Britten’s opera “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is the designated centerpiece of the 2009 Princeton Festival. Performed by professional singers, the work is slated for Saturday, June 20, and Sunday, June 28, at McCarter Theater. Festival director Richard Tang Yuk conducts. Steven La Cosse, who has worked previously with the Festival, directs.
The two-week long festival opens on Saturday, June 13, with the first of six performances of “The Fantasticks,” the long-running New York musical about two teenagers who hide their attachment from their feuding fathers. Performances take place in the Matthews Acting Studio at 185 Nassau Street and showcase rising performers. Opening night is sold out.
Ever evolving, the Festival this year includes a six-day workshop on the Durufle Requiem culminating in a performance, open to the public, at the Princeton University Chapel on Saturday, June 27. Simon Carrington, a co-founder of the King’s Singers, frequent visitors to Princeton, directs the undertaking. He attributes the choice of the Durufle piece for the first choral workshop at the Princeton Festival to artistic director Richard Tang Yuk. Among the activities open to participants are daily choral rehearsals, individual vocal lessons, and informational programs about the piece given by Carrington and by Majorie Herman, host of WWFM’s weekly “Sounds Choral” program. Information about the workshop is available at www.princetonfestival.org/ChoralWorkshop.html.
The annual piano competition for musicians ages six to 24, initiated last year, continues again this season. The preliminary round at the Clark Music Center of the Lawrenceville School on Saturday, June 13, is open to the public without charge. The final round takes place in Taplin Auditorium of Fine Hall, on the Princeton campus on Thursday, June 25.
Rounding out the program are Bennie Wallace’s jazz quartet at the Lawrenceville School’s Clark Center on Sunday, June 14; a concert by the Concordia Chamber Players at Taplin Hall Sunday, June 21; and free events at the Princeton Public Library. Lectures in conjunction with the Festival have been taking place at the library since late May and have focused on the music and plot of Britten’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
The Shakespeare play on which Britten based his opera is famously complicated. The opening of the Shakespeare Resource Center’s online synopsis suggests the tangle: “Lysander loves Hermia, and Hermia loves Lysander. Helena loves Demetrius; Demetrius used to love Helena but now loves Hermia. Egeus, Hermia’s father, prefers Demetrius.” At any rate, Hermia and Lysander run off into the forest, as do Helena and Demetrius, where both pairs of lovers are caught up in the affairs of the resident fairies. As it happens, a group of players are in the forest to rehearse “Pyramus and Thisbe,” a play intended for the Duke’s wedding. The lovers, the fairies, and the players cross paths. Spells and potions contribute to the confusion. Eventually, the players perform their play at the triple wedding of the Duke and his betrothed; Lysander and Hermia; and Demetrius and Helena.
In a telephone interview tucked in amid rehearsals, stage director Steven La Cosse says, “I’ve read the Shakespeare play many times. I’m still reading it. I’ve been here a week and I re-read the play twice. Whenever you convert a play to music, you leave something out. I want to know the emotional and plot background, so I can catch nuances and inform the performers. I’m always looking for clues.
“Britten’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ is not done a lot,” La Cosse continues. “It has a huge cast and many scenes. But there are only four or five characters on stage at time; in that way, it’s a chamber opera.”
Conductor Richard Tang Yuk is responsible for casting, La Cosse says. “The conductor is in the performance while the director is in the audience. The conductor must feel comfortable with who’s singing. Richard consults me on some roles. But, basically, casting is his job.
“This is a great opportunity for the Princeton Festival to do something that people haven’t seen before,” La Cosse says. “The Festival is trying to identify itself and to set itself apart from New York and Philadelphia.”
In command of a new production of the opera, La Cosse says, “I would like the audience to come away with the question: did I really see that? Was it really happening? Is this a dream or not? The plot is intended to be confusing, so the audience doesn’t know who is on which side. The delightful thing is that when you get to one story, another story interrupts.” Britten’s music contributes to the dream-like mood by being “beautiful and atmospheric,” La Cosse believes.
“A major consideration was how to make the forest a background for the three stories: the four lovers, the fairies, and the people preparing a play for the court. The stories intersect, but they’re basically three separate stories.
“This production takes place mostly in the forest. The forest is ever changing; it constantly looks different: breezes blow; the number of leaves on the trees changes. We use projections. They differ, depending on who’s in the forest. When Oberon [king of the fairies] is in a bad mood, the wood does not look inviting. When Tatiana [queen of the fairies] is in love, the wood looks cheerier.”
