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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the June 25, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Opera Festival at 20: Still New

David Agler, artistic director of Opera Festival of

New Jersey (OFNJ) since 2001, poises in a semantically delicate position

when he describes the 2003 season as "off the beaten track."

The opera selections are not the banal big five, but neither are they

so obscure that audiences will run for McCarter Theater’s exits at

the first opportunity.

Between Sunday afternoon, June 29, and Saturday evening, July 19,

OFNJ celebrates its 20th anniversary by offering Gioachino Rossini’s

"L’Italiana in Algeri," Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky’s "Eugene

Onegin," and Alban Berg’s "Wozzeck" in Princeton’s McCarter

Theater. Agler conducts OFNJ’s "Wozzeck," the least mainstream

of this year’s offerings.

All three operas are being produced for the first time by OFNJ. Sung,

respectively, in Italian, Russian, and German, each has English supertitles.

"Onegin" is the first OFNJ production in Russian. In an economy

move, the total number of performances is 13, distributed over three

weeks, down from last year’s 17 performances over four weeks.

Caught during a rehearsal break, Agler accounts for the thinking behind

the 2003 programming. "A festival calls for something special,"

he says. "We wanted to do great works, but not the most conventional

ones. For the 20th anniversary year, we wanted to do operas we had

not done before."

Laurence Taylor gives pre-performance talks in Scheide Hall at the

Princeton Theological Seminary 45 minutes before each opera. The talk

on Tuesday, July 8, will be included in a special symposium devoted

to "Wozzeck." which precedes its opening night.

Returning to a tradition abandoned in the 1990s, OFNJ includes a concert

among its 2003 events. "In the Shadow of Mahler," takes place

at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, July 16, in Princeton Theological Seminary’s

Miller Chapel. Mikael Eliasen, head of vocal studies at Philadelphia’s

Curtis Institute of Music, directs the program of arias and songs.

"L’Italiana in Algeri," which opens OFNJ’s season at McCarter

on Sunday, June 29, is a comedy, first produced in 1813. Mustafa,

the Bey of Algiers, wants to force his wife Elvira to marry an Italian

slave, Lindoro, so that he can wed an Italian wife. Lindoro is the

long lost lover of Isabella, who just happens to be shipwrecked off

the coast. She convinces Mustafa to give her Lindoro as her slave.

The two escape, and Mustafa returns to Elvira.

The tragedy "Eugene Onegin," which premieres Tuesday, July

1, dates from 1879. Tatyana falls in love with Onegin, a friend of

Lensky, the fiance of her sister Olga. Onegin spurns Tatyana. He arouses

Lensky’s jealousy by dancing with Olga. Onegin kills Lensky in a duel.

Six years later Onegin realizes that he loves Tatyana, who is now

married, and she sends him away.

Another tragedy, "Wozzeck," which premiered

in 1925, opens at OFNJ Tuesday, July 8. It tells of the misfit Wozzeck,

who has a child with his common-law wife Marie. Inflamed by Marie’s

romantic interest in a drum major, he kills her. Attempting to hide

the murder weapon securely, he drowns. A spooky piece, the opera has

established a firm place in the opera repertoire.

OFNJ’s "Wozzeck" is unique in being the first performance

in the United States to use reduced instrumental forces for the opera.

The original orchestral score calls for more than 100 instrumentalists.

Commissioned by the Nouvel Ensemble Moderne, composer John Rea, who

teaches theory, composition, and music history at Montreal’s McGill

University, re-orchestrated "Wozzeck" for 21 instruments,

a number that he considered minimal "to render the music vital

and irresistible." The first performance using his reduced forces

was given by the Nouvel Ensemble Moderne at the Banff Centre for the

Arts in Alberta, Canada, in 1995.

"At the center of the project was a surprising paradox: the notion

of reduction meant stretching out," Rea explains, "In fact,

it demanded genuine enlargement! How so? By demanding a very intense

type of work from every member of the chamber orchestra, asking them

to play more frequently than in the original score and to interpret

musical parts that often do not `belong’ to them."

"The orchestra plays a big part in conveying the psychology and

mood of the opera," conductor Agler says. "With smaller orchestral

forces, it should be easier to project the text. The opera will be

leaner, and, therefore, more astringent."

Agler is enthusiastic about staging "Wozzeck" in McCarter.

"The opera is particularly appealing in a small space," he

says. "The experience is more intense in a small space."

A "Wozzeck" Symposium takes place Tuesday, July 8, from 4

to 7 p.m. at Princeton University’s McCormick Hall, just before OFNJ’s

"Wozzeck" opening. Carl E. Schorske, professor of history

emeritus at Princeton, moderates. Speakers include John Rockwell of

the New York Times, who will talk about the opera, and Mark Anderson,

professor in Columbia University’s German department, who will talk

about the play by Georg Buechner, which inspired Berg to write the

opera.

"`Wozzeck’ is a major work of the 20th century opera literature,"

Agler says. "Some people consider it the greatest 20th-century

operatic work. I hold this view, and I realize that it puts me in

a sticky place." The opera is somewhat controversial because it

uses 20th-century musical techniques. "You can’t call yourself

a true opera-goer without seeing `Wozzeck,’" Agler says. "Even

if you don’t care for this music, you should be curious because artists

are fascinated by the piece and want to perform it badly. The orchestra

is excited about it. For an opera orchestra member not to play `Wozzeck’

at least once is like as avid opera-goer not seeing it at all."

Agler outlines the far-reaching musical horizons of the opera. "The

music is atonal and tonal," he says. "It follows every harmonic

rule and it borders on chaos. The musical architecture is highly-planned.

