In 2005, the Princeton Festival’s inaugural year, the organization presented the musical “Sweeney Todd” and a performance by Concordia Chamber Music. There were some who were unconvinced that the operation was a valid festival. Artistic director Richard Tang Yuk remembers hearing the observation, “You’re not a festival because you’re only doing two things.” Entering its third season this summer, the Princeton Festival programming encompasses six productions — with offerings of opera, chamber music, piano, jazz, musical theater, and dance — with a total of 10 performances.
“We thought very carefully about the name,” says Tang Yuk, one of the founders of the festival, about his personal vision of a multi-faceted arts festival. “I wanted the word ‘festival’ in the name and not the word `opera.’ Tang Yuk’s stand may have surprised some of his co-founders because of his strong opera background. He was chorus aster and assistant to the artistic director at Opera Festival of New Jersey from 1995 until its collapse in 2003 and conducted a number of Opera Festival’s performances.
The 2007 Princeton Festival offerings embrace a common focus on Spain. “Building a season around a theme is not always an easy thing,” Tang Yuk says. “It can be limiting. Or, you could choose a vague thing like ‘love’ or ‘romance.’ The first thing we did for this season was to decide on an opera. That’s the kernel of the festival. There were a number of operas that we felt we could do, and do well, at this stage of our development. I suggested ‘Carmen’ to the board, and they loved the idea. ‘Carmen’ was written by a Frenchman, but it’s set in Seville. So flamenco dancers came to mind, and other Spanish ideas followed.”
A fully-staged version of Georges Bizet’s “Carmen” includes adult and children’s choruses and a full orchestra. Leading roles are taken by experienced opera performers. Steven La Cosse directs. Tang Yuk conducts; he has conducted the opera once previously and has prepared the vocal parts twice. Performances take place in McCarter’s Matthews Theater on Saturday, June 23 at 8 p.m., Friday, June 29 at 8 p.m., and Sunday, July 1 at 2 p.m.
The musical “Man of La Mancha” is a presentation of the Princeton Festival’s Young Stars Showcase, which features emerging artists and designers, and takes place in the Matthews Acting Studio, 185 Nassau Street, Thursday, June 28 at 8 p.m., and Saturday, June 30 with performances both at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.
“We’re not just interested in producing operas with established performers,” Tang Yuk says. “Everybody is a beginner at some point. The only way to become great at what you do is to have the experience. The thrust of our program is not just to give opportunities to young singers but also to emerging technical and design people. Our vision is to provide a full-fledged production where people both on stage and behind the scenes are emerging artists. I think that makes us unusual. Most other programs for young artists have only emerging singers.”
The Miguel Zenon Quartet performs jazz on Sunday, June 17 at 4 p.m. in Taplin Auditorium in Fine Hall; the combination, consisting of alto saxophone, piano, bass and drums plays music influenced by Jibaro, Puerto Rican country music evolved from Spanish, African, and indigenous cultures.
Pianist Christine McLeavey plays a recital of Spanish music in Taplin on Friday, June 22 at 8 p.m. Her program includes works by Isaac Albeniz and Enrique Granados, among Spain’s best known early 20th century composers.
Concordia Chamber Players present chamber music Saturday, June 30 at 8 p.m. in Taplin, partnering works by Manuel de Falla, another Spanish great of the 20th century; Luigi Boccherini, who was employed by the Spanish court; and Johannes Brahms.
Only one of the events takes place outside Princeton: an evening of flamenco dance, the torrid, rhythmic gypsy idiom, takes place on Sunday, June 24 at 5 p.m. at Theater 80, 80 St. Mark’s Place, New York City.
Tang Yuk expands on the challenges of mounting “Carmen.” “Every opera is challenging. The singers are not just standing on stage. They can’t stare at the conductor or it would destroy the dramatic impact. There’s movement, dance, and drama. The challenge is to keep everything together while managing all these elements.
“In Carmen the last act is the most difficult thing. There are a lot of tempo changes, and it’s a complex situation. First we have a parade with the Toreador Song. We have dramatic intensity in the fight between Jose and Carmen. Besides the activity on stage there are off-stage instruments and chorus to furnish the sounds coming from inside the bull ring. By the last act, you have been standing there almost three hours, concentrating, and getting tired. Something could go wrong at any moment.”
“Carmen’s” instrumental writing is particularly satisfying to Tang Yuk. “The orchestration is fantastic,” he says. “It’s valid as a study of balancing sound. There is a whole palette that Bizet created. The strings are the core, playing 90 percent of the time. Sometimes there is a horn or trombone or flute. Sometimes there are clarinets and bassoons. Bizet uses the winds for creating colors. There is a constant weaving in and out of various wind instruments and never a time when the instrumentation is only winds. With Mozart or Verdi you won’t hear a horn or trombone playing alone. ‘Carmen’ is interesting for the wind players — all these little solo bits.”
