Bold opera draws stars to rural nook

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Baritone James Maddalena is used to singing in some of the world's top opera houses - from New York and Milan to London and Berlin. But today the opera star is prepping for an unusual gig: a small, almost nonsinging role in an obscure opera that's being staged in a barn-like structure in upstate New York.

It's not that Mr. Maddalena is short of work. Simply, it was an opportunity to perform at the Glimmerglass Opera, a 29-year-old company whose rural simplicity belies its rising stature in the opera world. And Maddalena wanted to participate in a new production of Richard Rodney Bennett's 1965 work, "The Mines of Sulphur."

"I found the libretto to be very strong, and the role's need for me to be on stage so much, reacting to others, is an interesting acting challenge," he says, as the half-hour call resounds and a production aide pops a head in the door, checking on him.

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Outside, on the opera house's lawns, people share picnic lunches as a westerly breeze carries the smells and sounds of dairy farming their way. The 900-seat opera house has built a loyal audience attracted, in part, by Glimmerglass's reputation for exploring new and little known works.

"I was a little concerned because it's a small part in terms of singing, it's a long summer, and we opera stars do have fragile egos," continues the darkly handsome singer, adjusting his oversized beggar's trousers and touching up his dark makeup. "But I wanted to take on the dramatic challenges of the role."

Down the hall from Maddalena's dressing room, young soprano Caroline Worra describes how she did a double-take the first time she saw the cast list for the new production in which she is starring.

There, in the relatively minor role of Tovey, was Maddalena, a "living legend," as she puts it. She remembers his picture from the Opera Encyclopedia for his roles in the iconoclastic 1980s productions of director Peter Sellars.

"I had always heard that an opera is only as good as the people filling its smaller roles," says Ms. Worra, who followed two seasons in the Glimmerglass Young American Artists' Program with starring roles for New York City Opera.

Director David Schweitzer, an Obie-winning veteran of Off-Broadway theater, also speaks of Maddalena as "a hero." So does Stewart Robertson, Glimmerglass's music director and conductor, who has worked with the baritone in a number of key productions over the past decade, including a 1995 Glimmerglass production of "Don Giovanni."

Maddalena "had established himself as a niche singer," Mr. Robertson says. "He was the voice for John Adams's work." The singer has performed such classics of the contemporary opera as Adams's "The Death of Klinghoffer" and "Nixon in China," as well as Stewart Wallace's "Harvey Milk."

Maddalena says he wants to show the opera managers and casting agents who come each summer to Glimmerglass, which takes its name from James Fenimore Cooper's "Leatherstocking Tales," that he is more than just a singer of contemporary roles - that he can stretch and even act, without singing.

Maddalena's character in "The Mines of Sulphur" is the most sympathetic of three robber-murderers in this gothic-themed opera. The plot concerns a group of thieves who murder the sordid lord of a crumbling castle, then play host to a mysterious band of actors who perform a play that mirrors their own dark deeds. The singer says he modeled his character on homeless people he observed during a stay in Pittsburgh.

"The Mines of Sulphur" was composed at the height of England's 1960s reign as a beacon of Western culture, when composer Bennett was fresh from the influence of Benjamin Britten and about to embark on a major career as an Oscar-nominated film composer ("Far From the Madding Crowd," "Murder on the Orient Express," "Four Weddings and a Funeral").

The work is musically complex, but it's also as dramatically compelling as a 1960s British Dracula film.

"Singing in new operas is like working with a blank canvas. There's not a weight of tradition one needs to play off," Maddalena says.

Much of the baritone's singing occurs at the very end of the opera, when Tovey leads the cast into a mournful lament and plea for God's mercy.

"I love working with younger singers," says Maddalena. "Just this evening we [will] all go to the local high school where they will perform the opera. In the end, I learn as much from them as they learn from me."

Worra, for one, has found working with Maddalena inspiring.

She explains how the guest artists at Glimmerglass mentor participants in the Young Artists program, as well as each other.

According to Robertson, who has been with Glimmerglass for 17 years, the Young Artists program is the most coveted internship in opera.

Glimmerglass, he says, has become known as "the American Glyndebourne" - the renowned opera festival in Sussex, England - because of its adventuresome repertory; intimate, state-of-the-art opera house; top-notch performances; and the intensive involvement of talented singers such as Maddalena each season.

"Representatives from every major opera, as well as all the opera managers, pay close attention to what we do," says Worra after the matinee performance.

Maddalena and the other singers enjoy the atmosphere at Glimmerglass. "I just love being up here by the lake, living and breathing fine opera every summer," he says. "It's become like a second home."

The 2004 Glimmerglass season, which runs through Aug. 24, includes new productions of Puccini's 'La Fanciulla del West,' Handel's 'Imeneo,' and Gilbert & Sullivan's 'Patience.' Next season will include Mozart's 'Cosi Fan Tutte,' Massanet's 'Manon,' Poulenc's 'La Voix Humaine,' Donizetti's 'Lucia di Lammermoor,' and Britten's 'Death in Venice.' For more information on this or next season, call 607-547-5704 or visit www.glimmerglass.org.

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