The ghost of the financially-distressed, much-loved Opera Festival of New Jersey (OFNJ), which dissolved itself in the autumn of 2003 after 20 seasons, hovers over two offspring, both of which present performances this summer. New Jersey Opera Theater, the older entity, formed in 2002, offers 27 summer events open to the public. The Princeton Festival, established less than a year ago, puts on five performances for its initial season this summer. There is room for rivalry and conflict here. In some ways this looks like a family feud.
The OFNJ heritage of both organizations is unquestionable. The leadership at both New Jersey Opera Theater (NJOT) and the Princeton Festival (PF) participated in OFNJ productions. The boards of both include former OFNJ board members. Both organizations have been struck by the dangers of OFNJ's fiscal laxness and are singularly attentive to monitoring the bottom line.
Which is the true successor to OFNJ, one might ask, Opera Theater or Princeton Festival. The answer is "neither" or "both." The two organizations lay no claim to the mantle of OFNJ, preferring to stress their somewhat dissimilar missions.
Heading NJOT are artistic director Scott Altman and executive director Lisa Altman, his wife. The couple lives in West Windsor. Scott earned a bachelor of fine arts in vocal performance from the State University of New York at Purchase and a masters degree of musical arts in vocal performance from New York's Manhattan School of Music. He has been on the roster at the New York City Opera. Between 1999 and 2003 he sang seven different bass roles at OFNJ.
Lisa Altman, a lyric soprano, was artistic administrator at OFNJ from 2000 to 2003. She earned a bachelor's degree in vocal performance from Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois, and a master's degree in opera performance from the University of Washington in Seattle.
Leading PF are artistic director Richard Tang-Yuk, and general manager Michael Widmer. Tang-Yuk was educated at the Royal Schools of Music in the United Kingdom and at Indiana University. Director of choral music and associate director of Princeton's program in musical performance, he was OFNJ's chorus master from 1995 to 2003 and also served as OFNJ's associate conductor. In 2002 and 2003 he was assistant to the artistic director.
Widmer is executive vice president in charge of operations at Staten Island-based Northfield Savings Bank. He lives in East Brunswick. A tenor, he studied singing privately as an adult. He was a member of the OFNJ chorus.
NJOT is a year-round program tightly focused on training young artists on the brink of operatic careers. NJOT's non-residential Singer Circle operates from September to May; NJOT's summer vocal institute is in residence in Princeton for five weeks in July and August. Participants in both programs are selected on the basis of auditions and have opportunities to perform. The company, which came into existence before the demise of OFNJ, has an extensive educational outreach program.
The fledgling Princeton Festival aims to bring professional opera to the region and to supplement it with non-operatic performances. General manager Widmer chalks up the "festival" aspect of the name to PF's desire to extend beyond opera. He accounts for the "Princeton" component by declaring, "Princeton is a good area to present this type of festival. Possibly we will perform in multiple venues in and around the Princeton area."
Going into its second summer season of opera performance, NJOT seems to have found its identity. On the edge of its first season, PF has yet to establish what it is going to be.
With a cohesive core, NJOT this summer devotes eight performances to three fully-staged operas based on plays by Pierre Beaumarchais: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro," Giacomo Rossini's "Barber of Seville," and Massenet's "Cherubin." The works will be sung in the original languages, with English supertitles projected above the stage. Vocal performers come from the pool of 48 singers in NJOT's residential Summer Vocal Institute. Professional conductors, instrumentalists, directors, and stage crew support the emerging artists.
Valiantly presenting fully-staged operas on a shoestring last summer, NJOT played to sell-out audiences and scheduled an additional performance of Mozart's "Don Giovanni," which also sold out. The company has registered a distinct growth spurt for 2005. The number of opera performances scheduled has jumped from six to eight. The venue has shifted from the tiny 200-seat Murray Theater on the Princeton campus to the 600-seat Berlind Theater at McCarter. Performances take place between August 8 and August 21. Ticket prices range from $35 to $45. The single Yamaha grand piano that supported the 2004 performances has been replaced by a full orchestra. The size of the Summer Vocal Institute has increased from 42 to 48.
