Q & A: Berkshire Opera Festival’s Co-Founders Jonathon Loy, Brian Garman & Executive Director Abigail Rollins On the Festival Making Waves in New England

By Chris Ruel

Fresh off a successful run of Heggie and Scheer’s “Three Decembers,” the Berkshire Opera Fest is set to open the main stage production of “Don Giovanni” at Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, Great Barrington, MA, on August 20th. 2022. The show will have additional performances on August 23 and 26.

In this round table-style interview, OperaWire spoke with Co-founders Jonathon Loy and Brian Garman along with the Festival’s Executive Director Abigail Rollins. Loy and Garman founded the company in 2014 and took two years to get the Festival up and running before debuting  in 2016 with “Madama Butterfly.” The show garnered excellent reviews; however, not wanting to become pigeonholed as a Festival that just rehashed the classics, the following year the  Festival staged Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos,” a bold choice that put the Festival on the map as an artistic force that filled the need for opera in an arts-rich region of New England.

Starring in BOF’s production of “Don Giovanni” is bass-baritone André Courville in the title role, bass Christian Zaremba as Leporello, soprano Laura Wilde as Donna Anna, tenor Joshua Blue as Don Ottavio, mezzo-soprano Megan Moore as Donna Elvira, bass John Cheek as Commendatore, soprano Natalia Santaliz as Zerlina, and baritone Brian James Myer as Masetto.

OW: What’s at the heart of the Berkshire Opera Festival?

Brian Garman: I’d say at the moment, we are where we want to be. When we founded the company in 2014, we had an idea of how we wanted things to look in the first year, how we wanted things to look in the fifth year, and how we wanted them to look in the tenth year in terms of the scope of what the company would be and the size of the company.

We have managed to stay pretty close to those original plans, I’m happy to say. Of course, Covid has slowed everything down and delayed a bunch of things that we had intended to put into place. But, last summer, we did our first major expansion, which was by adding a second stage series. Now, we do two productions every summer; a second stage production in July, the main stage production in August, and our annual free recital that we present to the community also happen in August.

At some point—hopefully, by the end of this decade—we would like to add a training component to the festival; a young artist program for young singers, and perhaps also, depending on a lot of factors, for directors and conductors. They would also have their own production. Ultimately, I see us doing three productions, and that’s probably it. This is a very rich arts community, a very crowded market, and there just aren’t many dates that are free on the calendar to draw an audience with everything else that’s going on in the Berkshires.

Jonathon Loy: That’s very well said. At the heart of what we do, in addition to what Brian said, is producing the greatest opera at the highest level. The Berkshires is a magical place. There was a void of opera, and so here we are.

Abigail Rollins: I’m excited about situations where we’re introducing opera to someone for the very first time. I grew up in a college town in southeast Ohio where there was no opera, so I didn’t see my first opera until I was 20 years old. That just happens when you’re in these smaller communities where you don’t have access to the art form.

This is what we can provide to our community, and I think that as we continue to expand, lean more into community engagement, and especially education programs, these are things I’m excited about as well.

OW: Has your audience expanded?

AR: When we look at the audience data now, we are pulling from all over the region, with audiences coming from Albany, Hartford, and coming up from New York. We really view ourselves as a regional company.

OW: Abigail, you come from the dance world. What’s it like working with opera?

AR: As someone who comes from a dance background, as I watch opera, I’m looking at it and relating to it in a sort of similar way as I do a modern dance piece, for example. I find it very visceral in the physical ways I feel it in my body when I’m experiencing opera.

On the administrative side, I find me not coming from an opera background is sometimes an advantage because I’m able to step back mentally and view things more objectively.

I consider myself a bit of a newbie and still undergoing a learning experience. As I think about some ways we’re marketing to newer audiences and explaining things, I can point things out, like if someone is relatively new to opera, a term may not make sense or perhaps this needs more explanation, or if we presented it slightly differently, that might make it more accessible to people.

Anytime we can bring dance into a production, that’s great.

OW: How has the Berkshire Opera Festival changed since its first production in 2016?

BG: The biggest thing I see as having changed is that the size of our audience has expanded dramatically; our donor base has expanded even more dramatically. That has afforded us the opportunity to have a full staff and do more projects because we have more resources, financially speaking, than we did in 2016.

One thing I’m happy about that hasn’t changed is from the very beginning, our primary goal was to bring the greatest artists to the Berkshires. Without artists, there is no art. That’s something I’ve always been conscientious of in my casting. We have always wanted to bring the absolute highest quality artists that we could. This also goes for the musicians in our orchestra. It goes for the designers Jonathon engages, our guest conductors, and directors, and that’s been a priority from the very beginning.

