(Photo: Benjamin Ealovega)
Ashutosh Khandekar - Editor
From the current issue of Opera Now
This is the time of year when people who run opera festivals begin to develop an unhealthy obsession with El Niño, the climatic phenomenon that helps to determine whether our summers will be a washout or ablaze with sunshine. The unpredictability of the weather – especially in Britain, which has, ironically, more outdoor summer opera events than anywhere else in the world – adds an edge to all the planning and energy that goes into a festival season. In this respect, opera festivals are a bit like weddings: months, often years of preparation go into a short, make-or-break burst of activity; humdrum routines are broken, expectations are heightened, fashion disasters are paraded with pride and everyone drinks far too much.
Seriously though, festivals have a vital role to play in the way we understand and consume opera. Take the Rossini Festival in Pesaro, which is much more than merely a string of performances by the Italian seaside: the festival has, during the course of nearly four decades, completely transformed our understanding of one of opera’s towering geniuses. This unassuming town on the Adriatic coast, where Rossini was born, is today a centre of research and scholarship that has added to the sum of the composer’s operas performed regularly around the world. The Festival’s Academy, meanwhile, has nurtured the art of bel canto singing among a new generation of singers. This is where artists such as Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Flórez honed their vocal skills.
Bayreuth, of course, is another case in point. It is no accident that Wagner intended his Ring cycle to be presented in a festival context, and in a ‘Festival House’ built specially for the occasion. The ‘Wagner effect’ has rubbed off in many unexpected quarters, from Seattle on the US West Coast, whose Ring festival has become a mecca for great Wagner singing, to Longborough Festival Opera in the rolling English countryside of the Cotswolds, which staged a scaled-down but astonishingly effective Ring a couple of years ago and this year will be tackling Tristan und Isolde.
What makes a successful opera festival? At their best, festivals concentrate the mind and focus the spirit in a way that is hard to recreate in our day-to-day opera-going. They offer new horizons to explore, from the rarest repertoire in Wexford to Baroque specialities in the authentic 18th-century palace theatre in Drottningholm. The very best festivals are infused with a sense of place – from ancient amphitheatres in Verona and in Aspendos in Turkey, to evocative landscapes such as the ancient fortified rocks of Masada by the Dead Sea and the New Mexican desert of Santa Fe. Opera, in a festival setting, is more even than the sum of its many parts. There is a whole new dimension to be explored – come rain or shine.
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