George, as its primary performance space in 1998. The name change, made in 2011 for its fiftieth season, was done to position the company more firmly in Saratoga for audience and fundraising purposes. 

The company's budget ($840,000 this year) and number of operas have gone up and down with the vagaries of the economy. In 2014, Opera Saratoga is offering two standard-repertoire works, The Magic Flute and The Elixir of Love, played for a total of nine performances in repertory over two weeks in June, with a top ticket price of $85. The sets share some structural elements. The small theater and stage limit the size of the chorus and orchestra. (Since there is no pit, the orchestra is positioned behind the singers.) The company has programmed non-standard repertoire, such as the professional premiere of Ned Rorem's Our Town in 2006, and this summer will include a workshop presentation of a new opera, Roscoe, based on the novel by William Kennedy, an Albany legend. 

Opera Theater of Pittsburgh has made an even more dramatic transformation. After slashing its $1-million budget by 40 percent in the wake of the 2008 recession, the company began exploring fundamental structural changes, and in 2012, it switched from being a year-round, itinerant company to a summer festival, dubbed SummerFest. For the 2014 season in July, SummerFest will present Ariadne auf Naxos, The Merry Widow, The Fantasticks and a program of commissioned comic mini-operas in its new home, the Twentieth Century Club, a women's club with a 450-seat theater and a convertible ballroom space. There will also be a workshop of a commissioned opera about the environmentalist and conservationist Rachel Carson, to build interest for its premiere in 2015. 

Jonathan Eaton, who has headed the company since 1999, says that the change has helped to eliminate competition for audiences with the larger Pittsburgh Opera and fill a niche, since many of Pittsburgh's major performing-arts institutions are shuttered in summer. Establishing a base at the Twentieth Century Club in the Oakland neighborhood places the company geographically in the middle of its target audience; it also no longer has to compete for space with other arts groups. The company, which performs in English, specializes in repertory on the fringes of the standard and has been known for doing site-specific productions, such as Ricky Ian Gordon's Euridice and Orpheus in the Allegheny Cemetery and Daron Hagen's Shining Brow, an opera about Frank Lloyd Wright, at Fallingwater. By establishing itself in a single venue, however, OTP has been better able to market its offerings, and in the first year of SummerFest, total attendance for the company's year-round activities doubled to 10,000. Its budget has begun to rise again, to $656,000 this season.

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Crested Butte, Colorado
© H. Mark Weidman Photography/Alamy 2014

Eighteen-year-old Crested Butte, which considers itself a more "boutique" festival than its behemoth neighbor Aspen, hires established singers for leading roles and has a professional orchestra of about forty players and a young-artist program with eleven singers. The three-week opera mini-festival will include vocal concerts, scenes programs, and a show put on by the members of the children's choir program, as well as the productions of Rigoletto and Suor Angelica; this is the first year that Crested Butte will offer two operas instead of just one. So far, the operas have been standard repertoire; however, Scheirle and Mark Moorman, interim director of the festival's music program, are looking at Baroque or more unusual bel canto titles for future seasons. 

Indeed, the enthusiasm has been so great (even with tickets selling for as much as $65) that a local organization, the Mt. Crested Butte Performing Arts Center, has raised $17.25 million toward a new performing-arts center, which will house the Crested Butte Music Festival as a primary resident. The new venue is envisioned to seat approximately 500 patrons and will include a fly tower, rehearsal facility, orchestra pit and adequate wing space to accommodate full productions. 

But the small model does not necessarily guarantee survival, particularly when a project's origin coincides with challenging financial times. In January 2007, tenor Keith Jameson launched the Greenwood Music Festival in his hometown of Greenwood, South Carolina. Subsequent seasons, held in May, presented a variety of musical genres, including chamber music, choral music and chamber opera, but the festival was canceled in 2013."The realities of producing a classical-music festival in a small town are that it takes a major financial investment, not only from individuals but also businesses and corporations, and time for it to grow," Jameson says. "Our small audience was certainly dedicated, but it failed to grow at a substantial rate, and businesses were reluctant to offer financial assistance in the recession." Jameson, who was putting up a great deal of the money himself, says, "I could not sustain my level of giving without going into considerable debt."

The young Opera Company of Middlebury has had a happier story so far. It exists because Douglas Anderson rallied his Vermont town to rescue and renovate the dilapidated 1883 Town Hall Theater. The idea of an opera company was born at a vocal concert to raise money for the renovation; shortly thereafter, in the summer of 2004, the fledgling operation put on Carmen with five singers, five musicians and a narrator in the theater, which was still under construction. Anderson recalls "98-degree heat and 50,000 bats," but, he notes, "We sold every ticket." Their Don José was Yonghoon Lee, then a conservatory student; eight years later, he sang the role at the Met. 

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The post-performance crowd at Seagle Music Colony
Courtesy Seagle Music Colony

The renovation of the 232-seat theater was completed in 2008; the opera company presents one staged opera each June and recently added an opera in staged concert format in October. Anderson now heads Town Hall Theater, which is host to 165 events each season. The theater's budget covers the overhead; the opera company spends about $110,000 on its June production and sells out all four performances soon after tickets (priced at $55–$60) go on sale in March, with very little marketing. "We see it as grand opera in an intimate setting," Anderson says. "We have full productions, a twenty-one-piece band, and every seat is like the best seat at the Met. It really blows the dust off opera. It's a wonderful dramatic experience for audiences and a terrific training ground for singers, because the stock gestures don't work." Several years ago, the company also decided to "up its musical values," says Anderson, and engaged conductor Emmanuel Plasson as its music director in 2011. 

This spring's offering, The Italian Girl in Algiers, will be set in the 1950s in a used-car lot in Kansas. Isabella (Cherry Duke) will be a Gina Lollobrigida type, Act II will send up American fraternal orders such as the Elks, and a shiny red Fiat will make an appearance. OCM started with the warhorses — "you have to do that as a young company" — but went on to Pearl Fishers, La Rondine and Thaïs (set in a storefront mission on the Vegas strip). "We're known for fresh new looks," Anderson says. "Our audience will follow us anywhere." spacer 

HEIDI WALESON is the opera critic of The Wall Street Journal. 

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