Berkshire Opera Festival founders discuss their vision for “Madama Butterfly”

News about Berkshire Opera Festival’s inaugural production of
Puccini’s Madama Butterfly at The Colonial Theatre

Jonathan Loy and Brian Garman fill in the blanks for us
by Larry Murray

Opera lovers all across the region are full of nervous anticipation – and a million questions – about the upcoming debut of the Berkshire Opera Festival (BOF).  Opera lovers have been securing their tickets for the new company’s  inaugural production of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. The popular opera will receive three performances this summer at the historic Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, premiering Saturday, August 27, 2016, with subsequent performances Tuesday, August 30, and Friday, September 2. All performances begin at 7:30pm. Tickets are priced from $20 to $98, and can be ordered through BOF’s website, www.berkshireoperafestival.org, or by calling the Berkshire Theatre Group box office at (413) 997-4444.

BOF General Director Jonathon Loy, who also serves as stage director, commented, “We’re very excited to open Berkshire Opera Festival for business at last, and to share all our company has to offer with the community and beyond. I am thrilled to be directing the first fully-produced opera to be presented in the Berkshires in years.” The production is conducted by Artistic Director Brian Garman. “Butterfly is a perennial favorite, and for good reason,” Garman remarked. “A timeless love story, and heartbreakingly beautiful music sung by a world-class cast – I can’t think of a better way to launch Berkshire Opera Festival.”

The opera features Moldovan soprano Inna Los in the title role. From the Metropolitan Opera to Deutsche Oper Berlin to the Wiener Staatsoper, she has sung around the globe to great acclaim, and her performances of Puccini’s doomed geisha have enjoyed success worldwide. Tenor Jason Slayden, recognized for his stirring portrayals of many Verdi and Puccini roles, sings Pinkerton. Reprising a favorite role that has earned him raves, the American baritone Weston Hurt stars as Sharpless, the U.S. consul. Fast-rising mezzo- soprano Sarah Larsen takes on the role of Suzuki, while Metropolitan Opera tenor Eduardo Valdes sings Goro. Legendary bass and Berkshire resident John Cheek fills out the cast in the role of Butterfly’s uncle, the Bonze. The performances feature the Berkshire Opera Festival Orchestra and Chorus.

Berkshire Opera Festival’s co-founders, Jonathon Loy and Brian Garman, also announced that tickets are on sale now for song recitals that will fill out the festival’s 2016 summer season.  Two programs will be presented, and general admission tickets for each are priced at $30.  They can be ordered through the Berkshire Opera Festival (BOF) website, www.berkshireoperafestival.org, or by calling BOF at (413) 213-6622.

The first program, Breaking Down Barriers, will be performed at Ventfort Hall in Lenox on Wednesday, August 10 at 7:30pm.  Featuring songs by Boston’s own Amy Beach, Cécile Chaminade, Ethel Smyth, and others, the recital highlights works by female composers of Giacomo Puccini’s time whose music was largely overlooked during their lifetimes.

The second program, The “Unknown” Puccini, will be presented at Saint James Place in Great Barrington on Tuesday, August 16 at 7:30pm.  It features songs Puccini wrote for voice and piano, and will be an interesting treat for those who know him only as a composer of opera.  Both recitals will be performed by cast members of BOF’s Madama Butterfly, along with a few very special guests.

Artistic Director Brian Garman remarked,  “We’re delighted to present these song recitals in our return to Ventfort Hall and our debut at Saint James Place.  The programs will feature some familiar tunes alongside wonderful songs that have been unjustly neglected through the years.”

Both AD Brian Garman and GD Jonathon Loy were delighted to answer some questions about their dedication to the return of opera in the Berkshires.

Are you planning any surprises or will this be a very conservative, traditional Butterfly?

Brian Garman: Madama Butterfly will be sung in Italian with projected English supertitles. Our production is going to be moved forward in time a bit, and set during Japan’s economic boom of the Golden Sixties.

Jonathan Loy:  It is my hope that by updating the production to 1960s Japan the audience will get a fresh perspective on this timeless story.  I am interested in seeing these characters in a more present time and how that affects their intentions.  For example, the fact that Pinkerton actively seeks to marry a 15 year old girl and that Sharpless attends the wedding makes a huge statement about their moral compass.  Goro, the marriage broker, and his team take on a much more sinister and black market feel.  The geishas, while traditionally dressed, become part of a “traditional performance/experience” for Pinkerton and Sharpless – what they are paying to see.

