Opera New Jersey’s two productions this summer are an unmatched pair: the tortured “Il Trovatore” of Giuseppe Verdi and the playful “H.M.S. Pinafore” of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. No opera company needs to account for staging “Trovatore.” But putting on the less grand “Pinafore” invites explanation. Richard Russell, ONJ’s general manager, tracked down between rehearsals, explains.
“‘Pinafore’ is there because I wanted to counterbalance ‘Trovatore,’” Russell says. This is not an unusual line of reasoning among opera management. The same thinking was obviously in effect when Princeton Festival mounted a double bill of Rachmaninoff’s grim one-act “Francesca da Rimini” along with Puccini’s naughty “Gianni Schicchi” in June.
In June, the schedule at ONJ, which devotes itself to opera, in depth, was given over to master classes. The ONJ 2012 summer season began on July 8. Yet to come are performances of both “Pinafore” and “Trovatore,” as well as a performance by participants in ONJ’s Emerging Artists program. The Emerging Artists appear in semi-staged opera scenes in McCarter’s Berlind Theater on Sunday, July 15, and Friday, July 20.
In addition, ONJ partners with Brooklyn-based American Opera Projects to present a reading of a new opera, “Blessed Art Thou Among Women,” which presents three settings of material having to do with the Virgin Mary. Performances take place in Berlind on Saturday and Sunday, July 21 and 22.
“Pinafore” plays Wednesday, July 18, in Morristown’s Mayo Performing Arts Center; Sunday, July 15, Thursday, July 19, and Saturday, July 21, at McCarter; and on Friday, July 27, in Asbury Park’s Paramount Theater. “Trovatore” plays Saturday, July 14, and Sunday, July 22, at McCarter and on Sunday, July 29, in Asbury Park’s Paramount Theater.
Commenting on the presence of Gilbert and Sullivan in an opera series, Russell adds, “There is a lot of interest in Gilbert and Sullivan. People of all ages know their works. Some of them even sang in ‘G and S’ shows when they were in third grade.”
Conscious of links between “Trovatore” and “Pinafore,” Russell says. “There are a lot of ways in which ‘Pinafore’ parodies ‘Trovatore.’ Most obviously, ‘Trovatore’ is about babies getting exchanged. The same thing happens in ‘Pinafore.’”
In “Trovatore” only the gypsy Azucena knows that the child she brought up as Manrico is the vanished infant brother of the Count di Luna. In “Pinafore” only Little Buttercup knows that as a foster mother she switched able-bodied seaman Ralph for Captain Corcoran when they were babies.
“And then, there are musical references in the two works,” Russell says. “Gilbert and Sullivan borrowed Azucena’s aria ‘Stride la vampa’ for Buttercup’s ‘I’m Called Little Buttercup.’” Obligingly, Russell, who has appeared in opera as a tenor, and whose first two degrees are in voice, sings both pieces. Their melodic lines are shockingly similar.
The similarity occurred on purpose, Russell believes. “‘Trovatore’ was the most-performed opera at the time of Gilbert and Sullivan,” he says. “They would have known the piece.”
Until this year ONJ’s summer season has taken place in Princeton. 2012 ONJ performances in Asbury Park and Morristown are an innovation. “Part of our mission is to serve the garden state,” Russell says. “Asbury Park is placing a bet on the arts for its future economic revitalization. For us, it’s a chance to expand our base and go into a community with an appetite for opera.”
Russell, a man who really listens, heard about Asbury Park’s Paramount Theater from David Grabarkowitz, who conducted Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” for ONJ in February, 2011 (U.S. 1 February 2, 2011). “David told me about the Paramount,” Russell says. “It’s a 1930s theater with good acoustics. The Metro Lyric Opera Company was there for 30 years. It had good singers. The company folded in 2008 when its founder Era Togniolli died.”
Performing in Morristown, Russell says, was a matter of serendipity. “The theater was available, and we had a free date,” he says. “I had been looking at Morristown as possibility. It fell into our lap.”
Russell arrived at Opera New Jersey from Opera Sarasota in April, 2010, succeeding Scott and Lisa Altman, who founded the company in 2002 (U.S. 1 June 30, 2010). In 2010 he simply carried through plans that had already been made. Last year was the first season Russell planned. “I’m very proud of last season,” he says. “It was very successful artistically and financially. Our audience grew. I loved that that ‘The Consul’ was so well-received.” Menotti’s “Consul,” a 20th-century opera, is at the far reaches of conventional opera fare.
“I want to stretch the boundaries of what we do,” Russell says. Nevertheless, he is a wary adventurer.
