SARATOGA SPRINGS — The summer season may have just started last week, but Opera Saratoga’s annual festival is in mid-stride and about to high step it into its highly anticipated series of opera productions.
The Spa City company’s 2019 Summer Festival started last month with several concerts and master classes, one of which included a community symposium focused on the understanding of eating disorders. A curious subject to cover, except that the topic is the focus within the world premiere of the production “Ellen West.”
Frank Bidart’s poem Ellen West, upon which the opera is based, was inspired by a real-life, early 20th-century woman who suffered from body dysmorphia and ultimately succumbed to its bedfellow, bulimia. Using “Ellen West” as a pseudonym for his patient, Swiss psychiatrist Ludwig Binswanger published The Case of Ellen West: An Anthropological-Clinical Study in 1944, which remains a well-known and historically important case study in the field today. Dr. Binswanger’s paper was among the first to pay attention to a patient’s struggle of death anxiety and death obsession alongside the struggle with body image and bulimia.
“One of the most important roles Opera Saratoga plays is to engage with important societal issues through the lens of opera,” said Larry Edelson, the company’s artistic and general director. “The unique fusion of poetry and music that one finds in opera allows for exploration of a wide variety of deeply relevant subjects for contemporary society. While we know that opera entertains – it can do much more. The poetry and music of opera allow us to look at the world with fresh perspective, find common ground with others, and foster understanding and empathy.”
In the United States, 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life.
Opera Saratoga has an “ongoing commitment” to engage with the community through the production of contemporary operas that address vital issues, said Edelson. 2019 marks his fifth season as the company’s leader.
Through the poetry of Pulitzer Prize winner Frank Bidart and the music of Ricky Ian Gordon, this co-commission and co-production between Opera Saratoga and Beth Morrison Projects explores the emotional, psychological and physical challenges of a woman struggling with perceptions of her body, her relationship with food, and the world closing in around her. As challenging as the topic is to capture artistically, Edelson described the work as both genuine and honest.
“Composer Ricky Ian Gordon’s career has included critically acclaimed operas, musicals, and songs, performed by a veritable who’s who of American singers across the country,” said Edelson. “And poet Frank Bidart, winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize, has an extraordinary way of entering into the soul with astonishing insight. The World Premiere of Ellen West is not to be missed.”
“Ellen West” premieres at the Spa Little Theater on Sunday, June 30, at 2 p.m.
The ground-breaking production is sandwiched by the openings of two more productions, each showcasing the caliber of internationally renowned talents.
The first opera of the season will be Gaetano Donizetti’s French comedy, “La Fille du Régiment (The Daughter of the Regiment),” which returns to the company for the first time in 17 years.
Edelson will direct the production, which features the company debut of Argentinian Bel Canto tenor Santiago Ballerini in the role of Tonio, famous for the bravura aria ‘Pour mon âme’ in which the tenor sings a succession of nine high Cs in one of opera’s greatest showpieces. Two alumni of Opera Saratoga’s Young Artist Program return to make their principal artist debuts with the company this season: soprano Keely Futterer as Marie, the Daughter of the Regiment; and Alex Soare as Sergeant Sulpice. Andrew Bisantz (Le nozze di Figaro, 2016; The Consul, 2018) returns to Opera Saratoga to conduct.
“La Fille du Régiment (The Daughter of the Regiment)” opens at the Spa Little Theatre on Saturday, June 29, at 7:30 p.m.
The third production of the season brings Humperdinck’s classic “Hänsel und Gretel (Hansel and Gretel)” back to Opera Saratoga for the first time in 29 years in a boundary-breaking production by the Chicago-based theater company Manual Cinema, originally created for La Monnaie in Brussels. Manual Cinema combines handmade shadow puppetry and cinematic techniques to create immersive visual stories for stage and screen. Using vintage overhead projectors, puppets, actors and live feed cameras, Manual Cinema’s production of Hansel and Gretel is a remarkable hybrid between attending the cinema and the opera. Opera Saratoga presents the East Coast Premiere of this truly unique version of one of the most beloved operas in the repertoire, featuring members of Opera Saratoga’s Young Artist Program in all of the principal roles, with a guest appearance by members of the Children’s Chorus of the Glens Falls Symphony.
“Hänsel und Gretel (Hansel and Gretel)” opens at the Spa Little Theater on Friday, July 5, at 7:30 p.m.
“I am very excited to feature two operas this season that have not been seen in Saratoga Springs for many years.” said Edelson. “While opera entertains, I also believe strongly that it is a lens through which we can look at the world around us.”
For more information, visit www.operasaratoga.org.
Michael Hallisey is managing editor of Spotlight Newspapers.