Butterfly in this context becomes even more complex.  If we examine her through this lens of the 60s, second-wave feminism or women’s liberation, we can put a more heroic spin on her than we already do.  Yes, she is clearly naive/in denial, but she tries to use Pinkerton for what she wants, just as much as he uses her as a play thing.  Her dream is to go to America, get out of Japan and never have to be a street performer/geisha ever again.  It could have been any American sailor willing to take her away.  I do believe that she falls in love with the idea of Pinkerton and what he could represent for her – a new life in the great United States.

And the set and costumes, lavish or zen like?

JL: The sets at the moment are minimal, and as to costumes, they are being designed now by Charles Caine.  I believe that Butterfly falls in love with the idea of Pinkerton and what he could represent for her – a new life in the great United States. To that end, we will see her do everything she thinks is American, including wearing stylish American dress (Chanel inspired) with the little money she has left.  Eventually, she sees the reality of the situation.  As we go forward, many details will change, so let’s stop there. I don’t want to give much more about what we will do away.

And the orchestra, how many players are there going to be, and have you found them yet?

BG: The size of our orchestra will vary somewhat depending on the opera, but for Butterfly, we’re engaging 34 musicians.  In the big opera houses, a “standard” production of Butterfly can sometimes have upwards of 60 musicians, but we’ll be playing a version for reduced orchestra that was prepared in the 1910’s by the conductor Ettore Panizza.  Puccini himself sanctioned this reduction for use in smaller theaters with smaller orchestra pits.  Panizza’s reductions are great, by the way — I’ve conducted a few of them, and I have to say they’re outstanding in that they sound almost exactly like the originals.

The woodwind, brass, and percussion players were assembled largely by my orchestra personnel manager, and then I held two full days of string auditions in Pittsfield back in February.  We’ve put together an exceptionally talented group, comprised both of local musicians as well as players from other orchestras in Massachusetts and the Tri-State Area.

When do you start the intensive rehearsals?

BG: We’ll start music rehearsals with the chorus on July 25, and musical and staging rehearsals with the principal artists beginningAugust 3.

Why Madama Butterfly?

BG:  The main reason is because Madama Butterfly is an absolute masterpiece.  I can think of very, very few pieces that are as musically and dramatically effective in such an immediate and heart-rending way.  Of course, it is a fairly well-known opera, which also seemed like a prudent way to launch our festival, but its popularity endures for a reason, and it’s rare that audiences leave the theater after a performance of Butterfly with dry eyes.

Turning to the concerts, can you tip us off as to some of the women composers who were Puccini’s peers and whose music we might expect to hear on August 10 at Breaking Down Barriers?

BG: This recital will be largely devoted to the music of three composers:  Cécile Chaminade (a Frenchwoman who was also an accomplished concert pianist), Ethel Smyth (a Brit who, remarkably, was openly gay in Victorian England), and Amy Beach (an American who lived much of her life in Boston).

Can you give us an example (and story behind) one of the songs he wrote outside of opera that we might hear on August 16?

BG: Puccini completed 15 or 16 songs, depending on how one counts them, and he was innately such a creature of the theater that he was sometimes reluctant to write music that was not for the stage.  Still, he did write songs for his friends and for special occasions throughout his career, and used them as a way to hone his craft.  What’s fascinating is to hear in some of the early songs the germ of a tune that would become a much-loved number later in his operas — the quartet at the end of Act 3 of La Bohème, for example, or Tosca’s “Non la sospiri la nostra casetta” from her first act duet with Cavaradossi.

Although audiences often wait until closer to performance dates, the early ticket numbers have been progressing close to the Festival’s projections. (And it should be noted that there are plenty of great seats still available!) The organization also continues its search for additional patrons, sponsors and donors. The best way to help assure their success, and the permanent return of an opera company in the Berkshires, is to reserve your seats now, and think about being a contributor. That is easily done by visiting the Berkshire Opera Festival (BOF) website, www.berkshireoperafestival.org, or by calling BOF at
(413) 213-6622.

JONATHON LOY – General Director and Co-Founder

Jonathon Loy General Director and Co founder.

Jonathon Loy General Director and Co founder.

