A Young Company Hits Its Stride In Cooperstown

The 18-year-old Glimmerglass Opera attracts adventuresome directors and top-flight talent

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y., has long been famous as the home of the Baseball Hall of Fame. These days, however, the streets of this quaint lakeside town are increasingly filled with opera fans, thanks to the ever-growing local and national presence of Glimmerglass Opera.

It was not always this way. The company, which took its name from the nearby Glimmerglass State Park, was begun in 1975 by the head of the Romance languages department at the state college in nearby Oneonta, N.Y. The opera took up summer residency in the cramped auditorium of the local high school. Today the company's home is architect Hugh Hardy's beautiful and intimate 900-seat Alice Busch Opera Theater, perched in the middle of 43 acres of former farmland on the shores of Lake Otsego. It continues to establish itself as one of the most adventuresome of companies, having earned the loyalties of such talents as directors Jonathan Miller and Mark Lamos, and designer John Conklin.

By 1978, when it was obvious that the company needed more professional organization, some concerned board members approached Paul Kellogg, a writer and devoted opera lover, who had a home just outside of town, and asked if he would be interested in becoming general director for the 1979 season. As Mr. Kellogg explains it, "It sounded great. On the one hand, I didn't want to engage myself to anything as demanding at that, but it seemed on the other hand as though my whole life had been pointing toward tha t, so I decided to go for it."

Kellogg's father had studied with the legendary operatic tenor Jean de Rezske and had also established the vocal and diction department at 20th Century Fox, so Paul Kellogg comes by his love of opera naturally. Under his guidance, the company has grown from two productions a summer to four productions performed in repertory. And of course, he presided over the opening, in 1987, of the new theater and the ensuing artistic growth. The young company's style emerges

During the inaugural season of the new house, a rising Scottish conductor, Stewart Robertson, led a production of Benjamin Britten's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." It was quickly evident that he and Kellogg had similar ambitions for Glimmerglass Opera, and he was asked to become the company's music director. "For me it was attractive," Mr. Robertson explains, "because it was a young company with a lot in place already, and yet kind of open - it was just about ready to get a personality of its own.

"Paul and I work extremely well, very much - in as far as it's possible for two people to be - of one mind as to the way this company should go," he says. "We have similar kinds of sensibilities; we make a lot of the decisions together."

Robertson, who is currently music director of both the Santa Fe and Inland Empire Symphony Orchestras, conducts two operas a season. This year, it's the East Coast premiere of David Carlson's "The Midnight Angel" and Jules Massenet's "Werther." He has built the orchestra from the competent ensemble I heard during that 1987 inaugural season to one that today can cope with Rossini, Mozart, and Carlson with commitment and grace.

Glimmerglass has grown as a company of artistic vision. "Visually I think our house style has emerged as being on the cutting edge of what's happening - visually very arresting," Robertson declares. "We have directors with a high theatrical sensibility. I think that year by year, as the reputation of the company grows, we're able to attract a uniformly higher caliber of singer, and I think that's [because of] the chance to work with a Jonathan Miller or a Mark Lamos in productions that will get some crit ical attention - and with conductors and a very good coaching staff."

Kellogg says the company is at something of a crossroad. "We are ahead of ourselves artistically, if I may say so. We're doing work with people who would not ordinarily be working for companies with a $2.2 million budget like ours - Martha Clarke, Mark Lamos, John Conklin, Bob Israel, Keith Warner, Jonathan Miller. And they give us a burst of artistic energy and intelligence that is, from my observations, unusual."

He knows that now the company has to expand behind the scenes, so that the administrative and backstage apparatus functions with the same smoothness as what audiences see on stage. He cites the need for expanded rehearsal facilities and housing for the artists. (Architect Hardy has already designed the new rehearsal hall, which will also double as a reception hall for company functions.)

Good transient housing is scarce in the Cooperstown area, and while the number of bed and breakfasts has more than quadrupled since the new theater opened, finding places for all the company has been a constant problem. Glimmerglass Opera recently bought housing for its technical staff in a nearby community, and Kellogg hopes to be able to build a village of one-bedroom cabins across the street from the Busch Theater for the singers and senior staff. He also needs to be sure talented young singers know a bout the Young American Artists program, which serves as a showcase and as a pool of cover artists: This year, when the lead soprano was forced to withdraw from "Le Comte Ory," Lyndy Simons stepped in on extremely short notice (see story, left). Looking at opera as theater

Kellogg also acknowledges the need for shrewder marketing to make the company better known nationally, and even internationally. With this comes the need for expanding the financial base to a national rather than merely regional level. These are the challenges Glimmerglass faces, but at least Kellogg is clear about his vision for the company: "I've always been interested in opera as theater. What I'm interested in now is in non-literal, non-realistic productions. Realistic opera bores me, unless it's so well done and such a beautiful production that it satisfies me visually.... For the moment, what I'm interested in here is playing with seeing how far we can go in making opera a contemporary theater medium.

"A summer festival is not only what it does artistically, it's what it provides people in the way of a full experience. That's what we have to do something about - to make it really irresistible to people who come here," Kellogg says. "My dream is to make Glimmerglass Opera into the kind of place where going to opera is one of the most pleasant things in the world to do."

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