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Opera (Finally) Takes Hold in the Berkshires

Pictured: Jonathon Loy (left) and Brian Garman (right), co-founders of the Berkshire Opera Festival
Matt Madison-Clark
Pictured: Jonathon Loy (left) and Brian Garman (right), co-founders of the Berkshire Opera Festival

Built on the dreams of two friends, a young festival finds its voice in the culturally rich landscape of the Berkshires with an opera of striking relevance for our times.

From Tanglewood to Jacob's Pillow, Shakespeare & Company to MassMOCA, the Williamstown Theatre Festival to the Norman Rockwell Museum, the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts is as artistically vibrant a region as any in the country. But for a number of years that was not true if you were a lover of opera. Since the closing of the long running Berkshire Opera Company in 2009, if you wanted to see fully staged opera in the summer, then the Berkshires, of all places on earth, was not the place to be.

But in 2016 that changed, when New York-based stage director Jonathon Loy and conductor Brian Garman restored fully staged opera to the Berkshires with the Berkshire Opera Festival.

In August, the Berkshire Opera Festival returns to Pittsfield’s beautiful Colonial Theater with three performances of Verdi’s devastating drama Rigoletto, August 25, 28, and 31. The festival also includes a free preview recital of sorts titled “Meet Joe Green,” featuring the Festival’s impressive soloists singing some of Giuseppe Verdi’s (i.e. Joe Green) most beloved arias.

Jonothon Loy has been coming to the Berkshires since he was a child, and so returning opera to this bucolic haven is personal. “It’s for me one of the most beautiful places on earth,” he says. “It has an energy to it, and the beauty combined with the culture makes it a place that people want to be. And, you know, there’s everything here: there’s dance, there’s classical, there’s Shakespeare, and everything in between, and there was not opera… So it was only fair to bring fully produced opera back.”

Jonathon and Brian have known one another for two decades and had long held hopes of one day starting their own music festival. But with Brian living in Seattle as Music Director of the Seattle Opera Young Artists Program, and Jonathon living in Manhattan as guest stage director at the Metropolitan Opera, the dream of a festival seemed impractical.

Then, as it so often does, opportunity knocked. In 2014, Brian's career brought him back to New York City. Meanwhile, union contact renegotiations for Jonathon at the Metropolitan Opera were growing increasingly contentious, and and left him considering alternatives.

“So, I brought Brian to the Berkshires,” says Jonathon, “and as one does he fell in love with it immediately. And I said, ‘Okay, do you want to this?’”

The rest is history. The pair gave themselves two years to build a donor base for their company, and then opened the Berkshire Opera Festival in 2016 with their first production, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.

Pictured: Scowling theater mask, dagger through the eyes, with "Rigoletto" written below. Promotional poster for the Berkshire Opera Company
Credit Berkshire Opera Festival
The Berkshire Opera Festival performs Verdi's "Rigoletto" August 25, 28, and 31 at the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, MA.

Jonathon and Brian have big goals for the future of their company. If all goes according to plan, the Berkshire Opera Festival will grow to include three fully staged operas per summer, including newly commissioned or rarely performed modern works, and a young artist program.

So, how do they plan on pulling all that off?

“You pull it off by not doing it too quickly. The worst thing we could do is to try to add programming on before we’ve stabilized our fundraising.”

And for the time being they're not biting off more than they can chew. Indeed, this summer’s three performances of Rigoletto and the one free recital is scaled down from previous summers. But don’t let the relative modesty of this young program fool you. As Jonathon will tell you, “As far as I’m concerned we have the greatest singers in the world coming to the Berkshires… This is the real deal.”

Jonathon describes baritone Sebastian Catana, who stars as Rigoletto, as “one of the only true Verdi baritones in the world today. It’s a very specialized [voice], and really, I can think of maybe a handful of voices off the top of my head that can sing that way, and Sebastian is one of them.”

Soprano Maria Valdes, who sings Rigoletto’s daughter, Gilda, “is having a major career now,” having just sung Gilda with the San Francisco Opera.

About tenor Jonathan Tetelman, who sings the Duke, Loy can’t help but beam. “We’re lucky to have him now before we can’t afford him anymore! He’s on the brink of a major career.” In addition to the Berkshire Opera Festival’s Rigoletto, Tetelman stepped in to star as Rodolfo in the Boston Symphony’s Tanglewood July performance of Puccini’s La Bohème, after tenor Piotr Beczała pulled out.

In Sparafucile, one of the cruelest bad guys in opera, they have Joseph Barron, “young, incredible bass, I just worked with him at the Met also.”

The Berkshire Opera Festival would be hard pressed to find a more poignantly in-tune opera for their 2018 season than Verdi’s Rigoletto.

“In Rigoletto we’re dealing with abuse of women, male power, rape, murder… The stories carry an unbelievable weight to them, and as a stage director, I need to communicate in this day in age, in this #MeToo time, what Rigoletto is about. It’s so relevant to today’s audiences, young and old. I think everyone will relate to what’s going on.”

Despite running parallel to the headlines, Jonathon’s motives for presenting Rigoletto are simple.

“Without being trite, the most important thing to me is that I put something aesthetically beautiful on the stage. I want the audience to take away from it whatever they want to take away from it, whatever it means to them, but for them to have an amazing out of body experience for two and half hours, [that’s what’s important].

“I want the audience to come and sit down and escape from reality. And even though we’re dealing with things that are really devastating, the music is really beautiful.”

Interview with the General Director and co-founder of the Berkshire Opera Festival, Jonathon Loy.

The Berkshire Opera Festival’s production of Verdi’s Rigoletto runs August 25, 1pm matinee (“so you can go both to Rigoletto and to the Tanglewood Gala in the same day”), as well as August 28 and 31st at 7:30pm at the Colonial Theater in Pittsfield, MA. For tickets and more information, visit the Berkshire Theatre Group's website.

The free “Meet Joe Green” recital is August 15 7:30 at St. James Place in Great Barrington.

Chris Voss is the Weekday Afternoon Host and a Producer for CRB.