Big changes in regional opera companies and a look at the season

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As the summer opera season begins, major changes are coming to the two major companies in our region. Last month, Lawrence Edelson, artistic and general director of Opera Saratoga, announced his departure at the end of the summer, his eighth season with the company. In the fall, he will take up a teaching and producing position at the University of Houston, while continuing with his own development company, the American Lyric Theater. This follows the announcement in October that Francesca Zambello is retiring, also at the end of the current season, after 12 years as General and Artistic Director of the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown. She extended her contract as Artistic Director of the Washington National Opera and remains a leading director on the international stage.

The transformative tenures of Edelson and Zambello make them tough acts to track. Zambello changed the company’s working name from Glimmerglass Opera to Glimmerglass Festival, scheduled an annual American musical, and added many other initiatives like children’s opera, an annual visit to Attica prison, and guest appearances. events, including with the late Supreme Court Justice. Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The physical factory has also undergone major upgrades. At Opera Saratoga, Edelson has taken the quality of productions to a much higher level and refreshed the repertoire with new and recent works, as well as adventures in Baroque and Spanish opera.

Until the cancellations, delays and uncertainties caused by COVID, we knew the golden age of summer opera. But the pandemic has also brought out the innovation and courage of Zambello and Edelson. Last year, Glimmerglass built an outdoor stage on its Lake Otsego lawn. Opera Saratoga, normally based at the Spa Little Theater at Saratoga Spa State Park, has ventured into new and alternative venues, including the main stage at SPAC. Coming up, Glimmerglass will return to the Alice Busch Opera Theater while Opera Saratoga will perform at half a dozen venues across the region.

We have some clues as to where things are headed. In May, Glimmerglass announced that the new big boss would be Robert Ainsley, who was director of the Young Artists Program and American Opera Initiative at Washington National Opera. Educated at Cambridge University and Mannes College of Music, he was on the national stage for quite a while holding roles at Portland Opera, Minnesota Opera and St. Louis. He will take the reins in the fall and a company spokesperson said a 2023 season announcement is imminent. At Opera Saratoga, the search for new leadership is ongoing, and the company typically doesn’t announce a new season until the fall.

But let’s not go too fast in mourning the departures of Edelson and Zambello and anticipating what 2023 will look like. It’s still 2022 and my summer diary is once again filled with opportunities to discover the opera in Saratoga and Cooperstown as well as the Adirondacks and Berkshires.

Peering into the upcoming season, each troupe is doing something contemporary alongside masterpieces from the standard repertoire (“Carmen” by Glimmerglass, “Barber of Seville” by Opera Saratoga). It is encouraging to see that our resident companies are contributing and adopting a new repertoire. As I have reported for many years, contemporary opera has become the engine of American companies. The most recent proof is the sold-out release of the Metropolitan Opera’s spring revival of Philip Glass’s “Akhnaten.” It’s three hours of music about an Egyptian pharaoh sung mostly in Sanskrit and with a lot of juggling for this production.

Nothing so exotic awaits you here. All the works are set in modern America and are sung in English. They explore themes of family, faith and love.

For its first performances in the city of Albany, Opera Saratoga will present two performances of “Sky on Swings” at The Egg (July 7 and 9). Lembit Beecher’s 80-minute chamber opera debuted in 2018 at the Philadelphia Opera House with mezzo Frederica von Stade in one of the lead roles. It’s about two women who befriend in a care facility for Alzheimer’s disease, one in the late stages and the other recently diagnosed. It is the first new staging since its debut and is a co-production with Opera Columbus where it will appear in a future season.

Edelson approached the job with caution, having seen three out of four grandparents suffer from Alzheimer’s disease as well as his father’s ongoing struggles with it. “I had no idea how the journey of someone with Alzheimer’s disease could be depicted in an opera without making it contrived or sensational,” Edelson said via email. “But experiencing the opera was cathartic and deeply moving. The score is remarkable in the way it both creates the sound of memory and also depicts the experience of two women and their children living in different stages of illness.

In addition to tackling the disease on stage, Opera Saratoga is also launching an ongoing music therapy program for Alzheimer’s patients throughout the region. “To me, that’s what an opera company should be. We entertain. We enrich. We educate. And we improve the lives of those who need us,” said Edelson, who is leading the production.


At the Glimmerglass Festival, one of four main stage shows is a double bill of works that tackle questions of faith from new perspectives. “Taking Up Serpents,” commissioned and released by the Washington National Opera, is about a young woman who was raised by a “preacher of fire and brimstone” and a handler of serpents. The music is by Kamala Sankaram, who as Glimmerglass’ Composer-in-Residence will also have a premiere, “The Jungle Book,” a new children’s opera that will receive three performances in August. Sharing the poster with “Taking Up Serpents” is Damien Geter’s world premiere, “Holy Ground,” about a team of angels trying to convince a human to take on a grand mission. The double feature runs for seven performances, from July 29 to August 20.

The Seagle Festival, a reliable presence at Schroon Lake since 1915, presents four performances of “Fellow Travellers” (August 4-6), composer Gregory Spears’ adaptation of the 2007 novel by Thomas Mallon, known for his books on Life in Washington, D.C. The story is about two closeted gay men, both government employees, who find themselves caught up in the McCarthy-era “lavender scare.” It features a rather romantic melodious score and has been produced by many regional companies since its 2016 debut in Cincinnati.

Finally, the Berkshire Opera Festival makes a rare departure from its eponymous county in Massachusetts and settles in at PS21 in Chatham where it will present two performances of “Three Decembers” by Jake Heggie (July 21 and 23). The play is about an adult brother and sister and their relationship with Maddy, their selfish mother who becomes a successful stage actress. The three scenes are set during the holidays in 1986, 1996, and 2006. Heggie is known for his operas that carry on the tradition of lively drama and graceful singing. Gene Scheer’s libretto is based on a play by acclaimed author Terrence McNally (“Ragtime”, “Master Class”, “Dead Man Walking”), who died in March 2020 of COVID.

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