Aspen opera center director dives into patriotic theme | AspenTimes.com

Aspen opera center director dives into patriotic theme

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

Alex IrvinThe Aspen Opera Theater Center's production of Mozart's "The Magic Flute," set in the 1960s, plays Saturday and Monday at the Wheeler Opera House.

ASPEN – When the Aspen Music Festival announced the theme for its current summer season, “Made in America,” Ed Berkeley might have had reason to fear. Berkeley is the director of the Music Festival’s Aspen Opera Theater Center, and when putting together an opera season, the mind tends to think first of Italy and Germany, not the U.S.

But on the morning after the Aspen Opera Theater Center’s season had opened, Berkeley seemed as enthusiastic as he had for any of his previous 31 summers in Aspen. On the subject of whether an American theme diminished the opera component, he was quick to say that opera has translated easily into the English language and an American art form.

“English sings differently. But English can sing, very successfully,” Berkeley said in front of an Aspen cafe Friday morning. Berkeley brought up something that Julius Rudel, who had conducted many operas in Aspen, said regarding Gian Carlo Menotti, the Italian-born composer who spent most of his life in the States. Menotti wrote his operas, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Consul,” in English.

“Rudel told me what he liked about Menotti was – he convinced you that English was the best language to sing in – because of the way he set it,” Berkeley added.

The opera season doesn’t include Menotti. But Berkeley has taken a nearly full dive into the “Made in America” theme, with productions of “The Great Gatsby,” John Harbison’s setting of the closest anyone has come to the great american novel; “Sweeney Todd,” Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway play that has been adopted by the opera world; and “The Magic Flute” – yes, Mozart, but given a setting of New York in the 1960s by James Alexander, who directs the current production. (“The Magic Flute,” conducted by Richard Bado, opened Thursday and continues with performances Saturday and Monday.)

“The Magic Flute,” the fairy tale-like work that has been a centerpiece of opera repertoire since its 1791 premiere, is, Berkeley said, the most conventional production in the current opera season. But the setting is far from conventional. The Wheeler Opera House stage becomes a New York City theater, with the principal characters transformed into Manhattan society figures who have problems with their children.

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“It lets a kind of jauntiness and eccentricity to the opera come in,” Berkeley said. “The ’60s released a real playfulness to the ‘Flute’ – that’s the side that’s most strong.”

Berkeley was impressed by the quality of the musicianship, especially of two lead singers: Soyoung Park as the Queen of the Night (“Someone said, She has such control of the aria, she can take it anywhere”) and Ying Fang as the abducted daughter Pamina (“Where the Queen’s aria is full of anger, hers is the opposite end of the spectrum, full of despair. Ying’s elegance in singing it is truly touching”).

“Sweeney Todd,” which is part of a gala benefit on July 26 and which also plays July 28 and 30, began as a Broadway musical in 1979. But it was quickly noted for the ambitiousness of Sondheim’s score – almost as much as for its violent story of a murderous London barber seeking his revenge on the world. Berkeley noted that the musical has made the leap into opera houses and that he and Aspen Music Festival director Robert Spano, who will conduct “Sweeney Todd,” were eager to be part of the trend.

“Bob and I feel strongly what a remarkable score it is,” Berkeley said. “It’s one of the pieces that people looked at and saw Sondheim was taking this step – not toward being classically based, because he was always classically based – but a step toward opera. People commented immediately how powerful the score was. It was compared to Kurt Weill at his strongest.

“The role of Sweeney is a big sing. People who sing Wotan” – from Wagner’s “Ring” cycle – “sing it. There are roles in ‘Sweeney Todd’ that need that kind of voice. It has that opera scale to it.”

Berkeley said that, by definition, the story is set in 19th-century London, amid the Industrial Revolution. But Berkeley, who directs the production, placed the action in an insane asylum and sharpened the dialogue that addresses the divide between socioeconomic classes.

“There are a bunch of lines where you have the privileged and the impoverished, which is a strong theme,” he said. “There’s a madness that pervades the whole piece, and we need to control that side of behavior; society needs to. It’s a violent story, a morality play about the nature of violence. If you lead a life of violence, you will eventually be consumed by it. But what causes that behavior should be questioned just as much as the madness.”

For “The Great Gatsby” (conducted by Anne Manson, Aug. 16 and 18), Berkeley is trying something new for Aspen, with the introduction of projected video and still images. But the setting of the 1920s Jazz Age remains intact, down to Harbison’s jazzy tones, heard over the radio and for the dance parties, which feature a nine-piece band onstage. And Berkeley is interested in the themes of American wealth and dreams that long have been associated with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel.

“I love the images of always reaching forward, a dream that was ever receding but we keep reaching for regardless. You somehow want to get to that thing that’s not there,” he said. Berkeley focused on Jay Gatsby, who transformed himself into a society millionaire.

“He may be a criminal, he may be a monster,” Berkeley noted. “But he still has these fantasies, a fantasy existence and a romantic life. They may be impossible, but it’s admirable that he has it.”

stewart@aspentimes.com