Come summer, even the arts relax. Shakespeare in Delaware Park reminds people that Shakespeare wrote his plays for ordinary folk. The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, performing in parks, makes the case that classical music is for everyone.
Now new voices are rising to the occasion – and they’re sopranos, mezzo sopranos, basses and baritones. The growing array of summer opera across Western New York is a reminder that Puccini, Mozart and other masters wrote about real people’s lives and passions.
Nickel City Opera is offering an excellent production of Puccini’s “Tosca” at 2:30 p.m. Sunday at the Riviera Theatre. Next Saturday, the Chautauqua Opera is presenting “Madame Butterfly” – also by Puccini, who with his soaring melodies could be considered a kind of people’s composer. Also in Chautauqua, July 24 and 28 brings Douglas Moore’s 1956 opera “The Ballad of Baby Doe,” based on a true Wild West tale of a Colorado silver baron and his extramarital sweetheart.
The wine country is echoing with the sound of opera. Geneva Light Opera is staging a small production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” in English at Geneva’s 19th century Smith Opera House in late July. This summer also is seeing the debut of a new opera company, Finger Lakes Opera. It will be presenting Georges Bizet’s popular “Carmen,” featuring up-and-coming Chicago Lyric Opera mezzo-soprano J’nai Bridges, on Aug. 8 and 10 in SUNY Geneseo’s Wadsworth Auditorium.
“Carmen,” with its famous “Habanera” and “Toreador Song,” could be called a surefire summer hit.
“The story is engaging, passionate and tawdry,” said Artistic Director Gerard Floriano. “The tunes are familiar. The music is fiery.”
“Tosca,” the upcoming Nickel City Opera production, is also passionate, dark and violent. Executive Director Valerian Ruminski said that a critic once called it “a dirty little opera.”
“Then after 100 years the music won out,” Ruminski added. “It proves that it’s one of the great classics.”
People talk about summer reads and summer movies. Why not summer operas?
“We wanted to click people’s boxes,” Floriano said. Recently, he said, he had checked out his company’s poster for “Carmen.” He was happy to see it was geared toward the masses.
“They have a new photo of J’nai with ‘Drama, Lust, Murder’ across the top. They actually said ‘sex’ originally. I said, change it to ‘lust.’ ” He laughed.
“People who don’t know opera at all, young people, there’s a couple things that will attract them,” he said. “The story is very tawdry, a lot like our television today. Sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll – Carmen is all about that. She’s a real clever, dangerous character. The men who fall in love with her, the way she treats them, and how she ultimately gets treated, it’s like our popular culture, what kids are watching.”
Ruminski, of Nickel City Opera, thrills to the mix “Tosca” offers of the sacred and the profane.
“I like things that are big and beautiful,” he said. “I like brass and the bells going off and the cannons firing. He’s got everyone singing in unison at the end of Act 1. There’s a dark beauty to it.”
Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown has a mix of operas appealing on several levels. Hardcore opera fans will anticipate Richard Strauss’ beautiful “Ariadne of Naxos,” and contemporary opera fans will welcome Tobias Picker’s “An American Tragedy.” At the same time, the company is courting the wider summer crowd with Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly,” which brims with memorable melodies, and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel.”
Floriano, who grew up in Orchard Park and graduated from SUNY Geneseo and the Eastman School of Music, hopes that Finger Lakes Opera will help people fall in love with opera as he did years ago.
“The first live opera I attended, ‘La Boheme,’ was at Geneseo, in 1982,” he said. “I was smitten with it. I’m coming full circle, trying to bring it back here.”
Ruminski is revisiting his own past, in a different way, with “Tosca.”
“We’re employing the St. Paul’s Cathedral boys’ choir for the choirboys in the opera,” he said. “This is close to home for me. My first opera experience was in the boy choir in ‘Tosca’ in 1977. When Shea’s was reopened for ‘Tosca’ and I was a member of the St. Paul’s choir, we did it then. This is full circle for me.”
Nickel City Opera performs in a picturesque venue, the Riviera Theatre in North Tonawanda. Floriano emphasized that SUNY Geneseo’s Wadsworth Auditorium also is on the intimate side.
“The back seat of the house is not that far from the stage,” he said. “People will get a close look at how these athletes, which is what they are, work their craft and make these incredible sounds in front of the 40-piece orchestra. They don’t have a microphone in sight, no sound reinforcement. It’s different for our society. I guarantee whoever comes to see it will be enthralled.”
Fine singers can be heard at regional opera companies. Nickel City Opera’s Ruminski, who sings at major opera houses, has friends in high places, and because most major opera houses take a break in June, he is able to get some top-notch talent. His riveting “Tosca” has a terrific cast, led by Michele Capalbo and Adam Klein.
Glimmerglass Opera, nationally known, operates on a high professional level. And even little Geneva Light Opera, which performs to piano accompaniment, shows promise with “The Magic Flute.” Coloratura soprano Alexis Cregger, playing the Queen of the Night, is an Eastman alumna who has been praised in regional productions. Her colleagues also have impressive résumés.
“People think opera is highbrow, only for the rich,” Floriano said. “It’s not. In Europe, where it started, they all turn out in great numbers. Opera, soccer and football, those are things they love. They’re not mutually exclusive. The people who go to the opera, in Verona, are the same ones who cheer for the football team, go crazy for the World Cup. I did as much sports as music at Orchard Park High School. I was on two varsity squads. If you’re a musician, there’s no reason you can’t be a sports fan, too. It doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive.
“Once people get a sense of how much fun it is – the atmosphere, the refreshments at intermission, the summertime, talking to people, the festival atmosphere, which we will be building as we go forward – I think people will really latch onto it.”