Summer Festivals: Opera Everywhere, Early Handel to World Premiere

By Heidi Waleson

Summer opera festivals promise something for every taste, for everyone, all over, from Handel’s first opera to the very latest hot-off-the-presses new works, some of which may well be tomorrow’s classics – and nicely enough timed to permit hopscotching around to hear them all!


"Champion," a new opera by Terence Blanchard and Michael Cristofer stars Arthur Woodley at Opera Theatre Saint Louis summer 2013
Arthur Woodley will premiere title role in “Champion”

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis: May 23 – June 29

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis offers a winning combination: Its four operas are performed in English in an intimate theater with a thrust stage, and it often gives exciting young talents their first exposure in big roles. Sometimes the debutants are older – designer Isaac Mizrahi had his first directing assignment there several years ago, with a hit production of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. OTSL performs on the campus of Webster University, an easy trip from downtown St. Louis. Audience members come early to picnic on the grassy campus and stay after the show to mingle with singers and musicians.

OTSL has a history of commissioning new operas, and this summer marks the world premiere of Champion (June 15), the first opera by jazz and film composer Terence Blanchard. It is based on the true story of the young boxer Emile Griffith, and the fatal 1962 fight that changed many lives. Arthur Woodley stars and Denyce Graves makes her company debut.


Cutler Majestic Theater in Boston
Cutler Majestic Theater in Boston

Boston Early Music Festival: June 9-16

The biennial Boston Early Music Festival is a feast of historical performance, bringing together an international array of artists for a packed week of events in downtown Boston. This year’s opera centerpiece is a real rarity: Handel’s first opera, Almira, a rollicking cavalcade of intrigue and romance at the court of Castile, produced in baroque theatrical style at the Cutler Majestic Theater. Musical direction is by Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs. The great BEMF Orchestra, with concertmaster Robert Mealy, is in the pit. There are four performances in Boston and three more in Great Barrington at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center (June 21-23). (Note: In addition to the main festival, there are numerous fringe events starting June 9; for details, click here.)


Crosby Theatre, Santa Fe Opera
Crosby Theatre, Santa Fe Opera

Santa Fe Opera: June 28 – August 24

The Santa Fe Opera is the grandest of the American summer opera festivals, with its dramatic hilltop setting and its beautiful open-air theater that makes the New Mexico landscape (and weather) part of the show. Founded by John Crosby in 1957, the Santa Fe Opera was a pioneer in the training and of presenting of young American artists, and in producing new and unusual repertoire. Rich in wonderful art, history and cuisine, Santa Fe is also an inviting vacation destination.

Standouts in this summer’s five-opera season are the world premiere of Oscar, a first opera by Theodore Morrison, written for the countertenor David Daniels and based on the life of Oscar Wilde (opens July 27). Also not to be missed are mezzo Susan Graham showing off her exquisite comic timing as she headlines Offenbach’s The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein (June 28) and bel canto stars Joyce DiDonato and Lawrence Brownlee facing off in Rossini’s La Donna del Lago (July 23).

Glimmerglass Festival: July 6 – August 24

Set in a bucolic corner of upstate New York, eight miles north of Cooperstown (home of the Baseball Hall of Fame) along the beautiful Lake Otsego, the Glimmerglass Festival has long been a trailblazer in repertoire and production style. Its 900-seat theater offers an unusually intimate opera experience. Francesca Zambello, now in her third season as artistic and general director of the company, has been working to integrate the Festival’s offerings with the area’s other cultural institutions, such as the Fenimore Art Museum. Some of her other programming innovations include a classic American musical, performed with full orchestra, no amplification, and a cast combining opera and music theater singers (this year’s is Camelot), contemporary works, and a busy program of ancillary concerts and talks by resident artists and distinguished visitors.

Tenor Jay Hunter Morris (Ron Rinaldi)This summer’s theme is Great Romantics, and the company is presenting its first-ever staging of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman. It will be directed by Zambello, who cites not only American Romantic painters like Thomas Cole and Frederic Church (whose works will be featured in a related exhibition at the Fenimore) but also the Twilight books as her inspiration. It stars Jay Hunter Morris, the Met’s current Siegfried. Another intriguing show among the season’s four is Passions, a double bill of David Lang‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning the little match girl passion and Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, the latter featuring countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo.


Seattle Opera Ring: August 4-25

It’s a Wagner celebration year, and for a Ring experience, one could do no better than Stephen Wadsworth‘s landmark production of the cycle at the Seattle Opera.

Seattle Opera Ring (Rozarii Lynch)
Seattle Opera Ring (Rozarii Lynch)

Unveiled in 2001, and revived twice before, in 2005 and 2009, Wadsworth’s Ring is a richly imagined epic. With sets by Thomas Lynch, costumes by Martin Pakledinaz, and lighting by Peter Kaczorowski, it draws on the landscape of the Pacific Northwest for its visual inspiration. Wadsworth’s detailed, character-focused direction makes this an organic and deeply satisfying traversal of the Ring. There are three cycles. Greer Grimsley headlines as Wotan/The Wanderer, Alwyn Mellor and Stefan Vinke make company debuts as Brünnhilde and Siegfried, and Asher Fisch conducts.

Tanglewood Festival US Premiere: August 12

Some of the Tanglewood Festival‘s most intriguing events are the opera productions of the Tanglewood Music Center. The performances, with student players and singers, are often related to the Festival’s contemporary music week. This year, TMC will give the US premiere of George Benjamin‘s Written on Skin, an opera about an unusual love triangle that has drawn rapturous reviews since its premiere at the Aix-en-Provence Festival last summer. It has already traveled to Amsterdam and London. The TMC’s performance will be a concert version, but it is worth the trip just to hear this haunting and original score, which will be conducted by the composer.

Heidi Waleson is the opera critic for the Wall Street Journal and writes about the performing arts for a variety of US and international publications.