Glittering Opera By The Glimmerglass

Feature by Willard Manus

COOPERSTOWN, NY -- Founded in 1975 largely by a bunch of academics who had summer homes in the region, Glimmerglass Opera has grown from its poor-boy origins--a single production of La Boheme performed for a handful of local residents at a high school--to achieve world-class status and an opera hall of its own. And what a hall it is--Alice Busch Opera Theater (which opened in 1987) stands on a bluff overlooking the shores of Otsego Lake--the "Glimmerglass" of James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales--, on 43 acres of farmland. Designed by Hugh Hardy with acoustics by Peter George Associates, the intimte 914-seat theatre is the first American hall built specifically for opera in the twenty years following the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House in 1996.

With its sliding walls which allow for fresh air and views of the lush-green countryside prior to performance and during intermissions, the Theater is without question one of the most unusual opera halls in the world. What makes it even more enjoyable are its excellent sight lines and acoustics. There isn't a bad seat in the house and every note and aria can be heard clearly, without amplification.

The communal, grass-roots impetus that led to the formation of the company has carried over into the present. Glimmerglass's audiences, which come from near and far these days (30,000 a year), dress casually, enjoy picnics on the lawn, and respond appreciatively to the company's work. Many distinguished artists have worked at Glimmerglass, such as directors Jonathan Miller and Mark Lamos, singers David Daniels and Christine Goerke, composers David Carlson and Deborah Drattell (whose Nicholas and Alexandra premieres this month at L.A. Opera), but what underpins the company and gives it its distinctive spirit is a Young American Artists Program.

Established in 1988, it brings exceptional singers in the first stages of their professional careers to study and perform over the summer months. These young artists, many of whom hold degrees from prominent conservatories, are chosen annually from some 600 applicants from around the USA. The winners appear in mainstage productions and also give free solo song recitals in and around Cooperstown.

Glimmerglass Opera has also played an increasingly promient role in the musical life of New York City. In 1996 its acclaimed production of Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea was presented at Brooklyn Academy of Music in five sold-out performances, and the same year the company's ties to New York were further strengthened when Paul Kellogg, general director of Glimmerglass for seventeen years, was named general and artistic director of New York City Opera. As Newsday noted, "Glimmerglass has become the source of a river of ideas that flows toward Manhattan."

One of Glimmerglass's 2003 productions, Handel's ORLANDO, will be seen next year at New York City Opera. The production, directed by Chas Rader-Shieber, was a touch bizarre--slanted floors, a hospital without walls, ugly costumes, an enchanted forest that was overwhelming in its proportions--and the Capeci libretto dealing with love triangles within love triangles was at times confusing, but the singing was magnificent. Male soprano Michael Maniaci and countertenor Bejun Mehta carried the day, but got strong vocal support from David Pittsinger, Christine Brandes and Joyce Guyer, among others.

Actually, the singing in all four of the opera's on Glimmerglass's 2003 season was of a very high order. One glorious voice after another could be heard, led by Anthony Dean Griffey in THE GOOD SOLDIER SCHWEIK, Palle Knudsen in DON GIOVANNI and Tracey Welborn in BLUEBEARD.

The latter opera, a spoof by Jacques Offenbach on the mostly lurid way the Bluebeard story has been presented down through the centuries, was turned into a high-camp farce by director Christopher Alden, who also allowed his cast to improvise freely. It was Marx Brothers meeting Offenbach. Purists in the audience weren't happy, but I found myself laughing and having a good time.

Robert Kurka's THE GOOD SOLDIER SCHWEIK was my personal favorite this year. Robert Kurka, who was born in Chicago to a Czech-American family, wrote the music and libretto when he was 32. Working from the classic novel by Jaroslav Hasek which satirized the absurdities of war (and later inspired Catch-22), Kurka came up with a strongly drawn, blackly comic opera whose music was pungent, sardonic and dynamic. Tragically, Kurka died two years later, shortly before SCHWEIK premiered at New York's City Center. Glimmerglass deserves kudos for having revived this obscure but provocative work.

Next year Glimmerglass will present Handel's Imeneo, Gilbert & Sullivan's Patience, Puccini's La Fanciulla del West and the American professionally-staged premiere of The Mines of Sulphur by Richard Rodney Bennett. It replaces the previously announced world premiere of Boule de Suif, or, The Good Whore, by Stephen Hartke, which had to be postponed for two years because of a health problem within his family.

Glimmerglass Opera can be reached at POB 191, Cooperstown, NY 13326. Call (607) 547-2255 or visit or