Jonathon Loy, a native Philadelphian, is the General Director and Co-Founder of Berkshire Opera Festival.  He is also a Guest Director on the staging staff at The Metropolitan Opera in New York City and a 2002 OPERA America Fellowship winner.  As a fellow, he focused on stage direction and artistic administration, during which time he completed residencies at New York City Opera, Seattle Opera, Opera Memphis, and Cincinnati Opera.

An active stage director, Mr. Loy has directed Faust at The Metropolitan Opera and has spent the last four summers directing with Opera Fairbanks in Alaska, where in 2014 he staged a new production of L’Italiana in Algeri with Vivica Genaux and Barry Banks.  He returned to Opera Fairbanks the following summer to direct a new production of Hansel and Gretel.

He has also directed Don Giovanni for Opera Las Vegas, Hansel and Gretel adapted by Perry Lorenzo for the Seattle Opera Young Artist Program, and three new operas (Golden Gate, Fade, and Hunger Art) as well as La Traviata, La Bohème, Rigoletto, and more for Center City Opera Theater.  Mr. Loy is also a busy assistant director, and has worked with such companies as The Santa Fe Opera, Seattle Opera, Washington National Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Opera Company of Philadelphia, Michigan Opera Theater, Palm Beach Opera, Opera Memphis, Opera North, and more.  He is the former General Director of Center City Opera Theater in Philadelphia from 2003-2007, where he was the first person to produce opera in the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts.

The 2015-2016 season will mark Mr. Loy’s seventh at The Metropolitan Opera, where he will direct the revival of Le Nozze di Figaro and assistant direct the new production of Roberto Devereux and revivals of Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, Die Fledermaus and Tosca.

Mr. Loy graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies, with a focus on theater, business, and Italian.  He had the unique opportunity to work at Pittsburgh Opera for four years while attending the university.  During this same period, he also met the renowned voice teacher Claudia Pinza, who took Mr. Loy to her school in Italy.  There he was able to study the operatic repertoire and experience firsthand the training of young singers.

BRIAN GARMAN – Artistic Director and Co-Founder

Brian Garman, Artistic Director and Co-Founder.

Brian Garman, Artistic Director and Co-Founder.

Brian Garman opened Seattle Opera’s 2009-10 season conducting La Traviata, and the previous fall, he was named the inaugural Music Director of the Seattle Opera Young Artists Program, a position created for him.  His skills as an orchestra builder assisted him in creating the Seattle Opera Young Artists Program Orchestra – a two-year process that resulted in giving Seattle Opera the only full-season training program in the country with its own permanent professional orchestra.  He most recently led the members of that program in a Verdi bicentennial concert and in productions of Don Pasquale, Don Giovanni, and Ariadne auf Naxos.  One season prior, he was on the podium for the Young Artists’ production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in March, while April saw him in Palm Springs leading a gala parks concert.  He was previously on the conducting roster at New York City Opera, and made his debut with that company at the VOX Showcase in May 2006, an engagement he repeated the following year.  He returned to the podium for City Opera’s production of Carmen in October and November 2007.  In the summer of 2008, he led a highly-successful run of Verdi’s Un Giorno di Regno at the Wolf Trap Opera Company, prompting The Wall Street Journal critic Greg Sandow to write that Maestro Garman was “one of the best bel canto conductors I’ve ever heard.”  His acclaimed debut at Wolf Trap occurred the preceding summer leading Chabrier’s L’Étoile.  His relationship with the Seattle Opera began in March 2008 when he conducted the Young Artists Program double-bill of L’Enfant et les Sortilèges and Gianni Schicchi.

Maestro Garman was previously the Resident Conductor and Chorus Master at Pittsburgh Opera for ten years.  While so engaged, he led Pittsburgh’s productions of Roméo et Juliette, Rigoletto, Le Nozze di Figaro, Die Zauberflöte, and Werther, among others, to unanimous praise.  Additionally, as Music Director of the Pittsburgh Opera Center, he was at the helm for several productions with that company, including La Clemenza di Tito, La Rondine, Lucia di Lammermoor, Il Corsaro, and Die Fledermaus.  Also a senior member of the music staff of The Santa Fe Opera for six years, he served as associate conductor for numerous productions, and assisted in the musical preparation of more than 25 different operas, including two world premieres.

As a pianist and coach, Maestro Garman is sought after by numerous singers of renown, and has been called upon frequently in recent years to give recitals and master classes around the United States and Europe.  He recently completed a guest appointment as the Music Director of the opera program at Carnegie Mellon University, after previously having served at Mannes College The New School for Music and Duquesne University.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s