Many organizations use the word “friends” in their names. The Princeton Friends of Opera not only includes the word, but the group also expands the idea of friendship. It goes without saying that PFO supports opera in central New Jersey, both with money and with good will. PFO’s enthusiasm and style set it apart. PFO’s decision-makers work by consensus, elegantly shunning the cruder technique of merely voting.
Invited to attend a recent steering committee meeting, I observe PFO leaders in action. Superbly prepared president Anne McMahan guides the responsive group through a bulging agenda in a mere 90 minutes. Wit and laughter punctuate the session. PFO leaders nod in agreement when McMahan observes, “Everybody who comes to one of our events is on an equal basis. But some people write bigger checks than others.” Basic PFO membership is $40 for an individual and $50 for a family.
PFO joins with a cluster of Princeton entities to bring a semi-staged performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Fidelio” (appropriately translated as “Faithful”) to Princeton audiences on Saturday, January 23, at 7:30 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium.
The other organizations sponsoring Beethoven’s sole opera are Princeton’s departments of music and German, as well as Princeton’s Lewis Center for the Arts, and the Princeton Council for the Humanities.
The performing ensemble is Grand Harmonie, a Boston-based period-instrument group focused on classical and romantic repertoire. The performance is the first one with original instruments in the United States. Princeton’s Scott Burnham presides at a post-performance talkback.
However, on Sunday, January 17, at 3 p.m., PFO hosts a preview of that January 23 performance in a Princeton home, with two Grand Harmonie vocalists and a quintet performing “Fidelio” excerpts. Burnham also will be on hand to discuss “Beethoven and Heroism in Symphony and Opera.” The preview, like the “Fidelio” performance, is open to the public.
The Princeton Friends of Opera learned about Grand Harmonie when the ensemble successfully applied for a PFO grant to help finance its already-scheduled “Fidelio” performance. Like many of PFO’s activities, the organization’s grant-awarding timetable is flexible, according to McMahan. Moneys for 2016-’17 are to be distributed in February and May; but there are no fixed deadlines for grant applications.
PFO grew out of a loosely organized group of volunteers associated with the now defunct Opera Festival of New Jersey. Formalized in 2002 as the Opera Festival of New Jersey Guild, the body raised money, produced fundraising events, helped with mailings, sewed costumes, and produced a newsletter. In 2003 the Opera Festival disbanded because of financial problems.
Buoyed by its success, and gratified to serve as volunteers, the guild decided to carry on, despite the Opera Festival’s failure. Renaming itself the Princeton Friends of Opera, the new organization would be unaffiliated, serve opera projects in central New Jersey, offer individual scholarships, and help expand opera audiences in the area.
Not only would it indulge its members’ pleasure in opera performances, but it would also create events where members could revel in their fellowship as opera lovers, hear presentations by insiders in the world of opera, and enjoy good food together. PFO’s present membership consists of 67 individual and family members. Among its body of supporters is Sam Greco, a retired West Windsor chemical engineer — with 14 patents — honored by the group in 2015.
PFO became a tax-exempt corporation in 2004, and its beneficiaries have included the opera component of the Princeton Festival, the coOPERAtive program at Westminster Choir College, Boheme Opera, and the Trenton Children’s Chorus, among others.
The organization has developed a pattern of meetings and four annual recurring events. Interviewed at a casual restaurant near Princeton, PFO president McMahan explains that the PFO year begins in September with a garden party in a member’s home.
Then a membership tea in late September or early October includes a performance and sometimes a lecture. Performers are the three or four PFO-sponsored scholars at Westminster Choir College’s CoOPERAtive summer program, McMahan says.
An insight-driven event, focused on a composer or performer, and reaching behind the scenes, annually takes place in January. The Grand Harmonie preview occupies that spot this season.
A marathon brunch fundraiser in May helps wind down the year. In addition to a musical program, it tends to include talks about visual arts and a silent auction. In 2016 that event honors Boheme Opera, now in its 27th season.
Titled “Princeton Strikes Gold: The Golden Age of Opera,” the activities are scheduled for Saturday, May 14, and feature performers from Boheme Opera Company, with Boheme’s co-founder and artistic director Joseph Pucciatti giving a presentation on little known facts about French and Italian Opera in opera’s golden age from the early 1800s to the death of Giacomo Puccini in 1924. Alexandra Venizelos, long-term PFO Steering Committee member, talks about the use of gold in art of the period.
And finally a steering committee meeting is held at the end of May, open to anybody who wants to get involved. “Everybody has a little piece of this puzzle,” says McMahon. “You have to find what people do well and offer opportunities for people to do what they do best. The ‘red, white, and blue’ of PFO is music, art, and food.”