“Because we expanded to new, untested venues I wanted to be more conventional this year. For next year I’m looking at a new work, a chamber opera. For me, it’s a priority to bring in a third opera. That’s an important goal for me.”
The ONJ summer season in both 2011 and 2012 has consisted of only two operas. Both years, Russell allowed his taste for financial responsibility to trump his taste for the unconventional. “When I came, I looked at our activity and at our funding sources. It was my determination, along with the board’s, that we were not in a position to sustain a three-work summer season. It was important for me to right that financial ship. I want to be absolutely sure that we can fund what we do. In these economic times, when many companies have folded, I thought it would be irresponsible to do more than we could support financially.”
Nevertheless, this season’s programming has included substitutes for the undone third opera. “Opera Stars in Concert,” which took place on July 11 is a case in point. The project was new this year. “We have these wonderful singers,” Russell says. “I wanted to replace the opera that we cut with something cost-effective. In such a program singers can get to do things out of the ordinary; the tenor in ‘Trovatore,’ for instance, got to sing ‘Granada.’”
Operetta Favorites on Friday, July 13, is another presentation intended to make up for the phantom third opera program. Performers were participants in ONJ’s Emerging Artists program.
Though the staged operas are ONJ’s most visible presence, the company ministers to a considerable array of less conspicuous major opera projects.
The Emerging Artists component of ONJ offers young performers coaching and an opportunity to perform both in master classes and in public performances. Master classes cover both musical and professional aspects of vocal performance. They are given both by voice teachers, and by those in the business aspect of vocal performance, such as managers of opera companies and professional agents. The master classes, which took place in June, are typically open to the public.
This year the Emerging Artists program includes 29 participants. “The first year I was here, there were 38,” Russell says. “That’s a little too many. There isn’t enough performance time to go around for that number.”
The culmination of the Emerging Artists program is Audition Day. Held at the end of the season, participants hoping to advance their careers perform for coaches and managers. “It takes three or four hours to hear all the singers,” Russell says. “It’s a great thing to get all those people in one place. We’re lucky in being close to New York and Philadelphia.”
Emerging Artists appear during the year for ONJ’s educational programs in schools and senior communities. “We’re looking for more opportunities to perform throughout the state,” Russell says.
ONJ undertakes two school tours each year. “They’re open to any school that wants them,” Russell says. School tours done in Trenton, Princeton, and Newark have presented a 45-minute-long adaptation of Rossini’s “Cenerentola” for four singers. The singers were members of the Emerging Artists program. Speaking roles were taken by children in the schools. “This program was in place before I came,” Russell says, “and I’m happy to perpetuate it.”
In addition, ONJ’s director of education, Laura Baldasano, has led an opera creation program in Trenton. Working with a teacher at the Grace Dunn Middle School, Baldasano helped students write and perform an opera, for which they built scenery. The piece was based on a book in their curriculum, Louis Sachar’s “Holes.”
ONJ partners with a range of other organizations, most notably the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. The NJSO supplies orchestral players for both the summer season and for an annual opera performance in winter.
The ONJ budget this year comes to $1.9 million. Ticket sales last year brought in about 30 percent of the budget. “That’s typical of opera companies with a budget between $1 and $3 million,” Russell says. “We anticipate that ticket sales will account for 45 percent of the budget this year.” Paid attendance in summer hovers somewhat above 4,000.
Administering the ONJ operation year round are Russell and four full-time personnel. Of the four two are development experts, one is the education director, and one attends to production. (“The production person implements my vision,” Russell says.) A year-round part-time employee and interns also play a role.
Under Russell ONJ consistently focuses on opera, balancing innovation with fiscal prudence.
Opera New Jersey. For tickets: www.operanj.org or 609-799-7700.
Opera Stars in Concert, Berlind Theater, Princeton. Wednesday, July 11, 7:30 p.m.
Operetta Favorites, Berlind Theater, Princeton. Friday, July 13, 7:30 p.m.
Il trovatore, McCarter Theater, Princeton. Saturday, July 14, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, July 22, 2 p.m.
HMS Pinafore, McCarter Theater, Princeton. Sunday, July 15, 2 p.m.; Thursday, July 19, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, July 21, 7:30 p.m.
Emerging Artists Scenes Program #1, Berlind Theater, Princeton. Sunday, July 15, 7:30 p.m.
HMS Pinafore, Mayo Performing Arts Center, Morristown. Wednesday, July 18, 8 p.m.
Emerging Artists Scenes Program #2, Berlind Theater, Princeton. Friday, July 20, 7:30 p.m.
HMS Pinafore, Paramount Theater, Asbury Park. Friday, July 27, 7:30 p.m.
Il trovatore, Paramount Theater, Asbury Park. Sunday, July 29, 3 p.m.