Surveying its seventh season, Richard Tang Yuk, Princeton Festival’s artistic director, says, “We’re achieving our goal of a diversified festival of the performing arts.” The 2011 season, which runs from Saturday, June 4, to Sunday, June 26, includes opera, musical comedy, dance, jazz, organ, and chamber music performances; a piano competition; concerts by the Greater Princeton Youth Orchestra and the Princeton Girlchoir; and a lecture series.
Calling itself “Rites of Summer,” to evoke Igor Stravinsky’s groundbreaking “Rites of Spring,” the season repeatedly draws on Stravinsky works. His opera, “The Rake’s Progress,” is the centerpiece of the festival. It plays at McCarter Theater on two Sundays, June 19 and 26.
Stravinsky’s ballet score “Pulcinella” is the basis for the first dance program on the roster of Princeton Festival. Graham Lustig’s choreography for the piece gets its world premiere at on Saturday, June 11, at McCarter Theater. “Dance has been on my radar for years,” says artistic director Tang Yuk in a telephone interview.
“Suite Italienne,” a setting of Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella” for violin and piano, is included in the Concordia Chamber Players concert on Sunday, June 12, in Taplin Auditorium on the Princeton University campus.
Nine performances of Sandy Wilson’s “The Boy Friend,” set in the French Riviera in the 1920s, provide the musical theater component of the festival. The show, choreographed by Graham Lustig, plays at 185 Nassau Street between Friday, June 10, and Saturday, June 25. Tang Yuk points out that musicals at the Princeton Festival sold out two or three weeks in advance during the 2009 and 2010 seasons.
Tang Yuk finds a common element in “The Rake’s Progress” and in “The Boy Friend.” Both works, he realizes now, deal with characters interested in fleeting experiences, rather than long-term considerations. Talking about “The Boyfriend” as a companion piece for “The Rake’s Progress,” he attributes their pairing in the festival’s 2011 season to intuition. “Sometimes you have a sense that something works well,” he says. “I can articulate the theme of ephemeral-ness to you today, but I don’t know that I could have articulated it a year ago.”
Diana Basmajian directs “The Boy Friend” and Chris Frisco conducts. Steven La Cosse, veteran director of Princeton Festival’s operas, directs “The Rake’s Progress.” Tang Yuk conducts.
La Cosse tends to steep himself in every aspect of a work before bringing it to the stage. Currently assistant dean of enrollment and recruitment at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, he has immersed himself in hands-on roles for productions at the school since 1997.
In a telephone interview from Winston-Salem La Cosse explains how he prepared for “The Rake’s Progress.” The opera is based on a series of eight engravings, made by William Hogarth in the 1830s. “I looked at the Hogarth prints, and I read articles and books on ‘The Rake’s Progress’ and Stravinsky. In the prints you can get a lot of the story behind the story. You find out about body language, clothing, and atmosphere.”
With a libretto by poets W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, “The Rake’s Progress” chronicles the descent into madness of Tom Rakewell. First seen in the garden of Anne Truelove, Tom wishes that he had money. Nick Shadow, a stranger, tells Tom that an unknown rich uncle has died and left him a fortune. Nick and Tom depart for London, where Nick takes Tom to a brothel. Tom now wishes for happiness and Nick urges him to marry Baba the Turk, a bearded lady, to fulfill his wish. The marriage is unsuccessful. In his sleep Tom dreams of a machine that turns stones into bread and blurts out “I wish it were true.” Nick hauls in the machine of which Tom has dreamt. Tom’s stone-into-bread business fails.
Anne has followed Tom to London. At an auction, Baba is among the items for sale. Baba spurs Anne to save Tom. Nick demands that Tom commit suicide in payment of his services. Nick reneges and agrees to gamble with Tom for Tom’s soul. Nick loses and condemns Tom to insanity. Anne visits Tom in the Bedlam asylum. While Tom is sleeping, Anne leaves.
In an epilogue each of the principals tells the moral they have found in the story.
“This is a cautionary tale, not a standard fairy tale,” La Cosse says. “It warns you to be careful what you wish for. Tom makes ephemeral choices. He sees the next shiny object and goes for it. He lives moment to moment without thinking of consequences.
“The opera happens to Tom. He doesn’t have a strong character. He’s susceptible and easily influenced. He doesn’t lose his soul, but he loses his mind. Anne tries to save him, but it is too late. The message is that love can partially redeem a bad situation.
