Opera — the most expensive, artificial, demanding, and disparaged of all performing art forms — has been holding its own in the 21st century and still hitting the high notes in the region, thanks to area institutions and opera lovers.
Those institutions include Westminster Choir College, Rutgers and Princeton universities, Boheme Opera of New Jersey, the area’s oldest professional opera company, and the Princeton Festival’s annual opera event.
The 2017 opera year opens with Verdi’s “La Traviata,” Thursday through Sunday, January 19 through 22, performed by the alumni of Westminster’s CoOPERAtive Program, a summer program for aspiring opera singers. The opera will be performed in Italian with English supertitles as a semi-staged production. Thomas Bagwell — CoOPERAtive master coach and conductor and assistant conductor of the Metropolitan Opera — conducts. Past CoOPERAtive conductor James Kenon Mitchell directs. And Westminster-trained pianist and conductor James Sparks provides the solo piano accompaniment. Performances take place at Robert L. Annis Playhouse, 101 Walnut Lane, Princeton. $10 to $25.
Other Westminster opera events include the Westminster Opera Theater Too’s Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Iolanthe,” Tuesday and Thursday, February 7 and 9; and Smetana’s “Bartered Bride,” Friday and Saturday, April 7 and 8, also at Robert L. Annis Playhouse, $5 to $10.
Westminster launches a new effort with a recent oratorio when it brings “Anthracite Fields” to Trenton and the former Roebling Wire Works factory on Friday and Saturday, April 21 and 22. Under the direction of Westminster’s Joe Miller — who is also artistic director for choral activities for the Spoleto Festival and has been leading innovative performances internationally — the event features all-star musicians from the cutting edge Bang on a Can. The 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning work is by composer, Bang on a Can co-founder, and Princeton University graduate Julia Wolf. The work deals with early-20th-century Pennsylvania coalminers. 609-921-2663 or visit www.rider.edu/events.
Boheme Opera, now in its 28th season and performing at the College of New Jersey, presents a semi-staged version of Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” on Sunday, January 29, at 3 p.m. It features a cast comprising new singers as well as members of Boheme’s orchestra and chorus. Founder Joseph Pucciatti conducts, and board member Howard Zogott directs. $30 to $50.
The company’s full stage production of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” — with period costumes and digital set design — is Friday, April 7, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, April 9, at 3 p.m. Sung in Italian with English supertitles, the production features Dana Pundt, former apprentice artist at Des Moines Metro Opera and at the Glimmerglass Festival. $30 to $50. Performances take place at Mildred & Ernest E. Mayo Concert Hall, Music Building, College of New Jersey, 2000 Pennington Road, Ewing. www.bohemeopera.com.
Princeton University’s music department presents violinist Pekka Kuusisto and pianist and composer Nico Muhly on Sunday, April 30, at 7:30 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium. Muhly is the youngest composer ever commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, creating “Two Boys” in 2010. He is also the composer of the opera “Dark Sister,” which premiered in New York City in 2011. He is currently developing an score based on the novel “Rebecca,” set to debut at the Metropolitan Opera during its 2019-’20 season. Ticket information will be announced. www.princeton.edu/music/events.
Opera at Rutgers’ Nicholas Music Center presents Francis Poulenc’s 1956 opera “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” set during the Reign of Terror, on Fridays, January 27 and February 3, at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays, January 27 and February 5, at 2 p.m. It is performed in French with English supertitles. $5 to $15. 85 George Street, New Brunswick. 848-932-7511.
The Princeton Festival returns June 3 for a month-long series that includes both an opera and a vintage musical. The opera is Beethoven’s only venture into the form, “Fidelio,” in German with English supertitles at McCarter Theater. Dates and times will be announced.
The Broadway hit “Man of La Mancha” is set for the evenings of June 10, 15, 16, 17, 22, 23, and 24, at 8 p.m., and Sunday matinees on June 11, 18, and 25 at 4 p.m. at the Lewis Center for the Arts, Princeton University, 185 Nassau Street. For more information, go to www.princetonfestival.org.
The opera lovers mentioned earlier are the Princeton Friends of the Opera (PFO), a nonprofit group organized by opera enthusiasts who support existing opera programs, support training, and working to develop new audiences (see U.S. 1, January 13, 2016).
The membership organization has a series of fundraising events during the year and provides a service to opera through its website that includes a schedule of opera in the region.
PFO events include monthly member gatherings, a February fundraiser, and an annual spring fundraiser in May. Membership ranges from $15 to $50. www.princetonfriendsofopera.org.
Other opera opportunities in the region include the Metropolitan Opera’s live Saturday performance broadcast to the AMC Theater in Hamilton. The 12:55 p.m. broadcast schedule includes Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette,” January 21, 12:55 p.m.; Dvorak’s “Rusalka,” February 25; Verdi’s “La Traviata,” March 11; Mozart’s “Idomeneo,” March 25; and Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin.” The April 22 presentation of Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier” is at 12:30 p.m.
The Garden Theater in Princeton’s Lively Arts series also includes an opera, the Royal Opera’s production of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” on Saturday, February 25, at 12:30 p.m. The production is in Italian with English subtitles. $16 to $18.
Yet with all the opportunities the question is why bother? A good response comes from an unexpected source: celebrated New Jersey-born punk rock singer and poet Patti Smith. In a recorded interview, Smith talks about her experiences with opera and reflects on five of her favorite works, calling the selections “transporting and beautiful,” “spiritually beautiful,” and a reminder of “how beautiful life is.” She sums up her comments with the simple statement, “Opera has so much to offer us.” The interview can be found at www.youtube.com/watch?v=nCg4syeT55c.
It all sounds like something to sing about.