Two opera companies are opening performances this week, and both reflect on their origins.
Celebrating its 40th anniversary, Opera North opens a production of Cosi Fan TutteMozart’s opera which was the first complete opera produced by the company in 1984. Performances begin Thursday evening at Blow-Me-Down Farm in Cornish.
And on Saturday in New London, a new opera company, the Berlin Wagner Group, presents an introduction to Wagner’s Ring cycle. Founded in Germany in 2017, the Berlin Wagner Group helps singers evolve into Wagnerian roles while introducing the work of grand opera to new audiences in New England, where the group’s founders hail from.
The work of the two opera companies is a sign that the arts continue to develop in the Upper Valley and that there seems to be room for expansion into areas that have not been attempted before.
“We started as a group of singers who wanted to rehearse and perform Wagner’s operas,” said Peter Furlong, who has lived in New London on and off since 1998 and currently lives mainly in Germany. He is chairman and co-founder of the Berlin Wagner Group. Many American singers living in Germany couldn’t find the work they needed to break into the world of Wagnerian opera, he said in a video interview.
While all operatic singing requires patient and rigorous training, Wagner’s operas require something more: a strong, enduring and mature voice.
“For great voices, it takes a long time to develop,” Furlong said. “The problem with the industry right now is that a lot of great singers don’t have that time.”
The Berlin Wagner Group aims to help singers bridge the gap between operatic training and the interpretation of Wagner, whose work is both technically demanding and, as Furlong describes it, “verbose.” Three pages of a Wagner opera could contain as much text as an entire role of a Puccini opera, he said.
Putting together Wagner performances has a salutary effect on performers, Furlong said. “When you get to sing along with another singer with a big voice…it takes on a whole different dimension,” he said.
It will also likely be eye-opening for audiences, who will rarely hear opera in person and even more rarely unamplified voices sing Wagnerian opera, Furlong said.
Wagner’s ring in one evening brings together essential moments from the Ring cycle, condensing four operas that span approximately 15 hours of performance time into two hours of music with an explanatory narrator who points out some of the mythological absurdities of Wagner’s masterpiece, which he composed from 1848 to 1874. is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the Sawyer Theater at Colby-Sawyer College. A performance of a different introduction to Wagner is scheduled for 7 p.m. July 30 at the St. Kieran Center for the Arts in Berlin, NH
In addition to Furlong, whose father lives in New London, other members of the group have ties to New Hampshire, and the group organized as a nonprofit in the state last year.
At the other end of the longevity spectrum, Opera North began 40 years ago as the Light Opera of Norwich, a company spun off from Parish Players, Thetford Hill’s venerable community theater company. If the company’s history, published on the occasion of its 25th anniversary, is correct, its first productions were Pirates of Penzancein 1982, and Die Fledermaus, in 1983, both at Tracy Hall in Norwich. But the company’s first production at the Opéra du Liban, Opera North’s home for many years, was Cosi Fan Tuttein 1984.
“We were hinting at where we were going, but Cosi Fan Tutte was the first great opera we produced, and it was a success,” Louis Burkot, who was then a newcomer to the Upper Valley and the faculty of music at Dartmouth College.
Opera North’s other opera production this year is La Traviata, which also represents a big step forward for the company, Burkot said. The company’s 1994 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s 1853 opera was his first in the original language with surtitles. This performance was also notable for the performance of Faith Esham, in the lead role of Violetta, and for a favorable review in the boston globe, an early example of the company’s wider ambitions. Esham was a seasoned singer who wanted to sing Violetta, a role she had never done before, Burkot said.
“It was the production that gave me confidence that we could do productions on par with other major regional opera companies,” Burkot said.
The company’s ambitions are now coming to fruition at Blow-Me-Down Farm in Cornish, which Opera North is working to turn into the world’s first national park for the arts. While listening to Wagner in New London is now a possibility, Opera North’s efforts to make the Upper Valley a summer arts destination have been instrumental in making it happen. (Furlong was also a young performer at Opera North.)
In Cornish, Opera North performances take place in a huge tent, in which the singers, orchestra and audience are closer together than they would be at the Lebanese Opera. Under the scenic direction of Jennifer Williams, the production of Cosi Fan Tutte, which opens Thursday and runs through Saturday, takes place in the middle of Andy Warhol’s factory. The Pop Art sensibilities of the production will contrast sharply with the 19th century setting of La TraviataEvans Haile, Executive Director of Opera North, said in an interview.
Williams and Andreas Hager, director for La Traviatawere resident artists at Opera North, a program that brings young operatic talent to the Upper Valley, before moving on to bigger places.
“They come through us and they build their resumes and we’re so proud of them, and then they come back to us as well,” Haile said.
The company has grown steadily over the years, Burkot said, and plans to continue.
“I would say it’s a surprise,” to reach a 40th birthday, Burkot said. “Arts organizations tend to come and go pretty quickly.”
Unwittingly, he used a musical pun: the company’s progress was “measured”, he said. “Just small steps and caution, but also adventure.”
For more information on Opera North productions Cosi Fan Tutte and La Traviata, visit operanorth.org. For more information on Berlin Wagner Group productions in New London and Berlin (NH), visit berlinwagnergroup.org.
Alex Hanson can be reached at [email protected] or 603-727-3207.
Correction: Andreas Hager is the director of Opera North’s production of La Traviata. His last name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.