“The language of the opera is very high-minded and very sophisticated. I struggled with how make sure that the story is absolutely clear. We’ll use supertitles.”
For the third summer in succession, La Cosse directs a lesser-known opera for Princeton Festival. “When an opera is not well known, I start with the libretto,” he says. “Then I listen to the music. One thing about doing infrequently presented works is that it lets you think about the piece in new ways.”
Sensitive to the structure of “Rake’s Progress,” La Cosse observes, “Every time Tom wishes for something, he speaks it and doesn’t sing it.”
Planning the production, La Cosse says that he asked himself, “How can we recreate this world that Hogarth created?” and specified a staging problem. “There are a lot of scenes — six or seven locations. How do we get from one to another?
“I did a lot with lights and shadows,” he says. The opera has the opposition of good and evil. I used light and shadow — rear projections and moving silhouettes — to help tell the story. The Hogarth drawings have lots of shadows. The name ‘Nick Shadow’ fitted with the way I wanted to use light.”
Tang Yuk calls “The Rake’s Progress” his favorite opera. “The first time I heard it was when I attended a rehearsal at college. The professor covered his eyes and said, ‘This music is so beautiful.’ At that time I would not have described it as beautiful, though I appreciated that it was something quite different. As chorus master of ‘The Rake’s Progress’ a few years later, I got to know the opera well, and it became my favorite opera. Now 15 years later, I’m amazed. A lot of the opera is accessible. Like all great works of art, it’s layered. Both the text and the music are layered. Familiarity brings increased appreciation. It’s like Mozart: when you first hear it, you think it’s lovely; after repeated hearings, you think it’s profound.
“Stravinsky was a genius,” continues Tang Yuk. “He was a seminal figure; he changed the face of composition. I wonder if he was entirely cognizant of everything he was putting into place, if he was aware of the collective impact of his use of harmony, melody, and rhythm, and of the way he wedded libretto to music.”
Tang Yuk understands the workings of opera, both as a musical experience, and as a financial venture. As orchestra director he has been an employee; as artistic director he has been a board member.
He comments on the precarious state of musical institutions today, where major orchestras have dissolved or face musician-management dilemmas. “Musicians spend many decades honing their skills and their craft. The trustees and board give large amounts of money, often private gifts, as donors. The musicians and the board both want to save the Philadelphia Orchestra from bankruptcy. If the two parties could sit down and educate each other about their situations, there would be better understanding, and resolution would be possible. The problems come when opposing parties are not cognizant of each other’s position. As things stand, the attorneys are the big winners. And the big losers are both board and players — everybody in the organization.
“I don’t think the Princeton Festival is in danger. All the trustees care tremendously. All the artists love working for us. We would be able to engender a climate where we could talk openly about the issues.”
Tang Yuk’s personal experience confirms his analysis of artistic/financial conflicts. “My father is a businessman. He’s retired now as the head of a conglomerate that manufactured electrical equipment and had retail outlets. When I told him that I was working with a devoted group of trustees to form the Princeton Festival, his first question was ‘Is it going to make money?’ His second question was ‘Why would you do it if it doesn’t make money?”
Tang Yuk was born and grew up in Trinidad. He earned degrees in choral conducting from New York’s Mannes College of Music in the late 1980s and a doctoral degree from Indiana University in 2001.
“I’m the eldest son in a family with six children,” he says. “My father had hopes that I would take over his legacy. I tried it for a while. When I was in school, I worked for the company in the summers. After college, I worked for the company for two-and-a-half years. It was secure financially. There were long hours, but I didn’t mind because I was working for myself. I realized that I did a good job, but it was not what I was born to do. It was not something that fulfilled me, despite the lifestyle that it afforded me. I decided to return to the U.S. and pursue a doctorate in conducting. Music is my passion.
“I explained to my father that nobody in the arts does it for money. Art is nourishment for the soul. It can move us into a dimension of reality that is not found in ordinary life. Art takes up where words leave off.”
“Rake’s Progress,” Sundays, June 19 and 26, 3 p.m., Princeton Festival, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place. Stravinsky’s opera. 609-258-2787 or www.princetonfestival.org. For the festival’s full schedule visit the website.
Also, Late Thursdays, Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton campus, Thursday, June 9, 6:30 p.m. Preview of Princeton Festival’s “The Rake’s Progress” in conjunction with Hogarth’s prints of “A Rake’s Progress.” 609-258-3788 or http://artmuseum.princeton.edu.