OW: How do you negotiate Tanglewood?

BG: We negotiate Tanglewood in the same way we negotiate all the other arts organizations up here. There are tons of theater, chamber music, choral music, and Shakespeare. As I said earlier, the calendar gets crowded. We may be, in certain cases, vying for the same audience in terms of ticket sales, but in none of these cases are we competing with the same product. What Tanglewood does differs from what we do, which differs from what Jacob’s Pillow does. I don’t think we’ve ever really seen it be an obstacle.

JL: We’re friendly with the administration at Tanglewood, and they’ve been very kind in many ways. We talk to them, and I’d go one step further; they are doing the same piece as us this summer, but for me, it’s not the same product. They are not doing a production of the show. So, if someone just wants to go listen to “Giovanni,” they can do that, and then they probably would also like to see it performed in a full production on stage. So, it really it’s collaborative; we all view each other that way, as one big collaboration.

OW: What’s the Festival’s approach to programming?

BG: We believe that opera companies have DNA. What we knew for a fact is that if we started as a company, who in our first three years did “La Bohème,” “Carmen,” and “Barber of Seville,” 10 years down the line, we’d still be the company doing “La Bohème,” “Carmen,” and “Barber of Seville” because the public wouldn’t accept anything else.

Those are all masterpieces and pieces we will do at some point, but we knew that for the artistic health of the company, we couldn’t begin that way, and we couldn’t program those things in a row. We choose “Madama Butterfly” because it’s not one of the big three or five, perhaps, but it does have some name recognition. Puccini has name recognition, so we thought that was a good compromise.

Then, in the second year, we had this crazy but great idea—though risky—to do “Ariadne auf Naxos.” That got a lot of people and press outside of the Berkshires interested in what we were doing because people were saying: “What the hell is up with this new little company up in the Berkshires doing ‘Ariadne auf Naxos? How is that possible?’ It did not sell as much as we had hoped it might have, but there were other advantages to doing it.

We’ve tried to keep a balance through the years, but now with the addition of the second stage series, it opens up a whole new world of repertoire possibilities.

AR: We have such a limited season with a few productions, and there are so many things we would like to do. I appreciate the fact that we have free concerts and recitals. It opens up a world of possibilities for ourselves to do a deeper dive into specific themes or specific composers.

OW: How did you choose this year’s program?

BG: “Giovanni” was a holdover from 2020. We had wanted to do a Mozart opera, and we chose “Giovanni,” which is one of the world’s great masterpieces. And then, of course, 2020 happened. Everyone was already contracted for “Falstaff” and “Glory Denied” in 2021, so the earliest we could move “Giovanni” was the summer of 2022. Fortunately, we were able to get almost the entire original cast.

To balance it out, we chose another American opera, [“Three Decembers”], for the second stage production  This is not to say that it will always be an American opera or will always be a contemporary opera, but it made sense, particularly given the fact that we’re doing it in a venue that is new to us: P.S. 21, in Chatham, [New York]. It seemed to reflect the programming that the P.S. 21 audiences are also accustomed to it, and it would fit the space well.

The [“High on the Ramparts”] concert that we’re doing has several purposes. I certainly hope we can reach underrepresented communities. But, we also wanted to present to the public music by a very large handful of Black composers who wrote masterpieces and whose works have been unfairly neglected through the years for no reason other than they were Black.

OW: How did you handle the less savory aspects of “Don Giovanni?”

JL: The concept of the production deals directly with that without talking about #metoo. My biggest challenge was how do we deal with this subject matter? Okay, he’s an anti-hero, but in 2022, nothing about this is amusing. His behavior is appalling, and we can’t apologize for it anymore.

I love adding dance to almost everything I’ve ever done here, and so I thought about how we dissect this character in a way that actually somewhat humanizes him and brings it to reality. So, what I’ve done is add a principal male dancer who is Don Giovanni’s ego, or id; the part that makes him do horrible things without being counterbalanced by the superego.

We see onstage his ego and the massive conflict between the two of them so that with every terrible decision he makes, you can see the ego loving it and Giovanni actually hating himself. What he does is then medicate by taking tons of pills; he’s always high, basically through the whole thing, and you watch the arc. Everyone else is sucked into this vortex of this one person. We all know that one person with horrible energy can kind of bring everyone down into that pit of Hell with them. As he does worse and worse, he becomes more and more “medicated” until the end. He kills himself basically by overdosing, and what goes to Hell is his soul, his ego. That’s how I deal with it. It’s not making an excuse then for his behavior.

We hope there’s some humanity in every human being that is good, but sometimes the ego, or that part of you that makes you do horrible things, wins out sometimes.

