Having had a good experience with the Glimmerglass Opera Festival in Cooperstown, NY, last summer, I decided on a repeat. This time, my husband came along as well as my regular concert-going friend. We drove up from NYC to Cooperstown on Friday morning, arriving in plenty of time to attend the benefit recital by Nathan and Julie Gunn. That evening, we had a sumptuous repast at the American Hotel Restaurant in Sharon Springs. On Saturday, we went to see Hyde Hall, a historic house north of Cooperstown on Otsego Lake, and then enjoyed the luncheon buffet at the Otesaga Hotel in Cooperstown. Saturday night we attended the Glimmerglass Opera Festival to see the double bill of "Later the Same Evening" and "A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck," two contemporary American one-act operas. Sunday we drove back to New York City, encountering fierce rain part of the way back. While in Cooperstown, we stayed at the Hickory Cove Moter Inn, just a few hundred yards south of Glimmerglass on Route 80. So that's the bare bones of the weekend.
Nathan Gunn is a favorite singer of my concert companion and myself. A rich-voiced baritone, he is probably most celebrated among general audiences for his hilarious performances as Papageno in the Metropolitan Opera production of Mozart's "The Magic Flute." Among gay audiences, of course, he is most celebrated for his shirtless performances as Billy Budd in Britten's opera of the same name. And for those who like the "latest stuff," he was stellar playing the lead in Tobias Picker's "An American Tragedy," in which he created the role for the Metropolitan Opera premiere. His wife, Julie, is an accomplished pianist and his usual recital partner.They both teach at the University of Illinois.
On this occasion the Gunns donated their services as a benefit for Glimmerglass, where he had some of his earliest major roles, including as Oreste in the famous production of Gluck's "Iphigenia en Tauride" that subsequently proved a big hit at NY City Opera. They presented an afternoon recital of American songs, presenting a canny mix of art songs, show songs, and even some folk songs. Indeed, the biggest hit of the recital was a very artful, melancholy rendition of "Home on the Range." You can make high art out of anything if you do it exquisitely, and the Gunns made high art out of this. Many of the songs were introduced with commentary, mostly by Nathan but some by Julie, with some stories interspersed. It was a delightful recital, and nice to know that the proceeds were all donated to keep this important festival going.
I must add a brief word about the American Hotel in Sharon Springs, which is about 20 minutes away from Cooperstown, east on Route 20. This was a dilapidated old hotel that was taken over several years ago by a gay couple from the city who fell in love with the area while on a vacation trip. They renovated the place and decided to create a fantastic restaurant by bringing in a first class chef. It is a seasonal place and we were, of course, there at the height of the season. The menu was interesting and the meal superb. This place is worth going out of your way for if you happen to be anywhere in the area, but be sure to call ahead for a reservation, because it is very busy in season, and deservedly so.
Hyde Hall is also worth a visit. Located on state park land on the east side of Lake Otsego, across the lake from the site of the Glimmerglass Opera Festival, Hyde Hall is a grand country house constructed between 1817 and 1834 by George Clarke (1768-1835), a great-grandson of the first Lieutenant Governor of the colony of New York and scion of a family with large land-holdings in the area. The house began as a lake-side cottage that was gradually expanded as the Clarke family expanded, but fell into disuse after World War II (during which two Clarke children who would have been expected to carry on the family were killed). The buildings lay vacant and began decomposing, but when the state acquired the park land a decision had to be made whether to demolish the now dangerous buildings or to restore them. A local group including some Clarke descendants got together to oppose the demolition plan, and now a non-profit organization runs the property on a lease from the state and is restoring it a little bit at a time. They are at the point where several of the grand rooms are at least partially restored and enough of the house has been put into shape to be viewed on guided tours. The very devoted docents are well-versed on the Clarke family history (5 generations lived in the house, and several serve on the board of the operating corporation) and provide a lively tour. As old house tours go, this is a fascinating one, despite the decrepit condition of parts of the structure. The lakeside view from the porch of the part of the house that was the original cottage is spectacular. (The lunch buffet at the Otesaga Hotel is also spectacular, especially the desert table….)
To the main event: Glimmerglass Opera Festival. This summer the four productions are Carmen (Bizet), Medea (Cherubini), Annie Get Your Gun (Berlin), and the double bill mentioned above. We decided to go for the double bill, since we will go to see anything that Tony Kushner is involved with, and he wrote the libretto for "A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck."
But first came "Later the Same Evening," with music by John Musto and libretto by Mark Campbell. I found this really fascinating. They took five iconic paintings by American artist Edward Hopper, and imagined stories based on the paintings in which all the characters would come together at some point. One of the paintings depicts a couple seating themselves at the theater, so they imagined that all the characters depicted in the paintings would come together and share a performance at the theater, during which they would be affected in different ways. This one-acter lasted for about 75 minutes. The music was pleasant and appropriate, the plotting ingenious, and cast and performance quite engaging. Eleven singers were put through their paces smartly by conductor David Angus and director Leon Major. It was very much an ensemble piece, with all the roles being principals but none being "stars" as such. Most of the cast members are members of this summer's "Young Artist" program. I thought this piece might work even better as chamber opera, but the Glimmerglass Theater is small enough to provide the intimacy suitable to this production.
After a brief intermission we had "A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck," in which Kushner and composer Jeanine Tesori have taken an episode from the life of Eugene O'Neill, the great American playwright, and developed it into a half-hour operatic sequence of two scenes and an epilogue. The elderly, mentally impaired O'Neill and his younger wife, Carlotta, are having a difficult time of it in their remote house in Marblehead, Mass. Their quarreling leads O'Neill to flee the house into a raging snowstorm, during which he falls and injures himself, ending up in the hospital.
David Pittsinger as O'Neill was very impressive with his deep, expressive voice, and Patricia Schuman as Carlotta got to tear up the scenery a bit. But I thought the most impressive of all was Jeffrey Gwaltney, a participant in Glimmerglass's Young Artist program, who portrayed the police officer who finds O'Neill in the snow. Tessori, who conducted, wrote a much more symphonic-sounding score than Musto's, which had a more chamber-like quality with a fair amount of solo piano. I almost felt that this brief opera was too short and concentrated. When it was over, my reaction was "is that all"? I hope they consider extending it a bit to include more about the O'Neills' relationship. But what was done was very much worth hearing.
So the trip to Glimmerglass was again a success, and I'm looking forward to making another weekend expedition next summer, perhaps for more than one opera. They have already announced the line-up: the standard repertory work will be Verdi's "Aida," the classic Broadway musical will be "The Music Man," there will be a co-production of Kurt Weill's "Lost in the Stars" with a South African company, and the one piece that will most attract me to go up there will be the summer's unusual non-repertory opera, "Armide" by Jean-Baptiste Lully, a co-production with a Canadian company. The festival will run from July 7 through August 26. Check it out!!