Voices of Summer

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If you can afford to go to Munich, it is an unrivaled destination for first-class opera at its annual July festival. This year will have 19 operas, including eight by Wagner and seven by Verdi in their bicentennial year. If you have tried without success to hear the wonderful but mercurial Anja Harteros, you might stand a better chance in Munich, where the soprano is scheduled to sing Desdemona, Elisabetta in Don Carlo and Leonora in Il Trovatore.

Munich is great, but nothing beats New York this summer for the adventurous opera lover. My home town, until very recently, was the opera capital of the world, with a diversity of offerings at all prices. The Metropolitan Opera was at the top of the heap, with its great orchestra and chorus providing the ballast for all kinds of repertory. I hasten to remind you that the Met might have been more expensive than most theaters but there were hundreds of affordable seats. The New York City Opera, known as the People’s Opera, had full seasons with standard repertory enriched by more bel canto than at the Met as well as many unusual works and world premieres. And it was affordable.

Beyond that, New York had dozens of small but ambitious companies with linguistic or ethnic orientations that resulted in an astonishing selection of operas performed by promising young artists as well as talented emigres from all over the world. You could hear opera in Italian, French, Russian, English, Czech, Polish, Spanish and other languages. In addition, universities and conservatories including Juilliard, Mannes and the Manhattan School of Music were showcases for superb young musicians and unusual repertory.

Much of this vanished with the recent economic depression that began in September 2008. City Opera nearly died and many of New York’s small companies retrenched and had trouble finding donations to keep up their activities. A few troupes, most notably Gotham Chamber Opera and its artistic director Neal Goren, persevered and chose repertory and performance spaces that inspired audience members. Local opera also was harmed by the fact that the Metropolitan Opera’s high definition transmissions could be found on screens all over town, meaning that many opera lovers chose to spend $25 for HD rather than spending a comparable amount for live opera up close in small companies or even Family Circle seats at the Met itself.

It is a sad fact that the Met has become too expensive for many people. There may still  be some low-priced seats but they are hard to secure. The HD transmissions do have their virtues, but they can never replace the experience of live opera where you can decide what to look at and, above all, you can hear pure music-making without the corrupting intercession of technology. 

The good news is that there has been a stunning revival of opera in unusual places this year, much of it in spring and summer, a period when opera offerings were once meager. There is now enough, in an incredible range of styles, that I think we can almost consider June through mid September a festival for opera lovers who can no longer afford to go to the Met as often as they used to. Summer opera in New York is much more edgy and appeals to a burgeoning sensibility that I think is terrific. Take out your calendar and fill it with many of the opera events I will list below.

June 6, 8, 11: the New York Philharmonic performs Luigi Dallapiccola’s Il Prigioniero (1949), with Alan Gilbert conducting and Patricia Racette and Gerald Finley singing. Maestro Gilbert has done a great job of expanding the repertory of the Philharmonic and has added operas most years in the month of June. 

According to Gilbert, “In Il Prigioniero, Dallapiccola’s libretto and score explore an intense, heightened human situation that speaks to all of us. He was composing during World War II and its aftermath, and was examining characters set during the Spanish Inquisition, but did so through the most intimate story. The music, while spiky, illuminates this personal dimension in a truly organic way.” The opera is intensely dramatic, dealing with issues of imprisonment and freedom in our time with as much eloquence as Fidelio and Don Carlo.

June 14, 15: Chelsea Opera will present A Distant Love: Songs of John and Abigail Adams, with music by Gary S. Fagin and a libretto by Terry Quinn. 

June 17, 24: Gotham Chamber Opera presents Mexican composer Daniel Catán’s La Hija de Rappaccini (Rappaccini’s Daughter) in a beautiful outdoor setting, the Cherry Esplanade of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. Catán was a fine composer who died unexpectedly in 2011.

June 22, 30: Der fliegende Holländer will arrive at the Princeton (New Jersey) Festival with Mark Delavan in the title role. 

June 22-August 7: The Caramoor Festival in Westchester (right) celebrates Verdi in French: Les Vêpres Siciliennes (July 6) and Don Carlos (July 20) with very appealing casts, and Verdian chamber music and song concerts (June 27, July 25).

July 5-August 25: Opera and vocal music, with major artists, are a big part of the Tanglewood Festival in Massachusetts. Works include Harbison’s The Great Gatsby (July 11); Verdi’s Requiem with great singers (July 27); a double-bill of Curlew River and Dido and Aeneas (July 31, August 1); Benjamin’s Written on Skin (August 12)

July 6-28: There are several unusual opera offerings at the Lincoln Center Festival by composers you likely have not heard of but should discover. The works are Monkey: Journey to the West; The Blind; Matsukase; and Michaels Reise um die Erde.

July 6-August 24: Der fliegende Holländer is on the bill at Cooperstown’s Glimmerglass Festival along with Verdi’s second opera, Un Giorno di Regno, and David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion, Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater and the musical Camelot. 

July 10-13: Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock is worth hearing at City Center on West 55th Street. 

July 11-14: The wonderful soprano Martina Arroyo has coached lucky young artists who will perform L’Elisir d’Amore and Les Contes d’Hoffmann in the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College. These are full productions with orchestra and there is a great vibe at these performances.

July 27-August 24: My calendar is circled for the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center, where Iván Fischer and his superb Budapest Festival Orchestra present a semi-staged Le Nozze di Figaro (August 11, 13, 15). In addition, there will be David Lang’s The Whisper Opera (August 10, 11, 12, 13) and, especially, Rossini’s Stabat Mater (August 13, 14) with Gianandrea Noseda making his festival debut leading Maria Agresta, Kyle Ketelsen, Gregory Kunde and an all-too-rare appearance here of mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona (right), a big star in Europe’s top opera houses. I wish Mostly Mozart, Opera Orchestra of New York or the Collegiate Chorale would do a concert version of Rossini’s Tancredi with Barcellona in her signature role.

August 10-25: The excellent dell’Arte Opera will bring Rome to East 13th Street with L’Incoronazione di Poppea and La Clemenza di Tito in repertory with two casts. Dell’Arte and its leader Chris Fecteau are distinctive because they take young artists and teach them whole roles for the first time. Similarly, they cultivate promising young stage directors, teaching them that music is at least as important as words (I say more important) in figuring out how to create an opera production.

September 17 (which is still summer): The New York City Opera at BAM will be presenting the American premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole, a sensation at its world premiere in London and sure to be one of the highlights of opera in New York in 2013. City Opera now does four operas per season and has secured grants to allow it to charge $25 for many seats. This is a positive development.

I encourage New York opera lovers, as well as people who are just discovering the art form, to patronize our rich selection of companies offering live opera in many venues, often for the price of a hamburger and a beer. Help strike a blow for opera and diversity and New York City by attending an opera performance in a place you might have never ventured before. And send this article to friends who might like opera, if only they knew it was near at hand, affordable and incredibly relevant.