Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote his opera “Eugene Onegin” for young voices and advocated premiering it in 1879 with a cast of students at a Russian conservatory. That motivated Edward Berkeley, director of the Aspen Opera Theater Center, to produce the classic story of young love, romance and regret at the Wheeler Opera House this summer with his own students.
And while Tchaikovsky’s symphonies, concertos and other compositions have frequently been featured through the decades in Aspen Music Festival and School programs, the festival has never before staged any of his operas.
Berkeley chooses the season’s operas in collaboration with festival Music Director Robert Spano, CEO Alan Fletcher and artistic administrator Asadour Santourian. “Onegin” was a natural choice, given the summer season’s “New Romantics” theme and because Tchaikovsky wrote it for a youth-driven premiere at the Moscow Conservatory.
“Tchaikovsky wanted it to premiere in a conservatory, so I was drawn to the idea of doing it here with younger voices, as he intended,” Berkeley said.
Berkeley, a three-decade veteran of the Aspen Music Festival and School’s summer opera program, also runs the undergraduate opera program at the peerless Juilliard School in New York and teaches Shakespeare at Circle in the Square Theater School in New York.
Berkeley spends chunks of the winter traveling across America and listening to hundreds of young opera singers for the casts of his Aspen productions. Last winter, the Aspen Music Festival and School held auditions in Houston, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Toronto and New York City. The result is an “Onegin” cast plucked from around the country.
The cast for “Onegin,” based on the novel in verse by Alexander Pushkin, is led by Craig Verm in the title role. Verm studied with the Aspen Opera Theater Center several years ago and is now a working professional singer with credits including performances with the Chicago Lyric Opera and with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
“For the rest of the cast, it was a good thing for them to see the way he works and the seriousness with which he works,” said Berkeley, who also directs the “Onegin” production.
Yelena Dyachek, a student in the masters program at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music, plays Tatyana, the principal female role.
“She has a very big voice and moves into the role of Tatyana very gracefully,” Berkeley said.
After a little more than two weeks of rehearsals in the Black Box Theatre at Aspen High School and two dress rehearsals, the opera opened Thursday at the Wheeler Opera House. It’s a fast-track staging that also included preparing an orchestra, sets, costumes and a 28-member chorus. But getting young singers on stage in front of an audience is a primary focus of the opera program.
“Where you learn most as a performer is in performance,” Berkeley said. “It’s one of the dangerous places, but it’s one of the places a singer can really learn what it means to be up front, trying to act it, to sing it, to be in good musical form — and at the same time to stay alive. It’s one of the great ways of learning.”
While there is no doubt competition among music school students, Berkeley said the Aspen environment and the friendly acoustics of the Wheeler Opera House create an ideal setting for young singers to hone their skills.
The opera season at the Wheeler continues with Lowell Liebermann’s 1996 “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” with performances July 24 and 26. Directed by Gregory Fortner, the opera is an adaptation of the Oscar Wilde novel of the same name.
The summer’s opera offerings close with a contemporary staging of Bizet’s classic “Carmen,” scheduled for Aug. 10, 14 and 16 and also directed by Berkeley.
Sandwiching a newer opera between the classics by Tchaikovsky and Bizet is an indication of the opera program’s commitment to new works in the form. In Opera Scenes classes — open to the public on Saturday mornings — Berkeley and others teach scenes from new works by student composers. Less time-tested works, like “Dorian Gray,” are often edged out by the classics for time on stage in the U.S. and around the world. Performing work by students and staging such contemporary operas is key to keeping the form alive, Berkeley said.
“We’re doing ‘Onegin’ and ‘Carmen,’ two big-name operas that have no problem getting performances,” Berkeley said. “But ‘Dorian,’ I think, is something worth hearing and seeing.”