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Opera North Combines Aerialists, Arias and Ambition

  • Aerial circus artist Ashlee Montague, of New York City, rehearses Skyfall with Opera North singer Blake Jennings, of Boston, left, as Assistant Director Antoinette De Pietropolo, back left, and Director Mark Lonergan, back right, look on at Blow-Me-Down Farm in Cornish, N.H., Monday, July 10, 2018. The opera company is in collaboration with the National Park Service to turn the farm into a home for the visual and performing arts. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • During breaks in rehearsal for Singers and Swingers at Blow-Me-Down Farm in Cornish, N.H., performers took advantage of the shelter inside the farm's main house, which is slated for renovation beginning this fall. Juggler Kyle Driggs, of Philadelphia, practices balancing his cap in front of a backdrop of peeling ceiling paper in the house in Cornish, N.H., Monday, July 9, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Pianist and singer Attila Dobak, of Opera North, talks with Singers and Swingers director Mark Lonergan, right, after rehearsing the song Alejate with aerial artist Cassady Rose Bonjo and Richard Hankes, left, at Blow-Me-Down Farm in Cornish, N.H., Monday, July 9, 2018. "As far as I know, I've never heard of this being done before with circus and opera," said Lonergan. The show will have four performances this Friday through Sunday. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Opera North General Director Evans Haile sits in the Blow-Me-Down Farm house in Cornish New Hampshire across the Connecticut River from Mount Ascutney Monday, July 9, 2018. Haile was at the farm preparing of the company's Singers and Swingers, a performance of opera and circus performance. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Correspondent
Wednesday, July 11, 2018

On a warm afternoon this week, Evans Haile, the general director of Opera North, strolled the grounds of Blow-Me-Down Farm in Cornish, surveying all the work underway for this weekend’s four performances of “Singers & Swingers,” a unique, never-been-done-before evening of opera and Broadway music and circus performance.

For the show, which kicks off the company’s Summerfest 2018 on Friday, technicians had erected a circus tent that can hold up to 350 people, the venue for this unusual hybrid of two very dramatic art forms. (The tent itself appears through a partnership with the American Theatre Circus, Haile said.)

The farm basked in the summer heat and as you approached the main farmhouse and old stone wall that separates the farm and its buildings from a hay field, the winding Connecticut River came into view. Mt. Ascutney dominated the horizon. Some of the circus artists sat on the steps of the farmhouse or did stretching exercises in the tent.

Seeing all this underway, Haile couldn’t have looked happier.

“I consider the season as a journey, because of the opening of Blow-Me-Down Farm and because it is a journey into the imagination and the possibilities for the future,” he said.

Opera North, which last year celebrated its 35th anniversary, has taken some major steps in the past year.

In fact, this season represents a number of firsts for Opera North. It is the first time that the company has performed in a circus tent, Haile said. And the performances at the farm represent the next step in Opera North’s evolution and expansion, as it begins the process of turning the farm and property into a permanent home and the setting for a major summer arts festival.

This weekend’s “Singers & Swingers” is intended to serve as a broader introduction for Upper Valley audiences, both to the 2018 season and to Blow-Me-Down Farm.

Opera North artists will sing excerpts from this season’s operas, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann, which will be staged from Aug. 3 through Aug. 15 at Lebanon Opera House. They will also sing popular hits, as well as music composed by Leonard Bernstein, in honor of the centenary of his birth.

Simultaneously, artists who have worked with both Circus Smirkus and the Big Apple Circus will perform set pieces that complement the music. The show is meant to draw in a wide audience, from families and children to anyone else interested in Opera North, the history of the Cornish Colony and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

The circus pyrotechnics are conceived and staged by Mark Lonergan, the creative director of Vermont’s Circus Smirkus and a guest director with the Big Apple Circus. Antoinette DiPietropolo, who has also worked with Big Apple Circus, is the associate director and choreographer.

“I hope it will speak to people who are opera lovers and circus lovers, and everyone in between,” said Lonergan.

The idea, he added, is not to literally act out the drama of the arias, but to offer a new interpretation through a combination of the dance, acrobatics and gymnastics which are characteristic of such companies as Cirque de Soleil and the Big Apple Circus.

The impetus to move into Blow-Me-Down Farm, Haile said, was to ensure not only that Opera North continues to be an important attraction in the Upper Valley but also stamp it as a significant summer arts festival in the vein of Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Blow-Me-Down Farm, with its view of Mt. Ascutney and the winding river, once belonged to a prosperous New York lawyer named Charles Beaman, a friend of Saint-Gaudens.

There are 10 buildings on the property, nine of which, including the main house, a caretaker’s cottage, a barn, a dance hall, blacksmith shops, sheds and an 1850s Victorian playhouse, could be used for arts-related purposes.

In 2010, the National Park Service accepted the donation of Blow-Me-Down Farm by the Augustus Saint-Gaudens Memorial, the nonprofit partner of the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site.

The intention of the park service was to turn the 43-acre property overlooking the Connecticut River into a national park for the arts, which could support the performing and visual arts, arts education, and artists’ studios and residencies. It is one of the few such collaborations between the National Park Service and an artistic company in the country, Haile said.

The Northern Borders Regional Commission awarded Opera North a grant to begin restoration of the farmhouse. The company has also received a grant from the Byrne Foundation in Hanover, as well as matching challenge grants, for this first phase of renovation. Opera North will use the property for office and technical space, and artists’ studios. Its scene shop is already across the river in Windsor; the shop makes scenery not only for Opera North but for local schools and regional opera companies. The property may also be opened for private receptions and retreats. Reconstruction of the main house begins in the fall.

These plans dovetail with Opera North’s ambitions. Between the summer season, a yet-to-be-announced performance this fall and a holiday production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera Hansel and Gretel, the company is “becoming much more of a year-round presence” in the cultural life of the Upper Valley, Haile said.

What makes Opera North succeed, Haile said, is “a team of people who know how each other work.”

Foremost, he said, the credit goes to artistic director Louis Burkot, who founded Opera North and who will conduct both Barber of Seville and Tales of Hoffmann. (In the past few years guest conductors have been invited to lead the orchestra in one or more of the productions.)

“(Burkot) knows how to bring out the real truth in singers. He brings out their humanity and theatricality,” Haile said.

Also returning this season are stage directors Evan Pappas, who will reinterpret Barber, and Russell Treyz, who will stage Hoffmann.

John Bartenstein comes back as lighting designer. This year the New York and Paris-based scenic designer Audrey Vuong, who has worked throughout Europe, will create the sets for both productions. Jack Maisenbach is the costume designer.

Following the tradition of the past few years Opera North will also take its act on the road. Company members will perform on Friday, July 20 at the Highland Center for the Arts in Greensboro, Vt.; Saturday, July 21 at Lebanon United Methodist Church; Sunday, July 22 at the Fells Historic Estate and Gardens in Newbury, N.H., and on Thursday, July 26 as part of Lake Sunapee Cruises in Sunapee, N.H.

“Singers & Swingers” will be performed Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 5 p.m., For information and tickets online go to operanorth.org or call 603-448-4141. For the Lebanon Opera House box office call 603-448-0400.

Nicola Smith can be reached at mail@nicolasmith.org.