A magnificent cultural gem in a beautiful, performing arts-abundant region, Berkshire Opera Festival (BOF) will launch its 2022 season on July 21st at PS21 in Chatham, New York, with Three Decembers by Jake Heggie, a chamber opera based on a Terrence McNally play. The Festival’s annual free concert, this year featuring music of Black composers, will follow on August 10 at the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and their Mainstage production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni will open on August 20 at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. I had the wonderful opportunity to learn more about the Berkshire Opera Festival from speaking with its enterprising founders: acclaimed conductor Maestro Brian Garman, BOF’s Artistic Director, and Jonathon Loy, BOF’s Director of Production and lauded stage director who is also a Guest Director on the Metropolitan Opera’s staging staff. A thrilling summer ahead is promised to all opera and music lovers as well as to the newbies who might wish to give opera a chance. And what better opportunity to do so than through the diversity of musical experiences offered by Berkshire Opera Festival in one of the most stunning regions of the country?
Brian Garman and Jonathon Loy – Photo: Andrea Yu
How did you decide to create the Berkshire Opera Festival?
Brian Garman: Jonathon and I met over twenty years ago when I was a principal conductor at Pittsburgh Opera and Jonathon was working for them as an intern. We became friends and discovered that we shared similar tastes in opera. First, we had the idea of starting a summer festival in Pittsburgh that produced the operas of Verdi. For a variety of reasons, mostly economic, this never materialized. But we held on to all the plans we had drafted for that. At the end of 2013, I was moving back to New York from Seattle, and I didn’t know exactly what my future looked like, in the short term. At that point Jonathon was—and still is—working at the Met. We talked and Jonathon said, why don’t we revisit the festival idea?
Jonathon Loy: There was the old Berkshire Opera Company that closed in 2009. I spent summers in the Berkshires and was very familiar with the region. I knew that in the summer it was the most culturally rich place in the country. Without opera there, there was a void, so I asked Brian, why don’t you come visit the area with me and we’ll look at some venues? Brian came and he fell in love with it, as everyone does, because it is spectacular and magical! We decided this is the place where we’re going to found the company; it just made sense on so many different levels. We had identified the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield as a place where we could do a lot of our Mainstage productions. So, we founded the company in 2014. Then we gave ourselves two years to fundraise what we needed to commence the initial season. And we did.
Brian Garman: We knew also that we were going into a crowded market, because as Jonathan said, it’s such a culturally rich area, especially in the summertime. There’s theater, chamber music, dance, and there’s, of course, Tanglewood and the Boston Symphony. But we thought, correctly as it turns out, that there would be a space and an audience for us. I’m happy to see that that has proven to be the case.
Berkshire Opera Festival Co-Founder and Artistic Director, Maestro Brian Garman – Photo: courtesy of BOF
So, you knew you were a success right after the first season…
Brian Garman: Yes. Our first production in 2016 was Madame Butterfly and the audience reaction to all three of those performances far surpassed anything that I was expecting. We knew we had a great show with great artists, but we didn’t know how people would take to it and they took to it extremely well. It was very gratifying.
Brian, your extensive experience both as a conductor and coach greatly informs your work as Artistic Director of the festival. Can you elaborate on that?
Brian Garman: Well, when I was as a kid, I was an opera nerd. I grew up in rural Iowa which was not exactly a fertile area for the performing arts in the 1970s and the 1980s. But this was also when the Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Opera were touring every year across the country. So, my grandmother and her friend started taking me to some operas when I was probably 13 or 14 and there was something about it that I fell in love with. I wanted to learn everything that I could possibly learn about opera. So, I ended up learning a lot of repertoire because I wanted to consume everything that I could find. Then, one of the advantages of conducting and coaching a lot in a variety of different places is that you are exposed to lots of different singers, also from hearing auditions and going to performances, and from working with singers directly. That has been a real boon, and because of it, there’s a lot of information I have at my fingertips: a big database of singers I’ve heard and who have auditioned for me.
