Magical Glimmerglass - Opera's Intimate Summer Retreat

By Catalano, Peter | The World and I, May 2003 | Go to article overview

Magical Glimmerglass - Opera's Intimate Summer Retreat


Catalano, Peter, The World and I


Every summer opera buffs head to Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, New York, to see innovative productions that will be traveling to companies thoughout America.

Santa Fe Opera has its sunsets, Glyndeborne its gardens and lawns; Bayreuth beckons with its dubious Wagner mystique. The signature motif of Glimmerglass Opera is the lush, rolling hills and glistening lakes of upstate New York's Otsego County. This midsummer festival calls to mind the image of a friendly gazebo where amiable audiences gather and formalities are dispensed with. It's a festival for the avid opera fan, tucked away in historic Cooperstown on the shores of Lake Otsego, the "Glimmerglass" of James Fenimore Cooper's "Leatherstocking" tales. Euro-glitterati are nowhere in sight. There's no special cachet in being spotted at Glimmerglass. Music and theater, sky and meadow are the main attractions, graced with a welcoming, inclusive atmosphere and a touch of the university symposium tacked on for good measure.

Every day is dress-down day at Glimmerglass Opera; well, except for the company's publicity director Michael Willis, who wears such things as a snappy lime-green seersucker suit and bow tie even on the hottest days. But there are plenty of men in shorts and ladies in sleeveless blouses rubbing shoulders with cast members from the Handel opera that played the previous night.

Before performances at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, people mill about in the sunshine. Come intermission, those who are Patrons of the Festival gather in cool, screened ballrooms and yellow-striped tents for cold drinks and finger food, while casual visitors head for picnic tables under shady trees scattered across the acres of lawn surrounding the performance complex.

The Busch Theater cuts a profile suggesting a barn, echoing the real- life dairy farms dotting the landscape. Slate gray, with a balcony from which brass players summon the audience with newly composed fanfares, this is the most congenial theater anyone could imagine.

Around the reflecting pond landscaped with grasses and reeds, bullfrogs compete with crickets in creating nature's twilight symphony. Inside the theater, as the orchestra tunes up, pneumatic actuators seal the auditorium's sliding side walls, normally left open for natural ventilation.

Closed off from any extraneous noise, the audience revels in a near- perfect acoustic. At nine hundred seats, divided between twenty-five rows of orchestra seats and a short balcony, it's almost as if an opera production were mounted in your living room. Artistic Director Paul Kellogg describes a sound you can practically chew: "The acoustic of the house is vitally important to the experience. But here it's much more a physical presence than elsewhere. At Glimmerglass, there's a visceral sense of the human voice that makes the experience much richer."

Even though the Busch Theater is intimate, the stage is capacious. Sets are sized to fill the entire performing area at much larger houses in Houston, Chicago, and San Francisco, with whom coproductions are swapped.

Among these collaborators, a pronounced symbiosis exists between Glimmerglass and the New York City Opera, though the association is strictly informal. The common thread is Kellogg, who was Glimmerglass' general director for seventeen years before in 1996 becoming general and artistic director for the City Opera as well. It is no coincidence that between 1995 and 2000, sixteen of the festival's twenty productions wound up on the stage at City Opera.

Glimmerglass constitutes a kind of out-of-town shakedown cruise, allowing productions to be vetted and tweaked before moving on to City Opera and other companies throughout the United States. Thus opera lovers who want to be in the know come to the festival to see what is on the horizon.

Indeed, the Glimmerglass shows are in most respects probably more satisfying than those in New York, for one major reason: sound. …

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