Born in southern Virginia in 1947, McMahan grew up in a family where both music and volunteering were important. Her grandmother, who lived in the tidewater region Virginia and arranged for herself to take piano lessons at Baltimore’s prestigious Peabody Institute, now a part of Johns Hopkins University, is an inspiration. McMahan describes her mother as “an avid volunteer. “I got music from my grandmother and volunteerism from my mom,” she says. Her father ran a photography studio.
McMahan earned a bachelor’s degree in piano performance from Peabody (1972) and a master’s degree in the Great Books program of St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland (1978). Remaining in Maryland through the 1980s, she worked with two organizations. As a volunteer she organized communications and publicity for Res Musica, an organization devoted to new music performance, and was an international registrar for IDREART (Initiative for the Development of Intercultural Relations through the Arts), a nonprofit based in Geneva, Switzerland, on programs in Norway, Yugoslavia, Mexico, and China.
With her husband, Robert McMahan, who joined the faculty at the College of New Jersey, McMahan moved to Princeton in 1991 and started teaching at the Pennington School. At Pennington, McMahan started the Middle School Chorus, taught piano, and brought African drumming to the school, after assimilating it in several summer programs. “African drumming was an oral tradition,” McMahan remembers. “It was difficult for a paper-trained musician. It was tough.” Since retiring from Pennington in 2009, McMahan has helped navigate the course of Princeton Friends of Opera.
McMahan’s involvement with PFO grew out of the establishment of the Pennington School’s Middle School Activities Program. Founding the program required McMahan to work closely with Pamela Bristol, mother of two Pennington students, and a parent-liaison representative. Bristol, active in the creation of PFO, invited McMahan to become a member of the organizing group, and the rest is history.
About the upcoming opera performance, Grand Harmonie development officer and hornist Yoni Kahn says in an e-mail: “We will be playing a period arrangement of selections from ‘Fidelio’ for wind ensemble and string bass. In the 18th and 19th century, such arrangements were a common way of getting music out of the opera house and into private homes. For the full opera performance on January 23, we will be using Beethoven’s original instrumentation, with a full orchestra including strings, winds, brass, and timpani.”
Grand Harmonie depends on original or replica instruments close to those Beethoven knew. “The horns and trumpets will be valveless (natural) instruments, the woodwinds will have fewer keys, the timpani will have calfskin heads, and the string instruments will have gut strings,” Kahn says. The string players use period bows.
Incorporating period wind instruments is difficult, Kahn says. “The standards of pitch varied wildly across Europe in the early 19th century. An Austrian woodwind would likely play at a pitch entirely different from an English instrument. We will follow standard practice in the United States and perform at A = 430, slightly lower than the A = 440 standard of today.”
During the week before the January 23 performance, Grand Harmonie members will give master classes for Princeton students. In addition, students and faculty are invited to attend open rehearsals.
Grand Harmonie has multiple Princeton connections. Kahn is a postdoctoral research associate in the physics department. Grand Harmonie’s conductor, Geoffrey Andrew McDonald, a Princeton 2007 alumnus, was the first winner of the Cone Prize for undergraduate music majors. In November Scott Burnham invited three Grand Harmonie members to talk about Beethoven’s wind instruments for his Beethoven survey course.
Kahn explains the apparent mismatch of grammar in the name Grand Harmonie, where French usage would seem to demand that the ensemble call itself “Grande Harmonie,” using a feminine adjective to agree with the feminine noun. “We take our name from the word ‘Harmonie,’ which meant ‘wind band’ in late 18th and early 19th century Germany,” Kahn says. “We’re unique among period-instrument groups in the United States in that we place special emphasis on the wind section in our programming. Since most of our repertoire is actually German and Austrian, rather than French, we went with the English ‘Grand’ rather than the French ‘Grande.’”
Princeton Friends of Opera Preview, Grand Harmonie. Sunday, January 17, 3 p.m. $60 members; $75 nonmembers. Call 609-610-6896 for location. www.princetonfriendsofopera.org.
Fidelio, Grand Harmonie, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Saturday, January 23, 7:30 p.m. $45 general; $35 senior. 609-258-9220 or www.grandharmonie.org.
Princeton Friends of Opera brunch fundraiser honoring Boheme Opera Company. Saturday, May 14, 11:30 a.m. $80 members. $105 nonmembers. Call 609-610-6896 for location.
PFO Membership: Individual $40; Family $50. Memberships are for one calendar year beginning January 1.