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Opera Travelogue

Hitting the Road to the Summer 2016 Opera Festivals

By Gary W. Murphy

For most people, the word “festival” is a cause for celebration. There is truly something for everyone on the summer festival calendar: book festivals, jazz festivals, cowboy poetry festivals and, my personal favorite, food and wine festivals. But for a certain demographic, just adding the word “opera” before “festival” gives it a little something extra that attracts those who enjoy their culture al fresco.

While most major U.S. opera companies close up shop for the summer, the regional music festival circuit blooms from June through early September. The festival concept offers attendees the perfect opportunity to immerse themselves in a wide variety of opera and classical music at some of the most spectacular venues across the country.

As the ultimate opera festival destination—the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth—looms as a potential Opera League excursion in 2017, I decided to hit the road in preparation and explore several of the most prestigious summer music festivals stateside: Ojai Music Festival, San Francisco Opera, Glimmerglass Festival and, finally, Santa Fe Opera.

Ojai Music Festival: La Passion of the Central Coast

Located just 75 miles north of Los Angeles, the idyllic town of Ojai was the stand-in for Shangri-La in Frank Capra’s 1937 classic Lost Horizon. Founded seventy years ago, the Ojai Music Festival continues “as a dependable source of new, intriguing music as any annual event in America,” (Zachary Woolfe, New York Times, June 2016). This year’s music director, Peter Sellars, curated four days of continuous diverse music making and symposia, sometimes beginning as early as 9am and lasting well past midnight.


Among the presentations this year were four world premieres including Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s oratorio La Passion de Simone and Tyshawn Sorey’s Josephine Baker: A Portrait, both featuring the brilliant young American soprano Julia Bullock. According to LA Times critic Mark Swed, her “singing, dancing and sheer stage presence proved hauntingly effective.” Next year, American jazz composer Vijay Iyer will take the reins as music director, followed by Esa-Pekka Salonen in 2018, and soprano Barbara Hannigan in 2019.

San Francisco Opera: Adios, David, ¡Hola Ana María!

San Francisco offered a distinctive change of pace from Ojai as the company celebrated General Director David Gockley’s retirement with three sublime productions: Verdi’s Don Carlo, Bizet’s Carmen and Janáček’s Jenůfa, which starred Karita Mattila.

Each staging was a study in contrast. Directed by Teatro Real’s Emilio Sagi and conducted by Nicola Luisotti, Don Carlo featured a stellar cast familiar to all operagoers: Michael Fabiano in the title role, René Pape as King Philip, Mariusz Kwiecień as Rodrigo and, in a role debut, LA Opera favorite Ana María Martínez giving a blazing performance as Elisabeth de Valois. And si, it was magnificent!

If we imagined the next night’s Carmen would also take us down the garden path of Spanish delights, that thought was promptly extinguished after seeing the director’s name, Calixto Bieito, above the title. Recognized by the press as opera’s l’enfant terrible, Bieito has for years created radical productions for every major European opera house. Carmen marked his U.S. debut. Were we ready for some Bieito?

Set in a disturbingly real-looking world that seemed to mirror a tense contemporary European landscape filled with militias, smugglers, sex workers and, naturally, a nude toreador, plus several 1980’s Mercedes-Benz sedans, this Carmen, starring American mezzo-soprano Irene Roberts, proved to be a riveting examination of domination and power. While it may not be a production for everyone, it certainly was a memorable night of spellbinding theater.

Glimmerglass Festival: Bravissima, Your Honor!

It was time to visit old friends in upstate New York. Glimmerglass Festival sits near the shores of Otsego Lake in the baseball mecca of Cooperstown. Founded in 1975, Glimmerglass presents four mainstage productions of opera and musical theater as well as many ancillary events during July and August.

Francesca Zambello became the Artistic and General Director in 2010, and one of her first agenda items was to change the name from Glimmerglass Opera to Glimmerglass Festival. This year’s season included Puccini’s La bohème, Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, the rarely seen (or heard) Pulitzer Prize-winning The Crucible and Rossini’s infrequently produced yet, oddly, musically well-known The Thieving Magpie, a charming production directed by UCLA’s Peter Kazaras.

Also on the bill was an evening with Stephen Sondheim and Jamie Bernstein, as well as Stephanie Blythe in concert, a Jamie Barton master class and, get this, an evening with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Yes, that Ruth Bader Ginsburg. This jurist’s passion for opera inspired the comic one-act Scalia/Ginsburg, to be unveiled at the 2017 festival, albeit without the Trump aria.

Santa Fe Opera: A League of Our Own

I can’t think of a more perfect way to end one’s summer festival tour than at Santa Fe Opera, especially as it celebrates its 60th anniversary season with five mainstage productions.

I challenge any opera buff to show me a better place to experience Puccini’s Girl of the Golden West than against the backdrop of the New Mexican landscape in that stunning open-air theater, starring another LA favorite, soprano Patricia Racette.


Over the course of five dizzying nights, one could also see Mozart’s Don Giovanni featuring Daniel Okulitch, Roméo et Juliette starring Alyin Perez and Stephen Costello (or, if you were lucky, former LAO Young Artist Joshua Guerrero, who filled in for an ailing Costello for one performance), Strauss’ Capriccio featuring the glamorous Susan Graham, and legendary Leonard Slatkin conducting Barber’s Vanessa. It’s no wonder the Opera League’s week-long Santa Fe Opera excursion was a sold-out hit. League Board Member Brita Millard is the brains behind these trips, and she packs the schedule with museum visits and dining treasures, fascinating lectures and one-of-a-kind local tours.

By the way, if you’re interested in finding out more about Brita’s next trips, feel free to reach out to her through her blog, Music for the Eyes.

And There, High Above It….Music!

Even with the crowds and the heat, nothing beats the summer excursion. I do believe the timeworn truism that travel makes you richer. Adding live music experiences to the itinerary can make you even richer as it gives you memories for a lifetime. I’m already planning that next trip.  Shall we reconvene for next summer’s opera journey?

Gary Murphy sits on the Board of Directors of the Opera League of Los Angeles.

Author: Thomas Lady

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