In addition to the three complete operas based on Beaumarchais, NJOT offers a cornucopia of other performances in 2005. Two evenings entitled "Beaumarchais Plus" feature staged scenes from operas by Govanni Paisiello, Darius Milhaud, and John Corigliano, which are based on Beaumarchais' plays. Also, as a prelude to the season, on Friday and Saturday, August 5 and 6, at 8 p.m. two evenings of American musical theater, entitled "Musical Theater Under the Stars," are slated for . These concerts are free.
Scott Altman says in a telephone interview: "It's our gift to the region. We want to create wonderful relations with the township, and thank them for loving what we do. We want to show that opera singers can sing musical theater. We hope that if audiences like what they do with Cole Porter or Rodgers and Hammerstein, they will come to opera." The remainder of the NJOT summer season consists of 15 master classes open to the public.
The Lawrenceville-based Princeton Festival enters the summer opera scene with four performances of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd," the tale of a murderous barber, Sunday, July 3, through Saturday, July 16, and sponsors a concert by the Concordia Chamber Players devoted to the music of Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, and Aaron Copland on Friday, July 8. Opera admissions run from $25 to $75. Tickets to the chamber music concert are $30.
Concordia is the excellent New Hope-based chamber music conglomerate organized by cellist Michelle Djokic. (U.S. 1, April 18, 2001). Tang-Yuk says: "Chamber music is not difficult to mount. It helps us to be a festival right out of the gate." Performances take place in the 850-seat Kirby Arts Center on the campus of the Lawrenceville School, the original home of the defunct Opera Festival of New Jersey.
Tang-Yuk was responsible for steering the organization towards "Sweeney Todd" as the single musical production of its first season, although he says that PF will focus on traditional opera in the future. Tang-Yuk's enthusiasm for the musical is ardent. "I think it's a great piece of theater," he says in a telephone interview. "Sondheim's lyrics are clever and at times profound. It appeals on many levels, like the music of Mozart and Bach. It has melody, plot, and drama. There are often lyrics with double meanings, and there are metaphors for social issues." He cites a favorite moment: Sweeney Todd's remarking, "The history of the world, my dear, is who gets and who gets to eat," which Tang-Yuk calls "a statement about the political hierarchy in the social order embedded in a very funny waltz duet."
The origins of the two organizations underline their dissimilar natures. "We began before the demise of Opera Festival," Lisa Altman points out. "We intended to complement OFNJ, and never intended producing in summer. We moved into the summer slot because once OFNJ announced its dissolution we couldn't imagine a summer without opera in central New Jersey." Indeed, after NJOT collapsed, New Jersey was the only major state in the U. S. without a regional opera company.
Michael Widmer remembers the informal origin. "I sang tenor in the OFNJ chorus and struck up a friendship with [chorusmaster] Rich [Tang-Yuk]. When OFNJ terminated, Richard approached me. I would credit him with the idea. We spoke casually at first about bringing back something similar. We discussed OFNJ and looked at the areas that could be improved. We thought that the market focus might be a little narrow if we dealt strictly with opera. We thought that a wider appeal would attract a broader audience."
Widmer continues: "We discussed ways to make it more fiscally responsible. I come from a strong fiscal and business background. I'm interested in establishing a very detailed budget. I want it broken down to how many violins are needed and how large a chorus. I want to know how big a production staff and how many interns."
Both PF and NJOT benefit from contributions in kind. PF was able to obtain the use of Lawrenceville's Kirby Theater at cost. "It was not just a fiscal decision," Widmer says. "We believed that there was a large audience who enjoyed the atmosphere on the Lawrenceville campus with the tents and picnicking." (The landscape designer for Lawrenceville's leafy grounds was Frederic Olmsted, who designed New York's Central Park.)
