Opera + theater = Camden Stage Festival
Camden — It has been more than 25 years since the Camden Shakespeare Company brought The Bard to the Camden Amphitheatre during the summer … and except for a brief flurry a decade ago, the Camden Opera House has never really lived up to its name (few so-called opera houses in small New England towns actually have seen opera on its boards). That will change next summer, if James Darrah has anything to say about it — and he does, with great enthusiasm.
A young opera/theater director, producer and actor based in Los Angeles, Darrah and his wife, mezzo soprano Peabody Southwell, have been visiting Camden for a number of years, initially to stay with Southwell’s grandparents; her grandmother, Jane P. Marks, was very active with the yacht and garden clubs. For their wedding reception, the couple chartered the Olad. Next year, Darrah and Southwell will welcome aboard a number of their colleagues to form the core of the Camden Stage Festival, which has plans to present three productions over the course of three weeks in the above-mentioned venues and one more to be determined.
Last month, the fledgling CSF presented and invitational evening at Rockport’s Pascal Hall to give prospective supporters a taste of what Darrah has in mind. The location of the evening — which included wine and hors d’oeuvres and selections of works by Georges Bizet, Francesco Cavalli, Georg Frederic Handel, Ravel, Ricky Ian Gordon, Rodgers & Hammerstein and William Shakespeare — reflects the organization’s goal of meshing with existing music and theater groups. Bay Chamber Concerts had used the hall the night before for its annual summer gala and agreed to leave the grand piano in place for Jody Schum, the evening’s music director and pianist.
“Monica Kelly has been just wonderful,” said Darrah a few days before the event, speaking of Bay Chamber’s executive director. At his side sat CSF’s new executive director, Kate Fletcher of Warren.
When Darrah decided to make the festival a reality, he reached out to local arts organizations including Camden Civic Theatre, the town’s oldest theatrical troupe and longtime performing resident of the opera house. Fletcher, a member of the CCT board, responded and when they met, it was clear she was excited about what CSF could bring to the community. They had more in common as well; Fletcher and her daughter Devin, a recent Watershed School grad, had spent last winter exploring the theater and film opportunities in LA.
“It was so fortuitous, meeting Kate! … She's precisely what CSF is all about: someone passionate and dedicated to delving into theater and performance with multi-faceted training and experience that gives her a myriad of skills, interests and ideas,” he said.
Mary Birnbaum, another young director and the festival's associate artistic director, is a good friend from Darrah’s work at the Juilliard School; they met when both mentored with Metropolitan opera and theater director/scholar Stephen Wadsworth.
“Mary was keen on becoming involved with the festival — we had been talking for a while about the desire to start something that could shake up the normal festival format and bring together artists we meet around the U.S. so I am looking forward to her being a part next year too,” he said.
Collaboration is a recurrent theme in Darrah’s vision, and shaking things up is another. Primarily a proponent of opera, particularly early-music opera, Darrah hopes to use that era’s less compartmentalized approach to performance as a foundation for the new festival.
“In the 17th century, there was no distinction between theater and opera. For example, there was an actress famous for her ‘mad scenes’ who would show up to do the same in operas. What if you went to the Shakespeare show and then saw the same actor in the opera piece? We’ll be doing that,” he said.
Opera — and Darrah’s experience of it runs the gamut from early examples to John Adams, with whom he is working, along with famed director Peter Sellars, on a new oratorio — comes with so much baggage for many people. The Camden Stage Festival will be traveling light.
“What can be spare but beautiful? That’s our approach,” he said.
Early community collaborators include the Camden Public Library, whose adjacent amphitheater and Harbor Park will provide virtually all the setting for Shakespeare’s bucolic “As You Like It.” As for the opera house, Camden Stage Festival plans to mount Cavalli’s “La Calisto,” an early opera based on Ovid’s tale of Jupitor’s duped lover who ends up becoming the constellation Ursa Major. CSF will set the work in the 1920s
“The music is just drop-dead gorgeous,” said Darrah, and the invitational evening offered proof. The music also is of a different era that traditional opera fans are used to, a period that offers such unusual aural delights as the countertenor voice, delivered by Nicholas Tamagna, and pre-Classical stringed instruments. The latter are the result of another artistic collaboration. Darrah was delighted to discover the Baroque Orchestra of Maine that up the coast in Ellsworth; directors Heidi Powell and Richard Hsu performed at Pascal.
Third in the CSF’s planned inaugural productions will be a stripped down-to-emotional-core version of Bizet’s “Carmen,” to be performed in some found space as yet undetermined. “The Tragedy of Carmen,” arranged by Peter Brook, draws more from the work’s literary source than the well-known opera warhorse. Selections from all three works were performed during the invitational; the fiery “Carmen” just, well, broke out as guests were sipping wine and chatting.
“We really want to avoid the expected, commonplace elements so the audience can directly engage with the piece — and with the human voice. When powerfully beautiful music is being produced by a human body five feet away from you, there’s an authenticity that cannot be denied,” he said.
Those voices will come from the ranks of up-and-coming vocal stars, several of which, including Southwell, filled Pascal Hall’s vaulted ceiling with sound. Young and passionate, these performers will form the core of the company, complemented by what Darrah hopes will be an internship/mentor program that will include local performers.
“It’s not about competition between arts organizations. We thought, what isn’t here that could be?” said Darrah.
In addition to its commitment to producing an innovative blend of opera and theater, CSF plans to establish itself as a “green” festival, making eco-friendly decisions all along the production timeline. Reworking thrift-store finds is a stage-honored tradition, for example, but all CSF’s costume design will be repurposed. Stage design also will be intentionally eco-conscious, with elements re-used through the course of the season.
“If you believe in it and have the right talent, you can be ‘green’ and hold to high artistic standards,” said Darrah.
It’s all a tall order but Darrah and his evolving team and artistic collaborators have every intention of filling it. To whet the appetite for next summer’s feast, CSF hopes to throw a New Year’s Eve Bash to put Camden back on that holiday’s map. In the meantime, Camden Stage Festival is looking for donors and volunteers willing to help make its first season — dubbed “Savage Beauties” for its trio of works featuring strong female characters — a reality. For more information, visit camdenstage.org.
Courier Publications’ A&E Editor Dagney C. Ernest can be reached at (207) 594-4401 or firstname.lastname@example.org.