Planet Opera: Fairbanks, Alaska, Where Opera is a Force of Nature

Email a Friend

FAIRBANKS — On my first night in Alaska I heard the cry of the loon. As I sat by the bank of the Chena River wondering if the summer sun would ever fully set (it did not), I could hear the splashing of a loon as it dived for food and then recited what was on the menu to some unseen mate. The loon announces itself like a diva who steps in front of the chorus of forest and waters. There is no doubt who is making that music!

Hereabouts, the sounds of the loon are carefully discerned and understood. The hoot is a soft single note that is an intimate call between family members. The wail is a mournful sound intended to keep in contact with other loons. The yodel is the territorial call of the male loon. And the tremolo, the most distinctive sound, is a crazy laugh emitted by two loons as a means of reinforcing their bond or to announce their presence to other loons.

I had come to Alaska, in part, to discover Opera Fairbanks (where I gave two pre-performance lectures), and to see how this community 359 miles north of Anchorage and at the gateway of Denali National Park embraces the art form that the is uncommon denominator of these articles I write for you. But my first impression of Fairbanks was that my big city ears did not have to contend with all of the din of a major metropolis and, in its absence, I could hear all kinds of other things in the sounds of nature: rushing water, wind passing through leaves, bird calls, the scampering of animals across tall grass. Wild nature and beautiful opera is a thrilling combination and I have never encountered it elsewhere to this extent.

The greatest sound I heard (apart from the Opera Fairbanks performance of La Bohéme) were the ebullient barks and yelps of perhaps 70 Alaskan Huskies who demanded that Bethany Dempster, their musher, select them as one of the 12 dogs who would pull the cart on which I had the most exhilarating ride of my life. When Bethany put the cart on the grounds where the dogs live, they cried, howled and implored her to be part of the team. I have never been to a more exciting audition. The dogs were selected for different skills on the team: intelligence, leadership, speed and strength. The lead dogs, Pepper and Sheba, set the pace for a 20-minute dash through the woods that I will never forget.

There are many places where one can go mushing on snow in winter while in summer it is on forest paths. My trip was near the Chena Hot Springs Resort, 60 miles north of town, and a friend and I then had a soak in the waters while breathing crisp air. In town is the Dog Mushing Museum that documents the amazing role the dog has played in the civilization of the great north. The Morris Thompson Center contains exhibitions about the Native peoples and their culture, especially about how they have survived in winters that can get as cold as -60˚F.

I am telling you about the stupendous natural setting of the Alaskan interior not only because of its beauty and challenges but because I could not get the music of the Ring cycle out of my head for much of my stay. It is as if the mountains, rivers and some of the creatures are those in Wagner’s tetralogy. With all of this in view, the music in my head took on more grandeur and meaning than ever before, even more than in the German and Nordic settings that inspired Wagner. I even went panning for gold, as might Alberich, though there were no mermaids in the chilly Chena river. Fairbanks was born when gold was discovered here in 1902 and you can still unearth some today. My haul was worth $12.

I did not meet a bear as Siegfried does, but saw many other creatures. While we might think of the bear, walrus, seal, moose or salmon as the iconic animal of Alaska, local people seem to most revere the raven. In the Ring, Wotan’s ravens fly above the earth and then report back to the chief god. In Alaska, the raven is admired for its clever resourcefulness and the fact that, unlike most birds, it does not fly south for the winter. Many native peoples consider Raven (with a capital R and with no “the”) to be the Creator.

At the not-to-miss Museum of the North, a splendid institution for learning about this unique corner of the world, the story is told of a party of Chilkat Tlingits (one of the native populations) who were camped on the Gulf of Alaska in 1786. They sighted two ships, which they thought were great black birds with white wings spread high above, and that these were the mythological raven deity. These ships contained white Europeans and was one of the first minglings of the races on Alaskan soil.

Carl Triplehorn, who is in charge at the Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge told me, "A lot of people ‘do’ their houses in Raven because it is the symbol of life here in Alaska. They are the all-season friend, always around, always talking to one another and to us. They are incredibly smart and we admire them.” 

Opera in Alaska? You Betcha

Opera Fairbanks claims it is the northernmost opera company in the world. That is debatable (the city is at the same latitude as Reykjavík, Iceland and is just slightly above Helsinki, Finland), but it certainly is the farthest north in the Americas. Nonetheless, this company is a small miracle in a city of 32,000 people and whose vast metro area of 100,000 includes a large military presence that is not a natural constituency for opera.

The co-founders of the company are Theresa and Morgan Reed and Cassandra Tilly, who was a regional winner in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Finals. In 2006, they persuaded other local opera lovers to create a company in which most of the work is done by devoted volunteers. What funds can be raised go into what is on the stage and in the orchestra pit. The artistic director is Gregory Buchalter, a stalwart conductor on the music staff of the Met who also is the artistic director of Opera Las Vegas and the Opera Camerata of Washington, D.C. 

The cast of La Bohéme included Alaska residents Anastasia Jamieson (Mimi), Jamie-Rose Guarrine (Musetta), Joe Perron (Schaunard), David Miller (Colline), and Morgan Reed (Benoit/Alcindoro). Joining them were Charles Reid (Rodolfo) and Daniel Sutin (Marcello) from the Lower 48. It was a balanced group musically and theatrically, and benefited from Buchalter’s leadership and the incisive stage direction of Jonathon Loy, also on the Met staff. The simple but effective scenery was designed by Walter Ensign and built by Greg Gustafson.

What so impressed me in this La Bohéme (an opera I have seen at least a hundred times) was how deeply felt it was by cast and audience (about 1,000 for each of two performances). Somehow, Mimi’s cold hands and the sense of struggling artists were entirely believable here and I confess to shedding a few tears.

Opera Fairbanks has staged one opera per year since 2008: Madama Butterfly, La Cenerentola, Tosca, Don Giovanni and L’Elisir d’Amore, all conducted by Buchalter. In November, it will present Help, Help, The Globolinks by Gian Carlo Menotti and with another conductor. Buchalter returns in July 2013, for Carmen, which will also mark the return of Fairbanks native Vivica Genaux (right), who is a top star in Europe. Apart from her star power, I think the significant local presence of military men, and quite a few feisty and sexually forward women, should give Bizet’s opera more resonance.

Suzanne Summerville, a member of the opera’s board, also researches operas and musicals performed in or about Alaska and documents them at a website. She told me about The Alaskan, a two-act comic opera with music by Harry Girard and libretto by Joseph Blethen. It played 29 performances at New York’s Knickerbocker Theater from August 12 to Sept. 7, 1907. Twelve Alaskan Huskies were brought east to appear in the show.

An article in The New York Times on August 4, 1907 related the process of transporting the dogs. They were packed in crates containing blocks of ice and were sent by ship to Seattle. From there they went to New York by train. They were brought from Pennsylvania Station to West 39th St. and lived in a stall furnished with large blocks of ice. They had brief daily exercise and then worked their magic each night at the Knickerbocker pulling a sled across the stage. I wonder if they had an audition like the one I witnessed?

Photo: 1) Dogs get ready to mush (Fred Plotkin/WQXR) 2) Bryn Terfel as Wotan in 'Das Rheingold' at the Metropolitan Opera 3) The author at the University of Alaska Museum of the North 4) Vivica Genaux (Harry Heleotis)