Tang Yuk selected the 20 girls and seven boys in the “Carmen” children’s chorus by audition. Their ages range from seven to 13. “I asked them to bring something to sing that they knew well. I didn’t set an audition piece because the kids have different backgrounds, and I can tell more if they sing something familiar. For a while I had an audition pianist, but too many adults can be too intimidating and I ended up playing the piano parts myself. We would have liked to take every child who auditioned but you have to think about how many people to costume.”
The “Carmen” children’s chorus has been rehearsing since mid-May under the careful guidance of Dawn Golding, director of the Rutgers Children’s Chorus. “The children are very excited,” Tang Yuk says. “I can see it from their faces. When they rehearsed with the adult chorus, they came in single file, very quiet, and very disciplined. I wondered if the adult chorus could do the same.”
Born in Trinidad, Tang Yuk was conductor of the National Youth Orchestra of Trinidad and resident conductor for the Trinidad Opera Company. He earned conducting degrees at New York’s Mannes College of Music and the Indiana University School of Music, and is a Licentiate of the Royal Schools of Music. He is Princeton University’s director of choral music and associate director of its program in musical performance.
As artistic director of the Princeton Festival he has drawn on his personal network of contacts in shaping the 2007 season. “Isn’t it usually personal connections?” he asks rhetorically before giving examples of the extent of his network. Matthew Lembo, Princeton, Class of 2002, who will serve as conductor for “Man of La Mancha,” was a student of Tang Yuk, was assistant conductor for Princeton Festival’s 2006 “Madame Butterfly,” and is assistant conductor for “Carmen” this summer. A freelance web developer and composer, he lives in Brooklyn.
Pianist Christine McLeavey, who gives a solo recital on Friday, June 22, has accompanied at several Tang Yuk concerts. A physics major with a certificate in piano performance, McLeavey, Princeton, Class of 2001, was co-valedictorian of her class. She earned a master’s degree from New York’s Juilliard School of Music in 2004 and lives in New York City.
“Eighty perccent of the chorus comes from Westminster Choir College and auditioned in March,” Tang Yuk says. “Westminster trains singers, and we give them an opportunity to gain experience on stage, singing in costume in front of an audience. Laura Brooks Rice and Christopher Arneson at Westminster are very supportive and encourage their students to sing for me.
“Maybe 10 percent of the chorus comes from the College of New Jersey,” Tang Yuk says. “All those who auditioned were excellent. Faculty members there are also very supportive.” Tang Yuk specifically names Robert Guarino. “We have something to offer their students that’s very valuable to them.”
As the Princeton Festival continues to expand, the number of Tang Yuk’s colleagues expands with it. However the mission of the Festival remains steady. “From the beginning, being multi-faceted was always the goal,” Tang Yuk says. “When we started [planning] in early 2004, we began with a tiny step. Now we’re well on our way to our target. We’re a new company, forging our own identity. We have the benefit of learning from the experience of the past at Opera Festival of New Jersey. I worked there for 10 years, and we have worked hard to avoid their mistakes.”
The Princeton Festival reports a balanced budget for fiscal 2006, and is proceeding financially with caution. Tang Yuk curbs his enthusiasm for the future and talks in terms of only gradual increments. “In five years I foresee the festival extending no more than 17 days, with, perhaps, an event every night. By then I hope we’ll have a Bach cantata series on Sunday afternoons, piano recitals on Sunday evenings and dance on Monday. Maybe in 10 years we’ll have multiple events each night.”
Princeton Festival, 800-595-4849, www.princetonfestival.org.
At Taplin Auditorium, Princeton University:
Miguel Zenon Quartet. An afternoon of jazz presented by Miguel Zenon, saxophone; Luis Perdomo, piano; Hans Glawischnig, bass; and Henry Cole, drums. $45. Sunday, June 17.
Sounds of Spain. Program presented by Christine McLeavey includes a piano recital featuring works of Albeniz, Granados, Montsalvatge, and Mompou. $20. Friday, June 22.
Chamber Music. Concordia Chamber Players present works of Boccerini, de Falla, and Brahms. $25. Saturday, June 30.
At McCarter Theater:
Carmen. Four act opera based on Prosper Merimee’s novella. $25 to $110. Saturday, June 23; Friday, June 29; Sunday, July 1.
At Princeton High School:
Noche Flamenca. An evening of Flamenco with Soledad Barrio. $40. Sunday, June 24.
At Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street:
Lecture. “Mystery of La Mancha: The Transformation of Don Quixote’s World” with Sonia Velazquez. She will compare Cervantes’ novel, the knight errant, and his imagination, to the musical “Man of La Mancha.” Thursday, June 14.
At Matthews Acting Studio, 185 Nassau Street:
Man of La Mancha. Presented by the Young Stars Showcase. Thursday and Saturday, June 28 and 30.