COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — Thomas Hampson and his wife, Andrea, are standing unobtrusively near the box office at the Glimmerglass Festival, taking in the green lawns around them. Eric Owens holds court with patrons nearby. Deborah Voigt is supposed to drop in next week.
This is a lineup of top-flight opera singers you might expect to encounter at the Salzburg Festival, rather than a diminutive theater in Upstate New York. And none of these artists is even singing this year.
“It’s near New York City,” says Francesca Zambello, to explain why people keep dropping in.
Actually, Glimmerglass is a good 31 / 2-hour drive from New York City. But Zambello’s friendships are strong enough that people show up.
Zambello is, of course, the artistic director of the Washington National Opera. But since 2010 — a year before she became WNO’s artistic adviser and two years before assuming her current role — she has been the artistic and general director of Glimmerglass, and she has put her stamp on this once-struggling festival more than she has yet been able to do in Washington. The facilities look better, there are more performances — from weekly concerts at the Baseball Hall of Fame to a master class with Jessye Norman to an afternoon of arias called “Opera in the Law,” moderated by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — and there are the stars whom Zambello, with her international cachet, is able to attract.
Is it easier to run a festival than to run a year-round company? “That’s the way of thinking today,” Zambello concedes. “In the sense of creating your product, we [at Glimmerglass] do not have certain union constraints; all of that is definitely easier. Convincing people to come here is the opposite. . . . For me, the problem is getting people here.”
All across the country, people are wondering about the future of opera. “We’ve all identified that the problem is that people are not coming,” says Pelham G. Pearce, the general and artistic director of the Central City Opera, a summer festival in Colorado which is starting to take its performances out into the community. But festivals may be staving off this decline better than some of their larger brethren. According to an Opera America survey of nine large American companies, attendance declined across the board between 2002 and 2012, but it declined least at summer festivals: the Santa Fe Opera, the Opera Theater of St. Louis, and Glimmerglass lost only between 5 percent and 11 percent of their audiences. (The average for the group was 31 percent.) And all three of those festivals saw a significant rise in ticket sales in the following season.
Festivals offer people a chance to see a range of opera in a short period of time. “It’s a whole other feeling and a vibe you can’t really get in a stagione [year-round] season,” says Darren K. Woods, who as general director of the Fort Worth Opera shifted the company’s schedule from year-round to a festival format in 2007. Fort Worth has been able to attract more public attention with its new concentrated, American-focused seasons than it was ever able to in the years when its main identity, as Woods said, was, “we are not the Dallas Opera.”
Zambello, like Woods, is one of the few opera administrators who can directly compare the festival and year-round format. One advantage is speed: A non-unionized house, paying smaller fees, has a lot more flexibility. In mid-July, Glimmerglass cast a tenor for the lead role in next summer’s staging of Vivaldi’s opera “Cato in Utica.” “You would never cast somebody a year out at WNO for a title role,” says Zambello. “The ‘Ring’ is totally cast” — Wagner’s tetralogy, which WNO will stage in 2016. “Whereas here, for 2016, I only sort of barely know what we’re doing.”
Another advantage is size. Glimmerglass’s Alice Busch Opera Theater seats 914 people; the Kennedy Center Opera House seats about 2,300. “You’re just selling a much bigger volume of tickets” at WNO, Zambello says.
Attending Glimmerglass, you can certainly see resemblances to WNO, on and off the stage. This year, Zambello has directed two productions: “Madame Butterfly” and “Ariadne in Naxos” (Glimmerglass, like WNO, favors English titles). There are some of the same artists: Christine Goerke, Glimmerglass’s 2014 artist-in-residence who triumphed on opening night as a colorful, creamy-voiced Ariadne, comes to WNO in September for Daniel Catán’s opera “Florencia in the Amazon.” Owens will sing Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman” at WNO in the spring of 2015 and Verdi’s “Macbeth” at Glimmerglass in the summer (both for the first time). And this in spite of the fact that Glimmerglass, with a budget of $7 million a year as opposed to WNO’s $25 million, pays somewhere between one-fifth and one-tenth of the fee that a major artist could command at WNO or the Met. Like other festivals, it tries to offer singers opportunities they can’t get elsewhere to compensate.
