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August 11, 2010

Wolf Trap Opera to close season with Britten's "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

Wolf Trap Opera’s final offering of the season is nicely timed: Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” August makes a great month to plunge into the triple-layered world – fairies, lovers and rustics -- of this Shakespeare-inspired opera and the extra enchantment added to it by Britten’s brilliantly crafted music.

On top of the calendar alignment, the production, which opens Friday, promises what might be called a literal angle. Stage director Patrick Diamond’s approach to the work, based on his own experiences in northern places, “takes the idea of midsummer and dream literally. It’s mostly about the idea of how we go outside during the summer and lose track of time,” he says, “how the sun goes down, and it doesn’t really register. That’s the kind of world I feel these characters are in.”

Not surprisingly, Diamond has done some updating of the opera – contemporary settings are a common feature of Wolf Trap stagings. “I’ve taken things that are familiar – feather dusters, curtains, martini glasses – and de-familiarized them,” the director says. “I wanted to play off the idea of what’s real, how things are not always what you expect them to be, and the way we can’t always think beyond our own parameters.”

The scenic designer is Erhard Rom, who designed the striking sets for the company's engaging productions of Mozart’s ”Zaide” and Rossini’s “The Turk in Italy” earlier this summer. To go along with the likely visual fun, you can expect dynamic performances by the participants in the company’s 2010 Filene Young Artists. The season so far has been most enjoyable, providing a combination of fresh vocal talent and strong production values, housed in an inviting ambiance – operas are given in the 375-seat Barns at Wolf Trap. I’ve found the company remarkably consistent during 10 years of attending; all that quality and imagination onstage make up for the drive from Baltimore.

The four-decade-old company has a strong track record of

finding and nurturing singers who have finished their schooling and are in the early stages of a career. After each year’s crop of young artists is assembled – hundreds audition, 15-20 are chosen -- the repertoire for the summer season is tailored to the singers. Another group of younger singers who are still undergrads or heading into grad school is chosen for the Studio Artists program that fills out the company (they typically form the chorus for the productions).

During their residency (host families provide lodging), participants plunge into vocal coaching, classes on language and character development, and sessions on career development throughout the summer. The Young Artists take the leads in the operas, and also do recitals and family programs; this year, they also took part in a concert with National Symphony at Wolf Trap’s big house, the Filene Center. The company has an enviable track record of alumni who have gone on to perform at major venues around this country and beyond.

Wolf Trap Opera director Kim Pensinger Witman says there’s an “increasingly large pool” of talent to hear each year. “But that’s not a good sign,” she says. “It was easier before for singers just starting to go professional to find work.” A familiar story -- more good musicians, fewer opportunities.

“It’s really an opera job for the summer,” says Texas-born tenor David Portillo, 30, who plays one of the rustics in “Midsummer,” the bellows-mender named Flute. “You get a chance to do a major role and work with conductors with credibility and stature.”

Portillo has relished the experience of “Midsummer.” “Flute is a role I want to do again,” he says. Ashlyn Rust, a 28-year-old also from Texas, is having a good time, too, with Britten’s opera. “I couldn’t love it more,” says the soprano, who will sing the role of Titania, Queen of the Fairies.

The score can be challenging enough; the Wolf Trap performers have to handle it while maneuvering on a sharply raked stage – “The biggest rake I’ve ever seen,” Portillo says. Adds Catherine Martin with a laugh: “When we first caught sight of it, our hearts started pounding.” But this 25-year-old mezzo, who sings the role of Hermia, is taking the incline in stride. (She’s another Texan, by the way -- fertile ground for opera singers, it seems.)

Martin also sounds assured about what happens down the road, long after this midsummer dream ends, when she and her colleagues will try to make their way in a daunting opera world. “It’s frightening, but kind of exciting,” she says. Besides, it's not like she or her colleagues want to do anything else but sing. As Portillo puts it: “This is what makes us happy.”

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” conducted by Steven Osgood, will be performed Aug. 13, 15 and 17. Wolf Trap Opera also will offer an interactive event called “Behind the Curtain” on the morning of Aug. 16, geared to families with children ages 5-13. Participants will watch makeup and costume teams transform the “Midsummer” cast members into opera characters; take backstage tours; and even spend some time onstage under the lights.

REHEARSAL PHOTOS BY KIM PENSINGER WITMAN (from top: Director Pat Diamond with soprano Ashlyn Rust as Titania; mezzo Catherine Martin as Hermia; tenors David Portillo as Flute and Nathaniel Peake as Snout) 

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at baltimoresun.com/artsmash. This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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