OW: Brian, as the conductor for “Giovanni,” what’s your approach to Mozart’s music?

BG: When you perform “Don Giovanni,” you have a decision to make immediately. Its first version premiered in Prague. A couple of years later, Mozart made a number of substantial revisions to it, took out some arias, and added others. He added a wonderful duet for Leporello and Zerlina, and that is the Vienna version.

What we have had over the past 100 years or so is this weird, sort of hybrid version that combines both Prague and Vienna, and that’s something that I never really questioned until I did “Don Giovanni” for the first time 25-ish years ago.

It made me think that it didn’t make a great deal of sense from a dramatic or structural point of view. The first time I did the Vienna version—which is the version we’re presenting here in August—I said to myself that it made a lot of sense and it can’t possibly be done any other way. Dramatically, musically, and structurally, there’s this beautiful symmetry between the two acts; things make sense in a different kind of way than they do in either the Prague version or in the hybrid. So, that’s the first decision you have to make.

You bring up some people who say you can’t touch Mozart, but the farther you go back in time, the less there is on the page, so you have to make decisions. There were a lot of things taken for granted; certain appoggiaturas, certain cadenzas that people would sing. If you’re the composer, you don’t need to write this down because people are going to do it anyway, because that’s what the practice was, that’s what the habit was.

We don’t live in that time anymore, so we as conductors have to make decisions about what those performance practices are, and we have to decide a lot of things that are not on the page. I think with Mozart—certainly much more than Verdi or Puccini, you’ll hear five conductors conducting “Don Giovanni” or “The Marriage of Figaro” or “Magic Flute” in five completely different ways. It’s because they believe, according to their research and their musical sensibilities, that this is probably what Mozart intended.

JL: I haven’t directed my own production in three years. This is going to be very emotional for me. I’m so excited to get back into the rehearsal room. For me, the rehearsal process is everything. As a stage director, I leave once the show opens.

“Giovanni” is an amazing piece and a really, really hard piece for a director; there are so many challenges. We have an amazing cast and an amazing production.

OW: What excites you the most about this year’s festival?

AR: I am excited that we finally get to do “Don Giovanni.” It’s the piece we were first talking about when I was interviewing for this position and was to be the focal point of my entire first year with the company. Three years later, we’re finally doing it.

BG: What I’m excited about this year is a version of what I’m excited about at the beginning of every summer. For this one, there are two things. Number one: I’m excited about the opportunity to reach new audiences and to bring more people into the Berkshire Opera fold. Number two is to create great art with world-class artists. What could be better than that?

JL: Support your local opera company. We need donors, ticket buyers, volunteers, and people to tell ten of their friends.

About the BOF Team

BOF Co-Founder Jonathon Loy currently serves as Director of Production and is a Guest Director on the Staging Staff at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City since 2009. An active Stage Director, Loy has directed the revivals of “Tosca,” “Carmen,” “Le Nozze di Figaro,” and “Faust” at the Metropolitan Opera.  He has directed productions of “Don Pasquale,” “Rigoletto,” “Ariadne auf Naxos,” and “Madama Butterfly” with BOF for the 2019, 2018, 2017 and 2016 seasons, respectively.

Festival Co-Founder Maestro Brian Garman is BOF’s Artistic Director was previously the Resident Conductor and Chorus Master at Pittsburgh Opera for ten years, leading Pittsburgh’s productions of Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette,” Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro,” Die Zauberflöte,” and Massenet’s “Werther,” among others, all to unanimous praise.  As Music Director of the Pittsburgh Opera Center, he helmed several productions, including Mozart’s “La Clemenza di Tito,” Puccini’s “La Rondine,” Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor,” Verdi’s “Il Corsaro,” and J. Strauss’s “Die Fledermaus.”  For six years, Garman was a senior member of the music staff of The Santa Fe Opera where he served as associate conductor for numerous productions, and assisted in the musical preparation of more than 25 different operas, including two world premieres.

Executive Director Abigail Rollins joined the administrative team in 2019 after spending much of her time in the world of dance. Rollins interned at several notable dance companies and festivals, including BalletMet, American Dance Festival, and Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. As an arts administrator, Rollins was hired by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company (CSC) to fill a six-month Interim General Manager position, and she was subsequently offered the position permanently. In 2017 she was was promoted to Managing Director in 2017.  During her tenure, CSC underwent tremendous growth and expansion. The annual budget tripled from $500,000 in 2008 to over $1.7 million in 2018, expanding programming from being a summer-only event to having a year-round season, and most recently, partnering with Google to create and produce a first-of-its-kind adaptation of Hamlet filmed in virtual reality.


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