Jonathon, as director of production, what do your responsibilities entail? How do you bring your own stage experience, especially from the Met, into your work?
Jonathon Loy: As director of production, I am responsible for everything that goes on the stage including directors, set designers, lighting designers. Of course, Brian and I collaborate. Brian hires the singers and is in charge of the orchestra. I’m also responsible for the budgets, making sure that all designers stay within their allotted money. My experience over the last 20 years of directing opera greatly informs how to actually produce a show. I think one of the reasons that Brian and I are having a successful company is our real-world combined experience. We take all of that experience, and understand how to make a budget, how to stick to it, and collaborate with the people that we bring here to work with us in a meaningful way.
Berkshire Opera Festival Co-Founder and Director of Production Jonathon Loy – Photo: John Romano, elizabethandprincestudio.com
This season you are directing “Don Giovanni,” a rescheduled production from 2020…
Jonathon Loy: Yeah, although it’s actually a completely different production than what it was supposed to be. When you have a lot of time to think about something, things change. But the cast is mostly intact. The design team is completely intact except for the choreographer…
Brian Garman: While you were talking, Jonathon, I thought of a question that I’ve actually never asked you, as it pertains to this company. Your non-summer job is directing operas on the largest stage in the world and then, during the summer, directing jobs in theaters that are considerably smaller. Is that a challenge in any particular way? Is it easier, harder or does it not make any difference? I can’t believe I’ve never asked you that in all these years!
Jonathon Loy: You know, the Met is the biggest opera company in the world. I think everything else is kind of a microcosm of that. But, for me, getting to do our own stuff in the Berkshires, to really create everything from scratch in such intimate theaters, frankly, is the one of the most exciting things that we can do. We talk about the visceral experience of the unamplified human voice in opera productions. There’s nothing more visceral than—with the voices we bring to the Berkshires, our incredible orchestra, and the wonderful productions—to sit in a small theater, an 800-seat house or sometimes a 300-seat house, and to experience opera. The Met is something very specific; you can’t match that in any other way. But opera in intimate theaters… you connect to it in a different way, the audience participation is very different, I find.
You definitely notice the subtleties much more…
Jonathon Loy: Oh, yes. From Brian giving the direction “you can really sing pianissimo here” to making the smallest movement that might go along with that, it is 10,000 times more effective in these small theaters. It comes across and it’s really incredible.
Please tell us about the vision behind this season.
Brian Garman: Well, when we started, we did only one big production and two smaller recitals with piano for one night only. Over time, as the recital component got bigger, we decided to do one larger one as opposed to two smaller ones. So, for five years we did only one major production and one large free recital. It was always part of our original goal to expand, and we have tried over the years to grow the company while also being financially really prudent and responsible. You see a lot of younger companies that have great ambitions and ideas, and they want to do everything too soon. Forcing ourselves to be patient with this and not do things until we can afford to do them has been part of our success. Last year, for the first time, we added a smaller production, a Second Stage production—now it’s the series that we do every July while our Mainstage production then happens every August.
In this Second Stage slot there can be a variety of things. Last summer we did a modern American opera: Glory Denied by Tom Cipullo. This summer, we’re also doing a modern American opera: Three Decembers by Jake Heggie, which premiered in 2008. Next summer we are not doing an American opera in this slot. I can’t say yet what it is, but it will be announced soon. This was always the idea that, as a complement to the main production, we would do a production in the Second Stage series that was even more intimate and that had forces that were, let’s say, more manageable from logistical and economic points of view.