Working with the Princeton Festival Children’s Chorus for the third time in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” La Cosse previously gained experience with the child singers in Princeton Festival productions of “Carmen” and “La Boheme.” “Some of the kids in this performance were in ‘Carmen’ or ‘La Boheme,’” he says. “Some of them have solo roles in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ The thing is to make them comfortable enough on stage so that they don’t feel watched. I tell them their job is to tell the story. I’m a teacher. This is an opportunity to teach them something about the theater. It’s a chance to bring up the next generation of artists and art lovers.
“The kids are still in school until after we open. It’s really demanding for them to rehearse and perform besides going to school. Fortunately, the parents are willing to balance school and family and drive them around.”
Born in South Bend, Indiana, La Cosse says, “I’m 48, and I can’t remember a time when I did not want to be musician. At three, I wanted a piano. At five I got a toy piano. When I was six, my grandmother bought me a piano for ten dollars a month.”
La Cosse’s mother, a manager for Avon, the beauty product company, plays piano. Her father’s family is large and musical. “My grandpa had 13 brothers and sisters,” LaCosse says. “My great uncles arranged for Stan Kenton, Frank Sinatra, and Trini Lopez.” La Cosse’s father was vice president of a national recreational vehicle company in Elkhart, Indiana, 30 minutes from South Bend. “He was a great salesman,” says La Cosse, whose sister is a nurse.
La Cosse grew up with an extraordinary gift for cheerfully exploiting whatever his situation was. “I fought bussing in South Bend,” he says, “but I was bussed to exactly the right high school for me. It opened another world. There was choir and orchestra. I got involved in a whole level of things that I wouldn’t have had if I had gone to the other school. I became editor of my high school yearbook.”
At 15 La Cosse made his debut in a high school performance of “The Pirates of Penzance.” “Boys got extra credit for auditioning,” he says.”I got the lead.”
He describes the serendipity that made his becoming a performer imperative. “As editor of the high school yearbook, I went to Indiana University for a journalism camp,” he says. “‘The Flying Dutchman’ was being performed. I sat in a corner balcony seat in the top row. I remember the opera starting. Five minutes into it, I thought, ‘This is what I want to do.’ It was the defining moment when I decided to become a performer. My life has been like that.”
When it came time for La Cosse to choose a college, his concern for his parents restricted his choice. “My father had had a stroke; my mother had hepatitis — they’re both fine now, “he says. “I decided to stay home and go to the South Bend Extension of the University of Indiana. I thought, ‘I can be a big fish in a small school. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.”
Eventually, La Cosse left for the University of North Texas in Denton, trusting that things would work out for him. “I heard about a teacher who could solve problems I was having with my voice. There was no room in her studio, but I went anyway, sat in on all her master classes, and asked questions. Finally, someone left and I was offered the Monday 9 a.m. lesson slot. I grabbed it.” La Cosse holds two master’s degrees, one in voice from North Texas, and another in opera stage direction from Indiana University in Bloomington.
He has sung in over 80 productions and is currently a faculty member at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem.
As an opera director, he has a special perspective because of his performing experience. “I would never ask singers to do anything I was not willing to do myself,” he says. “I understand opera from a singer’s point of view — things like where it’s difficult to sing and when to look at the conductor, things that are not obvious to the audience. I understand how rehearsals work, and I’ve learned to respect singers’ time. When I notice a problem, I have an intuition about what’s going wrong. Every director should have appeared on stage.”
Tickets for all Princeton Festival events are available by calling 800-595-4849 or online at www.princetonfestival.org.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, McCarter Theater, Princeton. Saturday, June 20, 8 p.m.; and Sunday, June 28, 3 p.m. Benjamin Britten’s opera. $30 to $110. (Note: The audience will include participants in one-day ElderHostels focused on the Britten opera.)
The Fantasticks, 185 Nassau Street, Princeton. Saturday, June 13, Friday, June 19, Wednesday, June 24, 8 p.m., and Friday and Saturday, June 26 and 27, all performances at 8 p.m.; Sunday, June 21, at 2 p.m. Musical by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones. $30 to $35.
Bennie Wallace Jazz Quartet, Princeton Festival, the Clark Center, Lawrenceville School, Lawrenceville. Sunday, June 14, 4 p.m. Jazz concert. $45.
Concordia Chamber Players, Taplin Auditorium, Princeton University. Sunday, June 21, 4 p.m. Chamber music. $30.
Piano Competition Finals, Taplin Auditorium, Princeton University. Thursday, June 25, 8 p.m. $20.
Princeton Festival Choral Workshop Performance, Princeton University Chapel. Saturday, June 27, 8 p.m. Durufle Requiem conducted by Simon Carrington. $30 to $50.