Maestro Brian Garman, Artistic Director and Co-founder of the Berkshire Opera Festival, and Jonathon Loy, General Director and Co-Founder, started off slowly in 2014 and spent the first two years of their collaboration on the infrastructure – paperwork, fundraising, and logistics – for their new company before staging their first production last summer.
And Madama Butterfly was a smashing success, both critically and financially.
“What’s amazing when you fund raise is you discover that there are people who believe in you even before you have a product to show them,” Loy explained. “We believed in what we were doing, so it was wonderful to discover there were other people who loved what we wanted to do, and they were ready to support us. Even though it’s our job to ask for it, when the check comes across the table it is always a wonderful surprise and a welcome endorsement of our vision.”
“It was easier raising money this year, now that we have a production behind us,” Garman added.
This year BOF Board member Barbara McCullough has made a matching gift challenge, dollar-for-dollar, up to $100,000. “We have until September 1 and are halfway there already, so we very are hopeful,” Loy explained.
Now both in-demand artists with thriving careers, Garman and Loy met 18 years ago when Garman was the principal conductor at the Pittsburgh Opera and Loy interned there while a student at the University of Pittsburgh.
“We realized we had similar tastes in operas and singers, which led us to become friends,” Garman explained. “We discussed starting a project like this, and put together some numbers back then, but nothing came of it until 2014 when we reconnected after I moved back to New York City following an engagement in Seattle.”
“I have been coming to the Berkshires my entire life,” Loy said, recalling an uncle who has lived in Stockbridge for 60 years. “The Berkshires is the most culturally rich place in the country in the summer, and we had everything but opera. So I called Brian and said ‘Let me show you the Berkshires!’”
It was love at first sight, and although Loy and Garman make their permanent homes in New York City, they rent houses for themselves and their cast and staff members in the summer and both agree they would love to buy up here once the company takes off. The BOF rents office space at St. James Place in Great Barrington.
For their second outing Loy and Garman have selected Ariadne aux Naxos by Richard Strauss (1864-1949), with a German libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. BOF will perform the piece in German with English supertitles. Cori Ellison, a former colleague of Garman’s, will give a talk at 6:30 pm before the show on August 26. Performances are scheduled for August 26 & 29 and September 1 at the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, MA.
“We knew when we opened with Madama Butterfly our first year that we wouldn’t follow it up with another ‘top ten’ opera,” said Garman, who is once again conducting. “We decided on Ariadne auf Naxos to fulfill our goal and mission of exploring work outside the core repertory. And Ariadne… made good sense programmatically and financially. With an orchestra of only 37 it falls within our budget, it is very funny, and it contains some of Strauss’ most beautiful music.”
While the musicians in the BOF Orchestra come from all over the country, almost half of them are local.
Loy is directing. “My vision as a director is to make the story as clear and concise as possible for audience. I’m going to make this as funny as it is heartbreakingly beautiful, with a smile and a tear in the eye,” he explained. “Ariadne… asks the questions ‘What is art? What is high-brow and what is low-brow?’ There are so many layers. The piece is in two parts, called the prologue and the opera. I have set the prologue in the present day, backstage in the theatre. We will have the orchestra on stage and use the actual open stage area at the Colonial, there will be no masking. Then in the second part we transition to ‘opera period’ with traditional costumes so everyone is satisfied.”
“We are lucky to have such a wonderful cast,” Garman beamed. The company had just started rehearsals the day before this interview took place. “When you hire singers you know that they can sing, but you don’t know until the first day how everything will work together. Yesterday was the kind of a first day a conductor dreams of. Our cast surpassed our expectations and Jonathon and I are thrilled!”
(Scroll down to see cast headshots accompanied by Charles Caine’s costume sketches.)
Like last year, the BOF schedule included two recitals. Gods & Monsters took place on August 8 at St. James Place, and Reluctant Revolutionary: Songs of Richard Strauss on August 16 at Ventfort Hall in Lenox. The first included a set of songs commissioned by BOF from the young composer Evan Jay Williams and featured the BOF chorus.
“Ariadne… doesn’t have a chorus,” Garman explained, “So this recital allowed us to show off our ensemble.”
The second recital featured songs by Strauss performed by the cast of Ariadne…
“The recitals are a wonderful introduction for people completely new to opera,” Garman said. “Lots of our supporters who were new to opera last year came to recitals and were converted. And Ariadne… is a great first opera because it is very funny with a timely story set in the present day. People will find so much of the music just breathtaking.”
Loy explained his and Garman’s hopes and plans for the future. “We want to have a full festival with productions as well as other programming. We want to explore the whole operatic repertoire of major works, and have a second stage where we can present lesser known works or new works commissioned just for the BOF. We also envision launching a young artists program, where singers on the brink of their careers will get their own production.”
“But we need to do this very slowly and carefully, as we’ve done all along,” Garman cautioned. That young artists program is maybe five or six years down the line. Right now we plan to continue the current scale of programming, looking towards a tiny bit of expansion in 2019. We are always striving to be fiscally responsible. We’ve seen other companies do too much too soon and it courts disaster.”
Ariadne auf Naxos
by Richard Strauss
German libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal
Translation by Cori Ellison
Sung in German with projected English translations
Directed by Jonathon Loy
Conducted by Brian Garman
Saturday, August 26, 2017 at 7:30pm
Tuesday, August 29, 2017 at 7:30pm
Friday, September 1, 2017 at 7:30pm