Berkshires After Dark: 'Bravo' for 'Opera Notte' and The Whit
PITTSFIELD -- In my last Berkshires After Dark writeup, I made it no secret that I consider myself a nerd of sorts with an insatiable curiosity about the world and all the weird and wonderful things people do in it.
I’ve learned that it’s easier to get people to go out with you for some things -- beer hall, rock concert, dance party -- than others, like a lecture featuring your favorite sociologist, a community center chess night or something like local opera.
Fortunately, I found two musician friends to join me for Friday night’s "Opera Notte" at the Whitney Center for the Arts.
Affectionately known as "The Whit," the center is home to two gallery spaces, "Gallery W" and "Colt Gallery." In addition to visual art, Executive Director Ghazi Kazmi and his board have been working to add live performance elements to its repertoire, including cabaret, theater and, yes, opera.
The theme of this particular opera series was "Deception & Desire," featuring arias filled with lyrics about love, lust and loss.
One of my friends and I arrived just before 7 p.m., and found that the reservation list had filled to capacity. The two of them had already made reservations, but I had not. Fortunately, they were able to squeeze me in, but in hindsight, I should have called or emailed The Whit in advance.
Tickets are $20, and can be purchased online or at the door.
Inside, The Whit transforms its Gallery W into a cabaret-style room, with round bistro tables draped in burgundy linens. Each table was decorated with artificial, but elegant, tealight candles and a number, which helps staff deliver table service. This includes a small tapas menu (a pita and hummus plate, cheese plate, and the like), wine, beer (including Italy’s Peroni) and soft drinks.
My friend and I each ordered a glass of the Segura Viudas Cava, a brut reserve of bubbly ($6), served in stemless champagne flutes.
While one of my friends is a big fan of classical music and opera, the other friend I was with wasn’t a self-declared huge fan, though she had attended some productions with a former flame.
I was driven to check out "Opera Notte" because I wanted to try something new and my friend Monica Bliss happened to be performing. I would by no means consider myself an opera aficionado. My gateway into the genre was pop culture, including the song "Ebben? N’andro lontano" sung by Maria Callas from Alfredo Catalani’s "La Wally," featured in the Tom Hanks’ film "Philadelphia;" an electronica dance number called "Spente le Stelle" featuring Emma Shapplin, and the fact that Jonathan Larson’s musical "Rent" is based on Puccini’s "La Boheme." (I haven’t even seen "Phantom of the Opera." Sad, but true.) I was later turned on to some of the more well-known operas such as "Faust," "The Magic Flute," and "La Traviata," all of which I enjoyed.
My friends were also motivated to attend due to their friend, Amber Naramore, performing.
The rest of the performing ensemble included Joseph Sicotte, Richard Miller, Kara Demler, John Demler and pianist Ron Ramsay.
They were fantastic.
Even if you didn’t understand the language, each performer, whether providing a solo or singing a duet, was expressive, not only with their voice but with their full body movements from gestures to facial expressions.
I had interviewed Kara Demler before, knowing she ran Berkshire Children’s Theater and Berkshire Costume Company, but I had no clue she could sing such a stirring rendition of "Jewel Song" from "Faust." Her husband, John, humored the crowd using images from an iPad to perform a modernized rendition of "Madamina, il catalogo è questo" from Mozart’s "Don Giovanni."
Our friends, Bliss and Naramore, performed a harmonious duet from Tchaikovsky’s "Eugene Onegin." Miller showed his range singing both arias and Broadway. Sicotte and Ramsay also performed both, particularly drawing laughs with their duet of "Agony" from the Sondheim musical, "Into the Woods."
After nearly every number my friends and I exchanged glances and mouthed "Wows" to each other.
Again, if you go for any type of performance at The Whit, I highly recommend making a reservation and getting their early to get a seat that’s front and center. I think people who sit at the farther ends of the gallery space may lose some sight and sound quality.
In a post-show chat with Kazmi, he said that offering opera to the mainstream public, outside of a major metropolitan area and dozens of miles away from New York’s The Metropolitan Opera, is a tough sell. He said he’s had to do some convincing to get benefactors and other friends to attend. My friends and I, in terms of age, were certainly in the minority but not the only ones.
But the audience was appreciative and delivered their fare share of "bravos" and "bravas" out of respect for the performers. I also appreciated the fact that Kazmi also made bread pudding as a complimentary dessert.
So did the couple sitting next to me. Turns out, they were visitors from Ottawa. "You all have a lot of talent up here," the woman said to me.
"You’re right, we really do," I said, watching as people crowded around the performers to offer their accolades.
After all was said and done, we liked what we heard and saw so much, my friends and I signed up for the newly formed Berkshire Opera Guild’s email list.
Though this was my first time watching a live performance at The Whit, the professional atmosphere, quality of performance and friendliness of the staff and presenters will easily lure me back again to check out other productions.
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