But we don’t want the audience to react based on musical principles.

We want the public to react to `Wozzeck’ as drama."

"There is one special problem with `Wozzeck’" Agler says.

"Musically, it’s extremely difficult to prepare and to perform."

Those who know the work know that this description is a pinnacle of

restraint.

Sitting in on a rehearsal, I glance at the score. The piano reduction

is a jungle of leaps, monstrous chords, and unexpected rhythms. I

am astounded that Bradley Moore, the rehearsal pianist, can make his

way through such a tangle with vigor and energy.

"There are tremendously difficult vocal demands," Agler explains.

The vocal range is demanding and the drama requires concentration.

"`Wozzeck’ is a psychodrama. It examines deeply the mental

states and psychological profiles of the characters. That, added to

the technical musical demands and the lack of intermission, requires

great focus and depth."

In rehearsal, "Wozzeck" director Wim Trompert

refines the depiction of character. Working on the seduction scene

between Marie (Marjorie Einor Dix) and the drum major (Jason Collins),

he choreographs an insidious swagger for the drum major. "Don’t

bend your knees so much," he says. "Move as if you’re walking

on Mars." He tones down the volume of Marie’s admiring song about

the drum major. "Stay restless," he advises, "and a little

bit girlish. You’re not talking to him. You’re talking to yourself

and asking: How can I be lucky enough to have attracted him?"

Trained in Utrecht, the Netherlands, Trompert is a veteran director

of "Wozzeck." He has staged the opera for the Netherlands

Opera and re-staged it in Bologna, Italy. His latest "Wozzeck,"

for OFNJ is a co-production with Pacific Opera Victoria, which put

on the opera in January and February. Commenting on the central character

in the piece, Trompert notes the destruction of his world. "When

Wozzeck’s only certainty, Marie, threatens to disappear, he panics.

Besides her, he only has his loneliness. His incapacity to face the

situation drives him to kill her. And so Wozzeck severs the final

string which keeps him connected. His world has come to an end."

Trompert is among those whom OFNJ artistic director Agler selected

from his wide net of artistic connections to further the fortunes

of the company this season. Agler, 56, has served in artistic leadership

positions at opera companies in Vancouver, British Columbia; Australia;

San Francisco; Cologne, Germany; and Syracuse, New York. He likes

to take an active part in performances. Last season he conducted Benjamin

Britten’s "The Rape of Lucretia" (U.S. 1, July 17, 2002).

Tending to the fiscal affairs of the company is executive director

Douglas Rubin, Princeton ’81, a former Opera Festival board member

(U.S. 1, June 19, 2002). Rubin has devoted himself to putting in order

the fiscal problems remaining after Karen Tiller’s departure in the

fall of 2001, following two seasons as head of OFNJ. A debt of several

hundred thousand dollars remains outstanding.

However, with a budget of $1.8 million for the 2003

season, Rubin expects no deficit this year. He credits Nancy Sheffler,

chief development officer, with instituting an effective set of events,

communications, and appeals. Since her arrival in February, 2002,

OFNJ has seen a 30 percent increase in the number of individual supporters.

Support has continued from a group of corporate contributors who have

helped underwrite OFNJ for more than a dozen years — Merrill Lynch,

which has been on board since the beginning of the festival; the Johnson

& Johnson family of companies; Lenox; West Chemical Products; and

Dow Jones. Joining them are a number of relative newcomers who have

added corporate dollars to this year’s supporter.

Documenting other support for OFNJ, Rubin says, "We now have 120

members of the Guild. Last year there was just a steering committee."

He points also to a successful winter benefit event and the organizations

website, www.operafest.org, which he calls "robust."

Still, in an uncertain arts-funding environment, there is no room

for complacency. "A problem for the whole festival is that it’s

a hard time for the arts," says Agler. Both he and Rubin are doing

everything they can to maintain both the financial underpinning for

OFNJ and its artistic quality.

For the 2003 season, Opera Festival of New Jersey is selling tickets

directly through its own box office at 5 Hulfish Street (next to the

Halo Pub) in Princeton. Or call 609-919-0199

— Elaine Strauss

Opera Festival of New Jersey, McCarter Theater, University

Place. Box office 5 Hulfish Street, 609-919-0199 or toll free 866-636-5858.

Single tickets $25 to $90.

L’Italiana in Algeri, Sunday, June 29, 2 p.m.; Saturday,

July 5, 8 p.m.; Friday, July 11, 8 p.m.; Tuesday, July 15, 7:30 p.m.;

Thursday, July 17, 7:30 p.m.

Eugene Onegin, Tuesday, July 1, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, July

6, 2 p.m.; Thursday, July 10, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, July 12, 8 p.m.;

Friday, July 18, 8 p.m.

Wozzeck Symposium, Opera Festival of New Jersey,

McCormick Hall, Princeton Professor emeritus Carl E. Schorske moderates

a symposium on "Wozzeck: The Play, The Opera, Past and Present,"

with John Rockwell, New York Times, and Mark Anderson, Columbia University.

Attendees may proceed to the 7:30 p.m. OFNJ performance of "Wozzeck"

at McCarter Theater. $50. Tuesday, July 8, 4 to 7 p.m.

Wozzeck, Tuesday, July 8, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, July 13,

2 p.m.; Saturday, July 19, 8 p.m.

In the Shadow of Mahler, Opera Festival of New Jersey,

Miller Chapel, Princeton Theological Seminary, 609-919-0199. An evening

of arias and songs to complement the season’s "Wozzeck" production

performed by members of the OFNJ company under the direction of Mikael

Eliasen. $20. Wednesday, July 16, 7:30 p.m.


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