The Glimmerglass crew works on "The Flying Dutchman" set during set looks, when the artistic team has the opportunity to view initial pieces of scenery on stage. (Jamie Kraus photo)
COOPERSTOWN Romance will be in the air when The Glimmerglass Festival opens its season Saturday with “The Flying Dutchman,” its first Wagner opera to be presented.
“I wanted to celebrate the Romantics and this is Wagner’s first great Italianate romantic opera,” said Francesca Zambello, the festival’s artistic and general director.
Written in 1843 when Wagner was only 30, it is the fourth opera he composed. It is based on a story about a doomed ghostly vessel that must travel the seas for eternity. To break the spell, a young woman must prove she loves the ghostly captain by sacrificing her life for him — talk about shades of the 2006 film “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” or the four “Twilight” films.
“I think the ‘Twilight’ series in which a teenage girl is consumed with an obsessive love for a mysterious supernatural figure — it’s a clear echo of Senta’s (Wagner’s maiden) obsession with the Dutchman,” Zambello said. “Her story is so present in our current culture with teen suicide.”
While the production is visually inspired by the world of the Romantic painters, such as Thomas Cole and Frederic Edwin Church, most people think of a Wagner production as a complex affair with huge sets and intricate stage machinery.
-- Wagner, “The Flying Dutchman”: July 6, 12, 14, 18, 27, 30; Aug. 4, 10, 12, 16, 20, 24
-- Lerner/Loewe “Camelot”: July 13, 19, 22, 27, 28; Aug. 1, 3, 5, 11, 13, 15, 17, 23
-- Lang, “The Little Match Girl Passion” and Pergolesi, “Shabat Mater” (double bill): July 20, 23, 25, 29; Aug. 3, 9, 18, 22
-- Verdi, “King for a Day”: July 21, 26; Aug. 2, 6, 8, 10, 17, 19, 24
WHERE: Alice Busch Opera Theater, 7300 State Highway 80, Cooperstown
HOW MUCH: $132-$26; $26-$10 for 18 and under
MORE INFO: 607-547-2255, www.glimmerglass.org
“This is early Wagner when he was young and passionate with wild tempestuous writing and it suits Glimmerglass well,” Zambello said. “But a theater that is smaller allows us to develop relationships. We’re doing deep probing psychological work with the singers to develop characterizations. Of course, there are challenges with how to do the phantom sailors.”
To turn the almost three-hour work into an intimate affair, Zambello, who is also directing the opera, turned to set designer James Noone, who had worked on last summer’s “The Music Man” and Richard Rodney Bennett’s “The Mines of Sulphur” in 2004.
“He loves opera and he understands abstraction in that he can’t create all the scenes,” she said. “He knows how to inspire through wood and minimal structure. I liked his aesthetic and how he told the story.”
Noone, who has never done Wagner before and whose work in the last several years has been in musical theater and plays, said doing the opera was literally like coming home. Not only does he own a house in the area, but upstate New York is his old stomping ground.
“I grew up in Glens Falls and the Lake George Opera [now Opera Saratoga] in the 1970s. I appeared in kids’ choruses, worked backstage and got to know the singers,” he said laughing.
Zambello’s suggestion to take the intimate view affected his approach.
“I wanted to create an easy availability in terms of a human space but with strange costumes and the sets not inhabited by real people,” Noone said. “This version is minimal with the audience’s imagination respected. So there will be pin rails and a lot of rope. The wood plank floor will have stress towers. I always like to allow the music and plot to be heard and will use the elements of the character ship and the theater. It’s all about storytelling.”
The opera will be sung in German with English supertitles. John Keenan will conduct.
Zambello said she loves the way the company does musical theater and this season it will be Lerner and Loewe’s “Camelot” (1960), which opens July 13. With a libretto that has King Arthur, Guinevere and Sir Lancelot pursuing their dreams, Zambello said the show connects to the pre-Raphaelite painters and to the concept of an individual striving against society to better oneself.
“It’s the 50th anniversary of John Kennedy’s death and the show was a favorite of his,” she said. “It also connects to what Robert Kennedy stood for: his love of nature and the power of the individual. ”
The show features famed baritone Nathan Gunn, termed by cast as “bari-hunk,” as Lancelot, Zambello said with a laugh.
The double bill, which opens July 20, will be David Lang’s Pulitzer Prize-winning one-act opera, “The Little Match Girl Passion,” and Pergolesi’s “Stabat Mater” (1736). “The Little Match Girl Passion” libretto is based on a Hans Christian Andersen story about a poor young girl who freezes to death on New Year’s Eve and is set within the style of Bach’s “St. Matthew’s Passion.” Zambello chose it because of the sense of the individual and because it gave the festival a chance to involve 24 local children who will perform as the children’s chorus. The Pergolesi, which explores a mother’s pain and catharsis after her son’s death, will use the original text with modern choreography. Acclaimed countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo will sing.
“The Little Match Girl Passion” will be sung in English with Zambello directing; the Pergolesi will be sung in Latin with English supertitles.
The final offering is Verdi’s “King for a Day” (1840), which opens July 21. Zambello made this choice because it is Verdi’s 200th birthday and his only comic opera. Rarely performed, the work bombed when it premiered, which almost caused the composer to give up writing. The opera is about what happens when a man serves as a decoy for the king for a day. The production will be sung in English. Joseph Colaneri, who will become the festival’s new music director in October, will conduct. Christian Roth will direct.
The Glimmerglass Festival is keen to link its offerings with local venues. This summer the Fenimore Art Museum has an exhibit of Romantic landscapes and, for the first time, Hyde Hall will have members of the Young Artist Program to sing and read poetry from American masters. Both venues are within the area of the opera house. There are also several special events, including Christine Goerke singing Wagner (Aug. 11); a concert with Nathan and Julie Gunn (Aug. 18); and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg sharing her knowledge of the law as it pertains to the opera (Aug. 9).