Berkshire Opera Festival – Three Decembers rehearsal l-r Monica Dewey – Theo Hoffman – Adriana Zabala – photo by Andrea Yu
For example, Three Decembers, a chamber opera, has a very small cast of three artists and only eleven musicians in the orchestra. It’s a very compelling story. For people who might feel they don’t like modern opera or American opera, I think they’ll find this music to be very accessible. The lead character in the opera is a Broadway actress and a lot of the music is tinged with Broadway idioms here and there. It’s a nice bridge also for people who might be musical theater and Broadway fans and who might want to try opera for the first time; there are a lot of things that their ears will recognize in it, thematically speaking. It’s a family drama about a Broadway actress who is reaching the end of her career, and her two adult children from whom she is estranged. It’s about the stories that families tell each other, which sometimes are true and sometimes are not; it’s about learning to heal old wounds and reconnect. And it’s based on an unpublished play by the great Terrence McNally who was one of the earliest Covid victims back in 2020. Then the concert continues our free concert series at the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield on August 10th. Every year we do the concert around a particular theme; this year that the theme is music by Black composers who have been so unfairly neglected through the years, and who wrote some absolute masterpieces.
How do you find the state of opera in the United States today?
Jonathon Loy: That’s a large question! I would say that we can only speak for the community we’re producing for in the Berkshires. Here, there is a community of older retired music and culture-loving people. Just like everyone else in every other art form, it is our duty to try to teach and educate younger, newer audiences. I think that is the goal of any arts institution: to make sure that, besides the older generations that love and always support us, there are new people coming in. The free concert is just a small part of what we hope will eventually be a much larger education program of the Berkshire Opera Festival.
Brian Garman: Certainly, opera, especially in this country which provides for very little government support financially, has existential challenges that are opposed by economics and finances. And this is not in any way to downplay those challenges, but my outlook on it is a little bit sanguine in that, you know, people have been saying that opera is dying for 250 years now and here we are! But we will not continue to be here if we are not able to reach younger audiences and to bring new audiences to the opera.
Are you starting to notice that younger people are attending?
Brian Garman: Starting to. I mean, it takes a real concerted effort; it will not happen on its own.
Jonathon Loy: It will be exciting, Brian, as the Second Stage series goes along and we do interesting new works, I do strongly believe that we will see that. You know, everyone loves Bohème and all the popular Mainstage operas, but the whole point of the Second Stage series for us is to find that niche audience or that person who might not think to come to the Mainstage operas. I think that’s where you start to pull a different crowd. It’s so new for us now, and that remains to be seen, but it’s certainly the hope.
What are your goals for the Berkshire Opera Festival for the next ten years?
Brian Garman: At some point—and I don’t want to put a date on it because I know what will happen as soon as I do that—but, in the next handful of years, we would like to add a training component to the festival, a young artist program. This would be a program in which, in our conception, they would do their own production each summer. So, we see ourselves ultimately as a company that would do three productions over the course of the summer or two months. Certainly, by the end of this decade I would hope that we could be at three productions, and at least one concert plus some lectures and other events in the community, and a training program for young singers, and possibly also for directors and conductors.
How many seasons do you have planned in advance?
Brian Garman: Next season has been cast for just about a year now. We have the framework of what the next three seasons are going to look like. All the casting I find early, in order to get the artists that we want, so I have to do this about two years in advance.
Any special message for your fans, for people in New York and other areas?
Brian Garman: The Berkshires region is beautiful, we do great work, so come up and see us! And there’s going to be a weekend train coming soon now too.
Jonathon Loy: I think it actually already started. Also, the Peter Pan Bus goes directly to Great Barrington in just under three hours, so I highly recommend that; it leaves you right in front of the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center. You can get off the bus and walk into the theater and see Don Giovanni. And, as a general message: support your local opera company! It’s ticket sales, donations, tell your friends, that’s what we survive on!
Brian Garman: That is a very important point because like many opera companies, every year our ticket revenue accounts for about 20% of our total budget. All of the rest of the funds that keep us going every year are philanthropic so, yes, support your local companies! We need it.
Top photo: A scene from Berkshire Opera Festival’s 2021 production of Verdi’s Falstaff with Sebastian Catana in the title role, and ensemble – Ken Howard Photography