NJOT has flourished through the generosity of leading practitioners of opera, who have given master classes without charge. Jane Bunnell, Ben Heppner, Jerry Hadley, James Morris, and Sharon Sweet have all donated their time. Deborah Voigt was on the schedule. When Scott Altman tells me that he talked them into it, I compliment him on his persuasiveness, but he turns my admiration aside. "No persuasion was necessary," he says. "People have heard about our mission to prepare artists, give them a chance to perform, and bring operatic performances to New Jersey at the highest level. They believe in our mission."
Both companies are undergirded by the standard mix of contributions and grants from individuals, board members, corporations, and foundations. Still, despite such help, opera is expensive. PF's Widmer says that mounting the first season is costing $340,000. "The majority of the budget is for 'Sweeney Todd.' There are insignificant costs for forming the corporation. Concordia [Chamber Players] has a separate budget. We have partnered with them for this season and will share the venue. But they are budgetarily independent." PF has applied for grants from corporate foundations for next season. "They want to see us get through our first season first," he says.
Both NJOT and PF boards include former board members of OFNJ to the tune of four apiece. The cohort of former OFNJ board members on the nine-member NJOT board includes its president, Robert Teweles, as well as Janet Kuenne, Diane Parks, and Herbert Mayo. At PF, former OFNJ board member Helene Kulsrud is president of a 15-member board. PF board members David Brown, Marion O'Connor, and Markell Shriver are former OFNJ board members. John A. Ellis, founding chairman of OFNJ, is a member of PF's advisory council.
NJOT's budget for fiscal 2005, which corresponds to the calendar year, is almost $600,000. They started the year with a surplus of roughly $60,000, the Altmans say. The budgets of OFNJ provide a relevant benchmark. OFNJ's operating budget for its opening two-opera season in 1984 was $200,000. Annual budgets grew to $2 million before the company dissolved.
If both of OFNJ's successors apply the fiscal rigor that they know is necessary, they are likely to survive for a long time in culture-craving central New Jersey. In any case, music lovers can luxuriate fully in the offerings of both organizations this summer. Whether planned or not, there are no insurmountable conflicts between the schedules of New Jersey Opera Theater and Princeton Festival in 2005. The availability of that much arts programming is the envy of most places in North America.
New Jersey Opera Theater and Princeton Festival listings below:
New Jersey Opera Theater
Pettoranello Gardens, Princeton, 609-258-2787, www.njot.org.
Musical Theater Under the Stars. Concert. Friday and Saturday, August 5 and 6.
Berlind Theater at McCarter Theater, Princeton. 609-258-2787.
Le Nozze di Figaro. Opening night of the company's first production at McCarter. Fully-staged opera with orchestra. Friday, August 12, Tuesday, August 16, and Saturday, August 20.
Il Barbieri di Siviglia. Fully-staged opera with orchestra. Sunday, August 14, Wednesday, August 17, and Friday, August 19.
Cherubino. Fully-staged opera with orchestra. Thursday, August 18, and Sunday, August 21.
Kirby Arts Center, Route 206, Lawrenceville, 800-595-4849, www.princetonfestival.org.
Concordia Chamber Players. Concert features music of Schumann, Brahms, and Janacek. $30. Friday, July 8.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The Steven Sondheim musical thriller is the premiere performance for the new company. Sondheim mixes intense drama with dark humor. Featured actors include Harry Dworchak, bass-baritone, and Kathryn Cowdrick, mezzo-soprano. Pre-performance picnic dinners and opening night champagne reception available. $25 to $75. Sunday, July 3, Saturday, July 9, and Friday and Saturday, July 15 and 16.
Noyes History Center, Lawrenceville School, Route 206, Lawrenceville, 800-595-4849, www.princetonfestival.org.
From Temple Bar to Newgate Jail: The True Tale of Sweeney Todd. Crime historian Mark Gribben presents a lecture on the historic Sweeney Todd. Free. Saturday, July 9.