PITTSFIELD, Mass. — A new experimental concert series starting at the Whitney Center this week hopes to help fill a local cultural niche that has gone unfilled for several years, aiming to gradually bring opera back to the Berkshires.
"Opera Notte @ the Whit," a new ongoing series of recital concerts featuring famed arias sung by local performers, will debut on
Thursday Friday, Feb. 21 (postponed because of weather), as part of the 10-day 10x10 Upstreet Arts Festival beginning its third year this week. The Whitney Center hopes that by offering a more relaxed, affordable model of opera performance may prove more viable in the region than some past efforts.
"This is going to be an ongoing event," Whitney Executive Director Ghazi Kazmi told iBerkshires. "The 10x10 was a perfect way to launch it, but it's going to be happening on an almost-monthly basis."
Ten arias from La Boheme, Pagliacci, Lakme, Carmen and other well-known operas, will be performed in amidst a Cafe-style seating with food and libations available, by singers Amber Naramore, John Demler, Joe Sicotte, Kara Demler, and Monica Bliss, under the Musical Direction of Ron Ramsay.
Kazmi, who helped launch the new arts center less than a year ago, said the desire to offer some kind of opera programming was on his agenda from the start, but it took a number of months for the right ingredients to come together.
"I knew there was talent here in Berkshire County," said Kazmi, "And I knew that there was a void left after Berkshire Opera."
For nearly 25 years, the Berkshires boasted the renowned Berkshire Opera Company, which offered full scale opera productions as well as other programming each summer season. Founded in 1985 by Rex Hearn, the company brought world class opera stars to a variety of local stages, and was notable for launching the first professional offering of Mozart's "L'oca del Cairo" with English lyrics, the first recorded performance of Menotti's "The Consul," and the world premiere of the operatic telling of Edith Wharton's "Summer," in conjunction with The Mount and the Berkshire Symphony Orchestra.
Following a variety of wrong turns and financial mishaps, BOC ceased activity following its 2008 season, part of a wave of closings of regional opera houses and festivals around the country in the wake of the national economy's crash. It officially declared bankruptcy in 2010 amidst significant debt and unpaid artist fees, effectively black listing the company in the wider world of opera.
Increased operatic programming at Tanglewood under Met maestro James Levine, which some classical music analysts have suggested may have helped fuel the decline of BOC, receded with Levine's gradual withdrawal from the BSO, leaving the Berkshires cultural scene without any tangible offerings of this art form.
In 2010, the Northampton-based Commonwealth Opera company discussed possible plans for expanding their programming to Berkshire County. Under the leadership of then Executive Director Joseph Summer, the company had recently begun the transition from local theatre opera to a professional level company, but increased costs and waning ticket sales lead to divisions and eventually forced the company into relative dormancy later that year.
Kazmi said through connecting with talented local singers, along with Ron Ramsay, musical director for St. Ann's Church in Lenox, the possibility for creating a viable operatic concert series at the Whitney began to take shape.
"After that, within a month it all came together," said Kazmi. "I have complete faith in all of the musical professionals involved."
Kazmi said that nationally famed soprano Maureen O'Flynn, who resides in the county and formerly occupied the role of Artist Ambassador for BOC, has also voiced support for this program, stoking hopes that perhaps local stages might once again be graced with O'Flynn's magnificent voice as the concert series grows in the future.
"I'm thrilled to see opera back in Pittsfield after Berkshire Opera left," said Megan Whilden, director of cultural development for the city. "The thing about 10x10 is that it lets us enjoy the talent that is already here in the Berkshires, both for the community and for visitors."
Veteran local theater and arts writer Larry Murray also weighed in on the future prognosis for opera, both locally and in the broader economy.
"In the UK, opera in pubs has become very popular and seems to be where a small group of singers and a piano can entrance patrons in a relaxed, party setting," Murray said, though noting that some of the full musical grandeur of the form can be lost in the process. "Opera with just a piano is thin to the ear, and if you have ever been to a recital by a tenor or soprano, you know what I mean. No matter how magnificent the voice or brilliant the aria, Verdi, Puccini and every composer who ever wrote an opera also arranged its huge orchestration which adds the thousand musical colors that make the sounds reverberate in the heart as well as the ear."
"It seems to me that opera will survive, but grand opera, with large orchestras and lavish productions will become even more of a rarity unless someone in the 1 percent decides to underwrite the expense," Murray told iBerkshires.
Kazmi indicated there will be room for growing the fledgling effort at the Whitney in the future, bringing in more elements of staged opera little by little, but making it successful will be a matter of connecting with the potential audience he believes is out there.
"I know there is a market for this [locally]," according to Kazmi, who said this base may come from a combination of existing opera buffs as well as new audiences exposed to the form. "We just need to reach that market somehow."
The first concert of the new series will see performances at the beginning and end of the 10x10 festival, on Thursday, Feb. 13, and Feb. 21, both at 7:30 p.m., for a ticket price of $20. Champagne, wine and beer will be available for purchase, along with appetizers and desserts by Dottie's Coffee Lounge. Tickets can be purchased here or can be reserved via phone 413-443-0289 or email to firstname.lastname@example.org