And there is abundant back-and-forth between the young-artist programs of both companies. Indeed, Ginsburg’s “Opera and the Law” performance replicated a number of features (including the show-stopping soprano Jacqueline Echols) of a Domingo-Cafriz concert in Washington earlier this year. “I’m using both programs to complement each other,” Zambello says; both are even run by the same person, Michael Heaston. Echols, about to start her second year at WNO, will come to Glimmerglass next summer as Pamina in “The Magic Flute,” with Soloman Howard, another familiar Domingo-Cafritz face, as Sarastro.
The ingredients are right; but this summer’s Glimmerglass season was uneven. “Carousel,” the now-obligatory annual Broadway musical, was the weakest of the three shows I saw: too many of the singers — including Ryan McKinny as a stiff, uncharismatic Billy Bigelow and Sharin Apostolou as an earnest Carrie Pipperidge — had trouble keeping an even vocal line as they audibly shifted gears from a Broadway belt to a more operatic, floated sound in the high notes. Charles Newell’s production began with a bizarre staging of the overture that was narratively muddled and, with its big, overdramatic, empty gestures, set the tone for the evening. And while the singers’ diction was admirably clear when they were singing, their dialogue tended to be screamed and hard to understand — though Andrea Carroll was lovely as Julie Jordan.
A showpiece of the summer was Tobias Picker’s revision of “An American Tragedy,” which Zambello directed in its Metropolitan Opera world premiere in 2005, and which Picker and Gene Scheer, his librettist, streamlined considerably for this new outing. The conductor George Manahan made a strong case for Picker’s taut, dramatic and skillful score, and the cast, mainly members of the young-artist program, was strong (the tenor Daniel Curran stood out vocally in the oily role of Gilbert). The problem was that the work, carefully plotted, built up a head of steam it didn’t quite know how to release, making the second half so intense and loud as to feel airless. Clyde (Christian Bowers), an ambitious young man, woos a factory girl, Roberta — the fine Vanessa Isiguen — and gets her pregnant before falling for a society girl, Sondra (Cynthia Cook). The whole piece builds to Roberta’s drowning, but once that happens, both sopranos in the love triangle vanish from the story: one is dead, and the other wants nothing more to do with her alleged murderer. At this juncture, despite some good dramatic ideas — having Roberta’s intimate letters to Clyde, published in the newspaper at the trial, sung by full chorus; introducing a striking cameo role for Patricia Schuman as Clyde’s Bible-thumping mother — the piece deflated.
“Ariadne” was left as the summer’s brightest spot, less for Zambello’s hyperactive production — the action was set in an Upstate New York barn, and followed the erstwhile tradition of the Met Opera in presenting the “Ariadne” part of the evening in German and the rest in English — than for the singing. Goerke is coming into her own as today’s reigning dramatic soprano with, moreover, a spark and spunkiness onstage; and she was balanced by the terrific Catherine Martin, a mezzo familiar to Washington audiences who sang with assurance and a firm, golden voice. Rachele Gilmore’s Zerbinetta was slender of voice but resolute; Corey Bix struggled mightily to get through the part of Bacchus; Erik Teague’s costumes overwhelmed Zerbinetta’s troupe with overbright colors and stiff shapes, stripping them of some of the liveliness they had shown in the first half; and Kathleen Kelly’s conducting was merely adequate. Still, the whole thing managed to fly, borne on the singing of the two women; and Zambello’s nice conceit of allowing the composer to remain a woman (the part is usually conceived as a pants role) added an especially tender touch to the budding young love she shares with Zerbinetta at the end.
Opera seasons, spread out over months, are about individual works. “In a festival,” Zambello says, “what you’re trying to sell to people is the puzzle, the whole, how are the pieces going to fit together.” Glimmerglass has lots of pieces; it’s still working on the whole.
This is the second part of a three-part series.
The Glimmerglass Festival continues through Aug. 24; for more information, see glimmerglass.org.