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It’s Un Bel Di As We Welcome The Berkshire Opera Festival

By Lisa Green

Since the Berkshire Opera Company folded in 2008, opera productions have been conspicuously absent from the performing arts scene in the Berkshires. So when Jonathon Loy and Brian Garman, both accomplished opera directors and conductors, announced plans to form the Berkshire Opera Festival, it wasn’t only opera aficionados that applauded the venture. While the principals in the cast of the first production, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, come from elsewhere, Loy and Garman didn’t have to go far to cast and hire many of the chorus, musicians and creative team members.

“I’m very happy to say that about 90 percent of our chorus is from the area, and nearly half of the orchestra is local,” says Garman. “There’s such a wealth of talent in the Berkshires that it would have been foolish not to tap into it. Employing local musicians whenever possible is central to the vision of Berkshire Opera Festival.”

The 2016 inaugural festival season opens on Aug. 27. You’ll appreciate it even more knowing who some of the locals are — on stage, behind it, and in the pit.

Beckie Kravetz, Wigs and Makeup Designer
Kravetz [in photo, above] is a world-renowned theatrical mask maker, which is how she started in the business, but through that segued into designing wigs and makeup. In 1988, she became the resident mask maker for the Los Angeles Opera, where she also worked as a principal makeup artist and assistant wig maker. Now living in Cummington, she’s missed working on opera productions. “I had a connection with an LA Opera colleague who had worked with Jonathon Loy at the Met (Opera Company), so when I read about the new company I introduced myself to him. Coming back to work in my own backyard is an incredible thrill.”

International costume designer Charles Caine, a 20-year Met veteran (and Egremont resident), is also working on this production. He had done a previous “Butterfly” with another wig and makeup designer, Steven Horak, who had a big wig stock, and those will be put to use in the Berkshire production. So Kravetz is primarily focusing on the makeup. While Kravetz often does dramatic, stylized painting for opera singers, she says Loy wants a subtle version of the Butterfly look, so the makeup will be only slightly dramatized.

The biggest challenge, she says, is that everybody is on stage in the first 15 minutes of the opera. “That’s a lot of people to get into wigs and makeup before the show,” she says. Fortunately, she has two assistants — Horak and an intern — and she’ll also be doing a training session with the cast to show them how to get started on their makeup. “Cat’s-eye (liner) works well as Asian eye makeup, and that’s really in style right now, so a lot of people know how to do it.” 

Steve Hassmer, Chorus and Uncle Yakuside
The tenor, who lives in Great Barrington, has a small part in Madama Butterfly’s story, as the uncle in the wedding scene. Hassmer’s degree was in music education, but he’s done more performing than teaching; he was in a national tour of My Fair Lady and worked on cruise ships for a while (a “survival job,” he calls it).

“After my wife finished dental school, we moved back east and I’ve been a stay-at-home dad, but in the past year I’ve been looking to get back into performing,” he says. He gave a concert last year in Stockbridge, has been taking voice lessons with the renowned opera singer Maureen O’Flynn, and has sung with Berkshire Lyric and The Cantilena Chamber Choir.

“It’s been such a treat listening to the world-class opera singers,” Hassmer says. “The Berkshire Opera Festival is super professional. Brian Garman is a fabulous musical director, and Jonathon Loy is great at running the rehearsals. It takes a lot of courage to do what these guys are doing, start up a company. They should be commended for trying to bring opera back to the Berkshires.”

Deane Prouty, Orchestra Contractor and Timpanist
Splitting his time between New Marlborough and New York City, Deane Prouty has to be one of the busiest guys in any music scene anywhere. As the orchestra contractor, he is responsible for hiring all of the musicians, holding auditions for the string players and many of the brass and wind players, to put together an orchestra of the highest quality. “We try to fill the roster first with local musicians, then we reach out farther to Albany, Springfield, and then New York,” he says.

Contracting also entails arranging the payroll schedule, collecting paperwork, and managing as a go-between for musicians and staff. He is responsible for arranging the venues for rehearsals and attending to the necessities — such as adequate lighting and room temperature — for the musicians. All of this is on top of being the timpanist, and schlepping the big kettle drums to and from the venues. (Aside from playing in both the Berkshires and New York, Prouty also runs a percussion rental and repair business in the city.)

Prouty was a member of the former Berkshire Opera for eight seasons, so he was able to bring many of those musicians into the BOF. With his familiarity of the region, he says, “I’ve been able to help Brian Garman with Berkshire issues.”

Maia Robbins-Zust, Technical Director
Loy and Garman contacted Robbins-Zust, owner of Berkshire Production Resources, about three years ago when they were first dreaming up BOF. “They said they knew I was a technical director in the area, and could I advise them,” she says. She was the technical director for the Berkshire Opera Company until it folded, so it was a natural for her to take on the position again.

Robbins-Zust is responsible for everything on the production end — building the sets, adjusting the lighting, overseeing the wardrobe staff and supertitles. There are separate scenic and lighting designers, and it just so happens that the scenic designer, Steven Dubay, was a student of hers at Williams College (where she is the technical director of the theater department) a decade ago.

The company is renting theater space at Berkshire Community College to build the sets, and have hired some of the students there to work on the production. Which is a good thing, because there’s a growing need for technical services. “For a rural area like Berkshire County, there are more stagehands than usual because there’s so much here, and theater companies are producing year round now.”

Paula Farbman, Chorus Member and Cio Cio San’s Mother
Lee resident Paula Farbman was a voice major in college (she studied at Juilliard when she was in high school) and a high school chorus teacher in Long Island. She also taught private voice lessons. The soprano sings with The Cantilena Chamber Choir and several other local choruses, but this is the first costumed stage production she’s been in.

“I auditioned for the chorus, and got the role of the mother, singing within the chorus,” Farbman says. “It’s going to be fun. It’s not easy memorizing parts as we get older, but it’s nice singing with a lot of younger singers.”

Farbman thinks the chorus has a good blend, and she’s just as complimentary of the Berkshire Opera Festival staff. “They’re certainly very professional,” she says. “Every day is planned out, and they’re respectful of our time. I really have to say I’m impressed with all of the staff. Having sung a lot, I have a pretty good idea if people know what they’re doing, and these people really do.”

Richard Mickey, Cellist
Opera has been an essential element of Richard Mickey’s career from the beginning, having played with the Philadelphia Lyric Opera Company and the Philadelphia Grand Opera Company as a young student. As a member of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, he worked under music directors who were major opera conductors, so he played a number of concert-form operas.

A Fellow of the Tanglewood Music Center for three years, he moved to the area in 1980, and is a busy freelancer. The Stockbridge resident is also a regular member of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Berkshire Lyric Theatre and many other orchestras.

Like some of the other musicians and creative staff, Mickey introduced himself to the Berkshire Opera Festival directors when he saw a news article announcing its intentions. “I’m very impressed with the group and the leadership,” Mickey says. “And I love the Colonial Theatre. It’s a wonderful asset to the Berkshires.”

Madama Butterfly
Berkshire Opera Festival at The Colonial Theatre

August 27, August 30 & September 2 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $20-$98
111 South Street, Pittsfield, MA
Reserve tickets here or call (413) 997-4444.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 08/23/16 at 11:16 AM • Permalink