SARATOGA SPRINGS — Fairy tales beguile, beckon, beg and taunt. And in the myths penned by the visionaries of other centuries, life burns if those gifted with riches ask too much.
There are witches, trolls, alchemists and beasts. There are shoes that never stop dancing and ovens waiting for bad little children.
For those who dare to venture into dense and misty forests, there is the wise old crone who offers a talisman of survival the brave can call upon when the trials of the road seem insurmountable.
And like any enchanting story, the battle of dark, light and love takes center stage for those reading or watching who want to look away, but never do.
On Wednesday night such a tale, “Zémire et Azor,” brought the mythical fairy tale opera of the beast and the beauty to life on stage in a technical rehearsal at Spa Little Theater in Saratoga Spa State Park in preparation for its Sunday opening as part of Opera Saratoga’s 2017 Summer Festival.
Thunder rolled and roiled while flashes of lightning momentarily illuminated the sky above the trees surrounding the ancient stone castle. And those watching could almost feel the ground shaking as a wayward sailor, who plucked a rose outside its heavy wooden doors, awakened the beast within.
And as the rumbling continued to warn, the winds rose and a horned fantastical beast, grander than the size of four men standing side-by-side, appeared.
The sailor and his companion fell to their knees in fear.
The beast had given the shipwrecked sailors shelter from a torrential storm and fed them in a feast generally relegated to royalty, to the tables of kings and queens. But plucking the rose asked too much of the beast and now the sailor must pay a heavy price for the beast’s demands.
Faced with the battle of dark and light, the sailor has one week to decide. Will he save himself and sacrifice his own beloved daughter? Will he leave the life and daughters he loves to remain the beast’s prisoner?
So goes the 1771 French opera with music by André Grétry and libretto by Jean François Marmontel.
And as Opera Saratoga prepares to open its 56th Summer Festival Season this weekend, three operas, spanning the range of the operatic cannon, offer area audiences performances generally seen in major cities.
“Every year, my goal is to put together a season that reflects the incredible power of opera to tell vivid and compelling stories through music in very different ways,” said Lawrence Edelson, artistic director and general manager, Wednesday evening just before places were called for the evening’s technical rehearsal. “You don’t have to travel to New York to see world-class opera.”
Now in his third season as the artistic director of the opera company, Edelson said he believes the reason they exist is to serve the community, and he is determined to bring opera to first-time audiences.
“The company is extraordinary,” said Maestro John Mauceri following a run-through rehearsal of the contemporary “The Cradle Will Rock” on Thursday afternoon.
Mauceri, who has been honored with myriad awards and is the recipient of a Grammy, Tony and two Emmys, to name a few, is conducting the one-time scandalous opera.
“The three operas are a perfect balance of every kind of opera in the world and it is a tribute to Larry and the board, he said.
After his six weeks in Saratoga Springs, Mauceri said he will leave to conduct at Royal Albert Hall in London and then on to Vienna, Hamburg and Los Angeles.
Bringing the festival
to the stage
At a near dizzying pace, Edelson juggles the details, demands and artistry of bringing three full operas to the Spa Little Theater stage in a matter of weeks.
There are extravagant, larger-than-life sets that must be created and loaded into the theater before transforming the bare stage into magical and sometimes fairytale worlds. There are costuming, technical and lighting demands. There is the inspired blending of movement and music into a fluidly elegant tale, not to mention a full orchestra, renowned creative team and award-winning performers, each needing a piece of his time.
Add to that the inevitable technical glitch and blip that pops up almost daily during lengthy rehearsals and its obvious only a masterful artist could keep pace with such an ambitious schedule of building and rehearsing.
And while Edelson admits it is challenging to tackle three productions — 11 performances in 16 days — he believes in the power of opera and is determined to bring opera to those who have never experienced it.
At the center of the 2017 Summer Festival will be a new production of Marc Blitzstein’s “The Cradle Will Rock,” directed and choreographed by Edelson and conducted by Mauceri.
“The Cradle Will Rock” has been almost exclusively produced with piano since its infamous opening night, which was shut down by the federal government in 1937.
About an attack on the abuse of political power by the wealthy, “Cradle” is as timely now as it was when it premiered in 1937, said Edelson.
“This is an opportunity to right a great wrong,” said Mauceri. “Nobody has brought this to the stage in over 57 years. Nobody living now has ever seen it.”
The festival opened on Saturday with a new production of Verdi’s comic masterpiece, “Falstaff,” which has not been produced by Opera Saratoga in 26 years.
And rounding out the season is “Zémire et Azor,” directed by James Ortiz, whose recent critically acclaimed production of “The Woodsman” was a sensation off-Broadway this past season.
Grétry’s 1771 opera ballet — a favorite of Mozart — incorporates both dance and Ortiz’s signature use of fantastical puppetry in his opera-directing debut.
“This is nothing like we’ve done before,” Edelson said.
And Edelson said that when he planned this summer’s season, he intentionally combined a classic repertoire with more contemporary opera to let people know the breadth and depth of opera.
Bringing opera to the streets
On a wintry night in February, the opera company sang outside on the trails at Spa State Park, all part of Edelson’s goal to bring opera to those who would never have a chance to experience it.
“There are preconceived ideas about opera. (But) it is a very exciting, vibrant and living art form,” Edelson said. “We are creating opportunities for people to connect to opera.”
During the summer, the opera company offers staged productions and throughout the rest of the year, they travel into the community visiting schools, nursing homes, senior centers and even venues like museums and clubs.
“Last year we performed for 15,000 area children at 50 schools in seven counties,” Edelson said.
The school performances are partially subsidized through grants and donations. And other community performances are fully subsidized through and Opera America Grant, making them free for parks, museums and senior centers.
“The best way to introduce opera to people is for there to be no risk,” he said, adding that if it is free, there is no risk. “The free events are a gateway.”