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Art Notes: Opera North readies slate at Blow-Me-Down Farm

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    Circus performers Andrea Murillo and Kyle Driggs practice outside of the tent during a rehearsal for Opera North's "Havana Nights" at Blow-Me-Down Farm in Cornish, N.H., on Tuesday, July 13, 2021. Both Murillo and Driggs are returning to Opera North for their second season after being featured in "Singers and Swingers" in 2018. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

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    Opera North executive director Evans Haile plays the piano while circus performer Ariele Ebacher practices a low-wire act during a rehearsal for Opera North's "Havana Nights" at Blow-Me-Down Farm in Cornish, N.H., on Tuesday, July 13, 2021. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America photographs — Alex Driehaus

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    From left, Ariele Ebacher, Joel Jeske, Matthew Soibelman, and Shereen Hickman run through the opening scene with singers and circus performers during a rehearsal for Opera North's "Havana Nights" at Blow-Me-Down Farm in Cornish, N.H., on Tuesday, July 13, 2021. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/14/2021 9:02:33 PM
Modified: 7/14/2021 9:02:36 PM

CORNISH — On an overcast Tuesday afternoon, the view of Mount Ascutney from Blow-Me-Down Farm was obscured by heavy clouds.

A field planted in corn also blocked a bend in the Connecticut River that’s usually visible from in front of the former home of Charles Beaman Jr., the New York lawyer who lured Augustus Saint-Gaudens to Cornish in 1885, thereby starting the Cornish Colony.

Regardless of what visitors to the farm can see on any given day, Evans Haile knows what the property represents, both to Opera North, the company he leads, and to the arts in the Upper Valley.

“One of the thoughts that we’ve talked about from day one is that we want Blow-Me-Down Farm to be a true park for the arts,” Haile said.

If Opera North succeeds, the farm, which is part of the Saint-Gaudens National Historical Park, will help the Upper Valley become a destination for arts lovers, with a steady stream of tourists attending performances not only in Cornish, but at Dartmouth College, Northern Stage, ArtisTree and other venues.

So, with the opera company holding all of its performances here this summer and the season due to start Friday, the pressure is on.

The first show, Havana Nights, a mix of Latin-inflected songs and circus theatrics, starts the season. The highlight of the schedule is an innovative production of La Boheme at the end of the month. There aren’t many seats left, and Haile said the company had opened the July 22 dress rehearsal for one production, Extraordinary Women, a program of Baroque songs in women’s voices, and a July 26 dress rehearsal of La Boheme to an audience.

Weather permitting, the company plans to open up more seats for Music of the Knights, a sold out show of songs from Andrew Lloyd Webber, Elton John and Paul McCartney, all of whom can put “Sir” before their names. The concert of New York cabaret singers will be held on the lawn but will move into the tent if it rains.

A slate of mostly sold-out shows does wonders for a performing arts leader’s state of mind, and Haile seemed at ease on Tuesday. It also helps that Blow-Me-Down Farm, a private residence between Route 12A and the river for most of its post-colonial history, is as much a draw as the music.

“We want it to be an experience for someone who comes, from the moment they park their cars until the moment they leave,” Haile said.

Visitors can bring picnics and sit among a stand of tall spruces near the house and the circus tent or on the field near the farm’s massive red barn. On a clear day, Mount Ascutney will loom next to the tent.

It’s worth remembering that up until 2011, Opera North produced only two operas a year at Lebanon Opera House. The programs expanded the following year to include a musical, and in 2018, the company produced its first show under a circus tent.

Next year, Opera North celebrates its 40th anniversary, and nearly everything it does is shaped by its move two towns south.

For example, Louis Burkot, one of Opera North’s founders and still its primary creative force, asked Helena Binder if she’d be interested in directing Verdi’s Rigoletto in the circus tent.

Binder, an opera and theater director who lives in Thetford, loved the idea. The opera’s title character is a court jester, so the tent seemed an obvious site.

Because of the pandemic, “that kind of got shoved aside,” Binder said.

Instead, she’s directing La Boheme. “Louis was eager to do an opera that didn’t have a chorus,” said Binder, who directed an Opera North production of Macbeth in 2019. La Boheme, which follows a group of students living in Paris, was easier to modify than Rigoletto.

The tent circumscribes the production in all kinds of ways. Performing an opera in the round means it’s impossible to use supertitles, so Opera North is presenting La Boheme in English. By removing the chorus, which was intended to make the opera easier to produce, the run-time is cut down to 90 minutes.

“It’s the first time I’ve directed an opera in the round,” Binder said. Typically, singers face outward from the stage and can see the maestro and take their cues and timing from him. In the round, they’ll face the audience and look for maestro — that’s Burkot — out of the corners of their eyes.

Binder has directed La Boheme three times before, setting the opera in the 1820s, the 1890s and the 1960s. This version is set in the Paris of the 1920s and is inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s memoir of the era, A Moveable Feast, and the 2011 Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris, in which the present-day hero is transported back to the days of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jean Cocteau and Josephine Baker.

Performing a shortened version of a classic Italian opera in English might trouble some of the purists, but the format makes it more approachable, Binder said.

“I think this is a wonderful opportunity for those who wanted to dip their toe in opera to try it out,” she said.

With only around 400 seats, the tent also is more intimate than Lebanon Opera House, which seats 800. Circus and physical theater director Mark Lonergan, who’s directing Havana Nights, noted that the last row of seats in the small tent is closer to the stage than the front row is at the Big Apple Circus.

“Most of the singers have never performed in an environment like that,” Lonergan said.

That’s the whole point of Opera North’s project at Blow-Me-Down Farm. Last year, the farm enabled Opera North to present live performances before an audience while other opera companies were either shut down or performing online.

“It’s a challenge, because it means having to take works like La Boheme and reinvent,” Burkot said. “Evans has stressed trying to bring it to the masses with this kind of performance,” he added.

The company’s future in Cornish will depend on it.

For tickets to Opera North productions, go to operanorth.org.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.




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