The sad news was released a few days ago: Francesca Zambello, one of the most innovative opera directors in the world who gave the Glimmerglass Festival its greatest years, is ending her tenue after the 2022 season. The good news is that this season will mark the return of the Festival’s full performing resources, i.e., the Alice Busch Opera Theater.
When I attended The Magic Flute this past summer, the newly constructed outdoor lawn theatre accommodated an enthusiastic audience of about two hundred in a torrential rain. However, on this “Glimmerglass on the Grass” program, the popular Mozart work was a torso of the original: not only were musical numbers elided, but measures were dropped here and there in the larger ensembles. Of course, these changes were made to contain the opera’s length to comply with gathering guidelines during COVID. During the continuous downpour, undeterred singers wore transparent plastic slicks to stay dry while still allowing their costumes to be faintly seen. Many audience members were huddled under tarpaulins or beach umbrellas, but happily persevered during the terrible conditions. The orchestra, playing inside the main hall, was electronically amplified, permitting a blessed counterassault to the elements. The Festival Lawn Stage, however, where there was “live” music, offered little cover or protection for the singers; miraculously, the cast, undaunted by elements, made a superlative vocal showing. After this, the concluding performance of the handicapped season, the audience warmly praised the fine performance as well as Ms. Zambello for her determination.
The Andrew J. Martin-Weber Lawn Stage allowed a 2021 season to flourish in the world of COVID-19: lawn sections were sold in blocks for distancing, proof of vaccination was required, operas were abridged, and intermissions were gone. Hardly a normal season, yet, these sacrifices typified the tenuous 2021 classical music landscape world-wide. We had missed the 2020 season which promised Don Giovanni, Rinaldo, Die Feen, and The Sound of Music. Some of Wagner’s Die Feen was presented in this season, but neither Rinaldo nor Don Giovanni will appear next year.
During that rainy afternoon, or, perhaps, the afternoon before during a performance of a Wagner medley, Ms. Zambello candidly expressed her frustration and chafe in her greeting speech.
According to an official press release, her contract ends in 2022. The 2021 season was as valiant and as artistically radiant a response to conditions as could be imagined. In light of the news of her departue, it seems like a bit of a hollow victory capping a transformational tenure in Cooperstown. The press release indicates that Ms. Zambello will continue to direct the Washington National Opera.
Glimmerglass rose from a first-rate “upstate N.Y. summer stock” operation to a world-class musical festival on par with the finest in this country or in Europe. I once compared Glimmerglass to a less glamorous Glyndebourne. Under Francesca’s dynamic leadership, this festival easily matched Glyndebourne in depth, innovation, and artistic mettle. Francesca took risks and allowed great contemporary talent to challenge the tastes and sensibilities of the audience.
The upcoming 2022 season will salvage some of the canceled 2020 season and add some promising new works. Included will be a new production of Bizet’s Carmen, staged and sung by mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves; Tenor Overboard, a new opera based on Ken Ludwig’s play Lend Me a Tenor; Kamala Sankaram and Jerre Dye’s Taking Up Serpents; and Holy Ground, by Damien Geter and Lila Palmer (a world premiere). We’ll also hear the previously planned Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music. As well, Ms. Graves will offer a two-night reprise of her role in The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson, a one-act opera about the founder of the National Negro Opera Company.
Over the decade of Francesca’s leadership, Glimmerglass’s repertory underwent expansion, intensification, as well as a sensitization to the drama outside and the turmoil in our lives. Political and social upheavals were reflected in her sometimes-controversial productions without compromising artistic sensibilities. I think of her 2012 Aida, which included horrific scenes of waterboarding in the present-day Middle East. Or Blue, which focused on the very personal tragedies underneath Black lives and police action. On a far lighter side, reflecting a bit on her own life in Cooperstown, the production of Ariadne auf Naxos was a clever self-referential comedy describing the cultural carousel of a rural upstate opera venue hosting a spoiled troop of sophisticates from the city.
I had the opportunity to interview Francesca at the start of her term and have had the great fortune to follow her subsequent productions of La Traviata, The Barber of Seville, West Side Story, a staging premiere of Donizetti’s L’assedio di Calais, a superlative Porgy and Bess, Madama Butterfly, Ariadne auf Naxos, Der fliegende Holländer, Verdi’s Macbeth, and Bizet’s Carmen, her Glimmerglass debut in 2011. She delivered stellar performances with singers of the highest caliber: Eric Owens, Bill Burden, Christine Goerke, Julie and Nathan Gunn, Dwayne Croft, Rod Gilfry, Isabel Leonard, Jay Hunter Morris, and Deborah Voigt (as Annie in Annie Get Your Gun)
Francesca’s talents in every aspect of opera production and direction have been amply rewarded with the quantum shift at Glimmerglass. She will be, as they say, a tough act to follow.