Drawing on material from half a dozen different genres, the Princeton Festival evokes Paris at the turn of the 20th century in “La Belle Epoque,” a network of related events through Sunday, June 29. The presentations include three performances of Giacomo Puccini’s classic opera “La Boheme;” three performances of the musical “Mirette,” devised by the creators of off-Broadway’s long-running “Fantasticks;” a concert of French chamber music by the Concordia Chamber Ensemble; an organ recital by Marilyn Keiser; a competition for pianists ranging in age from six to 24; Richard Huston’s 1952 film based on the life of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec; and a performance of jazz by the Mulgrew Miller Trio. In all, counting related events at the Princeton Library, the festival has scheduled 16 events, involving 11 performances.
The Princeton Festival is unique among Princeton’s multiple music festivals both for its variety and for its early start date. The festival opened the busy summer music season with a sold-out performance of “Mirette” on Saturday, June 14 (additional performances on Friday, June 20, and Saturday, June 28, are also sold out) and the concert of the Mulgrew Miller Trio on Sunday, June 15. Patrons will have to scurry either to see the movie, which screens this Wednesday, June 18, at the Princeton Public Library, or to secure tickets for the remaining performances of “Mirette,” which are completely sold out.
The festival also stands out among Princeton’s various summer musical series for its range of presentations. If political philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who distinguished between generalists and specialists, had written about Princeton’s musical scene he would have called the Princeton Festival a “fox” for dealing with many things, rather than a “hedgehog,” which knows one thing.
Princeton’s summer hedgehogs, which are as welcome as the foxes, include the free four-concert Princeton University Summer Chamber Concerts, which opened with the Peabody Trio on June 17, and continues with three more concerts through July 15; New Jersey Opera with multiple performances of Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata,” Gioachino Rossini’s “La Cenerentola,” and Franz Lehar’s “The Merry Widow;” the Sunday concerts from the carillon in the Princeton Graduate College starting on Sunday, July 13; and the piano concerts of the week-long Golandsky Institute, beginning on Monday, July 14. See listings at end for details.
Westminster Choir College of Rider University, with its massive program of education and performances throughout the year, reshapes itself for the summer. WCC’s annual Bach Festival, now in progress, concludes on Thursday, June 26. Focusing on opera, the three-week CoOPERAtive program, now in its third year, presents public performances between Wednesday, July 9, and Saturday, July 26. In addition, the Westminster Conservatory, WCC’s community music school, offers a bevy of summer music camps for children, teens, and adults.
Richard Tang Yuk, artistic director of Princeton Festival, has diligently pursued his vision of its nature from the time the company was formed in 2004 after the demise of Opera Festival of New Jersey. Before the Princeton Festival existed, Tang Yuk had worked on over 29 operatic productions at OFNJ. Not surprisingly, some people associate him with opera. In a telephone interview from his Pennington home Tang Yuk says, “When we were forming the company, we spent weeks quibbling about its title. I did not want to be branded as an opera company. I envisioned very diverse presentations. As more people get to know us, they’re coming to learn who we are.”
Even so, opera emerges as a significant factor in Princeton Festival’s season. Last season Georges Bizet’s opera “Carmen” was a major Princeton Festival attraction. “We had such success with ‘Sounds of Spain’ last year,” says Tang Yuk, “that the board wanted me to come up with a similar theme. I started with opera and considered Gounod’s ‘Faust’ in addition to ‘La Boheme,’ which we finally selected. ‘Boheme’ was composed in 1896. Then I researched musicals online. There were only two that fit into this time period. ‘Mirette’ was written in the 1990s (but set in 1890s Paris). The beauty of our theme is that everything didn’t need to be written during the same period.”
The title character of “Mirette,” based on an award-winning children’s book of the same name, is the daughter of a boarding-house owner. She persuades the grumpy Bellini, a high-wire performer who has lost his nerve to teach her his craft. She walks the wire in his stead and helps him regain his courage.
The other Belle Epoque elements “gradually accrued,” Tang-Yuk says. On Sunday, June 22, the Concordia Chamber players perform music of Gabriel Faure, Raynaldo Hahn, and Ernest Chausson. Marilyn Keiser plays organ literature by some the French giants of organ composition on Saturday, June 28, at the Princeton University Chapel.
As for the piano competition, Tang Yuk was thinking about it “even before we decided to do ‘Boheme.’ It was easy to fit the competition to the theme. We just chose music from the Belle Epoque period.”
What was more difficult was organization. “The piano competition turned out to be more complicated than I thought it would be when I came up with idea,” Tang Yuk says. “It’s very different from other aspects of the festival.” After weeks of consideration, the half-dozen members of Princeton Festival’s education committee devised a set of rules for the contest, which will award cash prizes ranging from $100 to $400.
A sampling of the regulations shows the fineness with which the committee parsed the possibilities. The competition would be open to New Jersey or Pennsylvania residents. There would be four age categories with the outer limits at ages 6 and 24, and an open category. Contestants entering the open category could also enter an appropriate age category. Age would be determined as of June 26, the date of the finals, rather than June 14, the date of the preliminary round. Contestants would be identified by randomly-chosen numbers. The names of the adjudicators, two pianists from New York City, would not be announced until the day of the preliminary contest. “Perhaps an issue will come up that we haven’t considered,” realist Tang Yuk says.
The competition has attracted 41 entrants, consisting of 37 competitors. This, because competitors could enter in more than one category. “When I look at their resumes I feel so incompetent,” Tang Yuk says. “There’s a 10-year-old who speaks three languages and plays concertos with regional orchestras. There’s a kid of about six who’s playing in the open category and also in an age category.”
