Opera Opens Up


PITTSFIELD -- Since the old Berkshire Opera Company closed in 2009, there have been slim pickings for local aria fans.

The Whitney Center for the Arts in Pittsfield has run its "Opera Notte" series since February, and performers may come to a college or a music hall, but the county has few opportunities to see a big production.

Kate Maguire, artistic director of the Berkshire Theatre Group, hopes to change that. This year, that means ending the summer season with three opera workshops -- a staged performance of the songs of Verdi's "La Traviata," a night of Verdi and Liszt sung by Megan Weston and a week of "A Lover's Tale," an epic, comedic mashup of Alexandre Dumas, Guisseppe Verdi and Charles Ludlam's versions of Dumas' "The Lady of the Camellias."

"One of the original intentions [of the Colonial Theatre] was to bring opera to that stage all along," Maguire said. "But before we do a full-scale opera at the Colonial Theatre, I said, ‘Let's get some people in to do a couple of workshops.'"

The workshops will be at the Unicorn Theatre instead.

The headliner piece is "A Lover's Tale," for which Maguire brought in Dustin Wills. Wills just graduated from Yale's MFA in Directing program, and Maguire knew his work from an informal relationship with the school. This summer, BTG has had 29 Yale students or recent graduates.

"I've been fortunate enough to be invited to Yale to audition the graduate students," she said, "And last year I was so impresed by the talent that I put together a piece with them called ‘The Cat and the Canary.'"

Wills met Maguire at the show. He specializes in adaptations and reimaginings, making him the perfect fit for "A Lover's Tale." His thesis at Yale was a production of the earliest, unpublished J.M. Barrie manuscript of "Peter Pan," which no one living had seen before.

Maguire had seen some of the scenework and heard great things from both audiences and actors, she said.

Maguire had seen some of the scenework and heard great things from both audiences and actors, she said.

"It was very bold to say to him to pull together Verdi, Ludlam and Dumas," she said.

"I said, ‘That sounds impossible. I'll do it,'" Wills said. "I'm a huge fan of Charles Ludlam. The absurdity of mashing up the huge romance of an opera with him seemed very interesting."

Dumas' original novel, "The Lady of the Camellias," about a courtier with tuberculosis and a man who is in love with her became a play in 1852. Immediately upon its adaptation for the stage, Verdi began work on "La Traviata," which would be produced in 1853.

La Traviata was the first opera to be set in the time it was written, about real love and real people, said Michael Fennelly, musical director of the staged production.

Charles Ludlam, who wrote "The Mystery of Irma Vep: A Penny Dreadful," which opened Berkshire Theatre Group's season this year, turned the story into his "Camille" in 1973. In the original production by his Ridiculous Theatre Company, he played the lead in drag.

To combine the three shows, Wills has used the set thrust upon him.

"Because it's a workshop, we're doing the show on the set of the next show, ‘Poe.' The set is a mid-19th century bar, and these are all mid-19th century pieces," he said. "I had this idea to set it a year after Violetta dies in Traviata and set it at the bar with Alfredo just drinking himself into oblivion. He has these gin-soaked, opium-fueled memories pop up in the bar."

This arrangement provides the play with narrative structure -- his conversation with the bartender -- and an explanation for the character mix.

"A seedy Paris bar seemed like a good place for absurd, Ludlamy characters," Willis said.

It gave an explanation for the romance of Traviata and the ridiculousness of Ludlam: alcohol.

Wills brought on Daniel Schlosberg as the musical director of the show. It's the sixth show they are doing together, having worked together at Yale, where Schlosberg is pursuing his MMA in the music program.

"He's rearranging all the music for fewer instruments. Because it's a bar, it's a janky upright piano, a guitar, a banjo, a fiddle. We're being sort of irreverent with the time period," Wills said.

"It's a workshop," Maguire said. "We'll give folks a taste."

"My understanding is that instead of ripping the Band-Aid off and doing a full opera in a season that's already jam packed, it's a good way to ease the companies and the audiences into the opera," Wills said.

Maguire is committed to bringing opera back to the Berkshires, recalling the Berkshire Opera.

"The drama of the human voice at the scale at which they're seeing is incredibly powerful. It's a whole different sort of theatricality," she said.

Opera, like ballet, is extremely expensive, she said.

Even the workshop week will include extravagent period costumes by Charles Caine for the staged Traviata productions, said Fennelly.

"There's an opera program at Yale now," she said. "There are young people in New York who are developing opera like they do theatre for fringe festivals. I don't think that was a [cultural] current until recently.

"I'm excited mostly to gather this talent and give them an opportunity to see our spaces," she said. "The whole week will be fun. It's a workshop festival."

If you go ...

What: A Week Long Festival of Opera in Workshop

When: 'A Lover's Tale' Aug. 23-28

Staged presentation of La Traviata' Aug. 29, 31

‘The Paris Salon: Age of the Romantic Virtuoso' Aug. 30
2 p.m. - Sundays
7 p.m. - Wednesday
8 p.m. - Other days

Where: Unicorn Theatre, Berkshire Theatre Group, 83 East Main St, Stockbridge

Admission: $30

Information: (413)-997-4444 or berkshiretheatregroup.org


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