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Dynamic Mix

Chautauqua Opera’s eclectic programming makes it a destination for music-lovers.
By David Shengold 

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Hydrogen Jukebox at Chautauqua, 2017
© Ron Heerkens Jr /GFMedia Entertainment
“We have the opportunity to familiarize generations of a family with opera.”
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Baritone Daniel Belcher as Monteverdi’s Orfeo, 2017
© Dave Munch for Chautauqua Institution
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Steven Osgood leads “So You Think You’re Louder Than an Opera Singer?”
© Greg Funka for Chautauqua Institution

CONDUCTOR STEVEN OSGOOD, now in his fourth season as general and artistic director of Chautauqua Opera, has introduced innovative programming and flexible offerings to the company, one of America’s oldest summer opera festivals on one of its most distinctive sites. Chautauqua Opera’s first season, in 1929, opened with Flotow’s Martha and included works by Humperdinck, Gluck, Gounod and Wolf-Ferrari. Osgood aspires to maintain a dynamic season mix that will make Chautauqua—located in far southwestern New York State, close to Lake Erie—a destination for a national audience of music-lovers.

The verdant lakeside Chautauqua Institution, started in 1874 as a Protestant teaching camp, soon became a national byword and model for civic discussion and debate. Families acquired cottages and came every summer; some still do. Extensive arts programming was developed to augment the experience. A striking amphitheater (“the Amp”) is the heart and soul of Chautauqua’s civic, religious and artistic life. Weekly lecture and seminar topics shape the tenor of the quaint, largely automobile-free campus; residents have gate passes, which daily visitors can also acquire to access the broad range of artistic, educational and recreational activities.

For almost two decades, Osgood has conducted significant new American operas; his recent credits include the world premieres of Breaking the Waves, As One and JFK. In college, Osgood pursued theater as well as music. “As an actor and a director, so much of what I did were new, living pieces. Collaboration really engages me. I thrive on being in the rehearsal room with different ideas—cross-pollination.” Osgood flourished as artistic director of  American Opera Projects from 2001 through 2008, making artistic alliances with composers, dramaturges, directors and designers that have benefitted his work at Chautauqua. For the last three seasons, the indoor Norton Hall venue has featured Donizetti, Gilbert and Sullivan and Bernstein alongside hot contemporary works such as Philip Glass’s Hydrogen Jukebox, Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek’s Song from the Uproar and Laura Kaminsky, Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed’s As One.

Osgood’s first experience of Chautauqua was a 2008 visit to hear Così Fan Tutte. The enterprising director Jay Lesenger, who headed Chautauqua Opera from 1994 to 2015, invited Osgood to conduct Tosca the next summer. After more strong collaborations (The Ballad of Baby Doe, Peter Grimes), Osgood took up the company’s managerial reins. Last summer, Lesenger returned to Chautauqua to direct Candide.

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Chautauqua Opera Young Artists in the Opera Invasion Grand Finale
© Abigail Dollins for The Chautauquan Daily

Besides coordinating rehearsal- and performance-venue access with dance and other resident musical entities, the opera company juggles many different activities. Osgood says, “Those who attend the Chautauqua Institution are engaged, intensely curious about something. We have the opportunity to familiarize generations of a family with opera—but those coming to Chautauqua mainly for opera will find much else to engage them.”

Chautauqua’s Young Artist Program, founded in 1968, has long been celebrated for providing important opportunities to talented young singers at the beginning of their careers. Today, the YAP supplies 95 percent of the season’s casting. Osgood and Carol Rausch, longtime music administrator and chorus master, revamped and expanded the process of YAP auditions, which were previously limited to New York. Now Osgood and Rausch hear hundreds of applicants in Columbus, New Orleans, Houston and Los Angeles. In addition to their involvement in productions as cast and chorus, the young artists do recitals and informal, sometimes surprise “Opera Invasion” events all over campus, building interest in the company’s programming and letting potential audiences understand how singing careers are shaped. The Institution’s kids’ clubs—in which Osgood’s sons take part—engage in raucous “So you think you’re louder than an opera singer?” competitions. The company hosts composers-in-residence, who give young artists firsthand experience with interpreting new music; this summer’s composer will be Gilda Lyons.

Osgood’s first try at crafting “destination opera” at Chautauqua was 2017’s audacious season-opener—the U.S. premiere of Ottorino Respighi’s 1935 adaptation of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, starring Daniel Belcher and Heather Johnson. (For 2017’s Don Pasquale, the company reexamined its longstanding policy that all works given in Norton Hall be sung in English, allowing original-language works with surtitles.) This summer promises the “Beaumarchais Trilogy”—Barbiere with Belcher and mezzo Aleks Romano; Vid Guerrerio’s timely, Hollywood-set Spanglish adaptation, ¡Figaro! (90210); and The Ghosts of Versailles, with Peter Kazaras directing Caitlin Lynch, Belcher and Romano in the bravura roles that John Corigliano and librettist William M. Hoffman crafted for Teresa Stratas, Håkan Hagegård and Marilyn Horne. The Rossini and Mozart play throughout July, but visitors can experience all three operas from July 25 to July 27, with travel packages on offer. As the Chautauqua Institution celebrates the centennial of U.S. women’s suffrage, next year’s flagship title will be The Mother of Us All, a piece at once typifying Steven Osgood’s artistic profile and reflecting the proud history—and present—of civics-driven Chautauqua. spacer 

David Shengold  has written for the programs of the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Covent Garden and the Wexford Festival. 

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