A conversation with Tang Yuk reveals the extent to which non-musical considerations play a role, not only in the piano competition, but in other aspects of the Princeton Festival. Remembering the 29 productions at Opera Festival of New Jersey he worked on, Tang Yuk says “there were many times when the conductor and the director didn’t get along. When there’s a tense dynamic in rehearsal, a production just doesn’t work. The relationship between conductor and stage director is critical in opera.”
For “La Boheme,” Princeton Festival has an ideal relationship between its director, Steven La Cosse, whose home base is the A. J. Fletcher Opera Institute at North Carolina School of the Arts, and its conductor, Tang Yuk. The two met when they were both graduate students at Indiana University, where La Cosse staged one of Tang Yuk’s musical theater presentations. The vehicle was Gian-Carlo Menotti’s “The Unicorn, the Gorgon, and the Manticore,” which calls for singers, dancers, chorus, and orchestra. Tang Yuk labels it “a ballet cantata.”
“Fast forward many years,” he says. “I hired Steven to direct ‘Madame Butterfly’ and ‘Carmen’ in past seasons at Princeton Festival. The reason I continue to hire him is: We have respect for each other. I never say, ‘I don’t like that staging.’ He will never say, ‘I don’t like that tempo.’
“Steven is the most efficient director I have ever worked with,” Tang Yuk continues. “I’ve been involved in productions where at the final rehearsals, they’re still staging the opera. With Steven, the staging is completed before you get to the stage.
“He plans stage rehearsals meticulously, like I plan music rehearsals. Steven’s time management is superb. He calls people to rehearsal when they’re needed in the scene. Some directors call everybody to a rehearsal, and don’t know exactly what they’re going to do. Then the performers sit there for two hours. That’s not good for morale. Performers have a contract for the entire production; they don’t work by the hour.”
Tang Yuk says he also loves working with La Cosse “because he knows how to plan people’s time. I do the same thing with music,” Tang Yuk says. “I know that one thing will take three minutes, and another will take 10 minutes. It comes with experience.
“Steven also understands the economics of putting an opera on stage. He’s aware of the budget and comes up with alternatives. He’ll say, ‘If both things that I want are too expensive, how about doing this one and leaving that one out.’ If it costs too much to build a structure, he’ll propose painting the structure on fabric.
“Many people who attend our performances are not aware of the extent to which contributed support is necessary. We run a deficit even if there’s a full house. Ticket prices cover only about a third of our expenses. We hope to continue to build on our donor base, and have strong financial support.”
Tang Yuk does not reveal figures for Princeton Festival’s budget or its bottom line. “No specific numbers are available for publication,” he says. Having experienced the devil-may-care fiscal policies that toppled Opera Festival of New Jersey, Tang Yuk has learned a lesson. “We’re very careful,” he says. “We monitor expenditures closely. A cash-flow projection is prepared by our business manager, and we look at it constantly to make sure that we can meet our financial obligations on time.
“Every year we’ve had a balanced budget. Last year was our biggest season and we ended with a small surplus. ‘Carmen’ was a big production. There was some financial risk with ‘Carmen’ and we weighed that against the popularity of piece.”
Practical musician that he is, Tang Yuk sketches Princeton Festival’s business agility by turning to details of the “Carmen” production that might have been a logistical nightmare. “Here’s some evidence of sound management,” he says. “There was a 40-person adult chorus in ‘Carmen’ and a chorus of 27 kids. Each adult had four costumes. Each kid had one costume. Can you imagine what goes on in dressing rooms with 67 people backstage? And then what about storing 187 costumes? I haven’t even mentioned the principals.”
At Matthews Acting Studio, 185 Nassau Street.
Mirette. Friday, June 20, and Saturday, June 28. Sold out.
At McCarter Theater, Princeton, 800-595-4849.
La Boheme. Conducted by Richard Tang Yuk and directed by Steve La Cosse. $30 to $110. Saturday, June 21; Friday, June 27; Sunday, and June 29.
At Taplin Auditorium, Princeton University.
Concordia Chamber Players. Chamber music. $30. Sunday, June 22.
Piano Competition. Finals. $25. Thursday, June 26.
At Princeton University Chapel.
Concert d’orgue. Marilyn Keiser on the Skinner organ. $30. Saturday, June 28.
Opera New Jersey
At Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street, 609-924-8822.
Summer preview concert. Free. Thursday, June 19.
At Crossing Vineyards and Winery, 1853 Wrightstown Road, Washington Crossing, PA.
Summer Under the Stars Outdoor Concert. Picnic suppers available for a fee. Friday, June 20.
At Nassau Park Pavilion, Nassau Park Boulevard, West Windsor (behind Panera Bread).
Summer preview concert. Free. Saturday, June 21.
At Palmer Square, Princeton.
Musical Theater Summer Preview Concert. Free. Friday and Saturday, June 27 and 28.
At McCarter Theater, 609-258-2787, www.mccarter.org.
La Traviata. Verdi’s opera. $59 to $65. Friday, July 11; Sunday, July 13; Thursday, July 17; Saturday, July 19; Saturday, July 26.
Cinderella. Rossini’s “La Cenerentola.” $59 to $65. Saturday, July 12; Saturday, July 19; Friday, July 25; Sunday, July 27.
The Merry Widow. Lehar’s opera. $59 to $65. Friday, July 18; Sunday, July 20; Thursday, July 24; Saturday, July 26.
Master Classes. Friday, July 18; Thursday, July 24; Friday, July 25.
Summer Season Scenes Concert. “Tutti e Due,” choruses and duets. $15. Monday, July 21.
Summer Season Scenes Concert. “Off the Beaten Path.” Great opera rarities. $15. Tuesday, July 22.
For more summer arts events, click on the Events section of our home page.