By Annette Hinkle
Though the East End may have its share of artistic and cultural icons and legends, one thing it’s certainly not known as is a hot-bed for opera.
But that might be about to change.
This weekend Long Island Opera comes to town with a production of Bizet’s “Carmen” at Guild Hall’s John Drew Theater. If you don’t know the opera, it’s set in Seville, Spain and tells the story (in French) of Don José, a soldier who becomes obsessed with the fiery gypsy girl, Carmen, with tragic consequences.
And if you don’t know Long Island Opera — you’re not alone.
Though the company was incorporated as a non-profit in the early 1960s and recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, historically speaking, Long Island Opera has typically focused its operatic offerings on venues far to our west.
But if Joy Berta, Long Island Opera’s executive director, has her way, here in eastern Suffolk County we will all soon be singing arias in our sleep.
“Long Island Opera was mainly based out of Nassau County,” explains Berta. “Though I don’t believe they ever had an office or theater. They had a favorite venue, but it was kind of like swimming around.”
Since taking the helm of the company in 2009, Berta’s goal has been to bring fully staged, high-quality opera productions to audiences across Long Island — including the East End. And while she’s currently working to establish a base office for Long Island Opera in Nassau County, Berta stresses the organization’s mission is to be highly mobile when it comes to performing.
“I wondered why people were not aware of us out there,” says Berta. “I came on with fresh eyes and a fresh approach. We started performing in Suffolk County and have been working our way back into Nassau.”
“Nassau County is at least close to the city where there’s great opera, but Suffolk County is not,” she adds. “So why not bring city-quality opera to Suffolk?”
“The type of talent that sings in the city and at national opera houses or internationally, we also get that kind of talent pool,” she says. “I know for us to really succeed, we cannot be a local community theater group — we have to raise the bar or people will say, ‘I’ll go into the city.’”
Saturday’s performance at Guild Hall stars mezzo-soprano Kara Cornell as “Carmen.” Though the singer hails from Smithtown, for the last several years, Cornell’s busy career has kept her off Long Island and on the road. She’s been traveling the world as an opera singer, mostly performing in the role of “Carmen.” This is the first time in five years the “hometown crowd” will have a chance to see Cornell perform live.
“Bringing her back to Long Island is a real treat for those who have known her. She’s a phenomenal Carmen,” says Berta. “And tenor David Guzman, our Don José, is originally from Colombia and brings a Spanish flare.”
“It’s going to be fun and approachable,” assures Berta. “The singing is going to be in French, but the dialogue is in English. We did that because we wanted to be able to tell the story in a way that was understood by the general public.”
Though it will be intimately staged with piano accompaniment rather than a full orchestra, the performers will be in full period costumes and Berta adds the production will be engaging and expressive in its ability to tell the story through music, acting and dancing — even for younger viewers. That’s because for Berta, a trained opera singer herself, making it accessible is a priority.
“I enjoy keeping it very traditional, but still with an edge so when teens come, they see performers who are young, fun and engaging,” she says. “I love to see younger people coming to the performance — even 8 to 10 year olds if it’s not past their curfew. It’s under two hours — normally ‘Carmen’s’ four hours, so we’ve made appropriate cuts to make it digestible.”
While “Carmen” will be Long Island Opera’s first fully staged production on the East End, in summer 2011, the group’s debut local performance was a concert of popular arias and duets at the Southampton Cultural Center. Long Island Opera also offers summer outdoor concerts at wineries on the North Fork.
“Sal Diliberto — an aficionado of opera [and owner of Diliberto Vineyard] helped put together a concert where we raised awareness,” says Berta. “That’s the main goal — getting the name out there. Who’s Long Island Opera? What? There’s an opera company out here?”
But Berta notes beyond getting Long Island Opera’s name out there, introductory concerts at places like wineries and libraries help gauge a community’s interest in opera — and whether or not it would support future performances.
“If the community’s not really on board and they don’t care about that kind of quality, there’s no point,” she says. “We’re looking for venues with a higher caliber of audience.”
In East Hampton, Berta feels Long Island Opera will find that audience. She says one recent barometer of a community’s appetite for opera has been The Metropolitan Opera’s “Live in HD” programming which transmits productions to movie theaters around the world.
“It determines what kind of crowd there is for us,” says Berta, who adds that Guild Hall has had great success with the series. And though Josh Gladstone, the John Drew Theater’s artistic director, told Berta he wasn’t sure if the space had ever hosted live opera before, he felt there is an audience for it.
“So we’re thrilled to bring our opera company here,” she says. “The venue is beautiful, the acoustics are great. It’s a very prestigious venue. I would love to make Guild Hall one of our bases.”
And even after Saturday’s performance, Long Island Opera is committed to staying close by in the months to come. From October to February, the company will be an “artist-in-residence” at the East End Arts Council in Riverhead where it will offer opera classes — some based on performance, others offering basic knowledge about the art form. Berta also plans to make coaching available for student singers, as well as workshops in composition and acting in opera.
“I would say comfortably, it would be for high school students on up,” she says. “But if a younger person wants to come and hear about opera that’s great.”
It’s all part of Berta’s plan to grow Long Island Opera in the years to come. Down the road, she’s looking to build an orchestra, as well as a choir for the company, drawing from talent from the local community as well as the city.
“We’re all about being approachable,” she says, “and making sure people know opera’s not scary.”
Long Island Opera’s production of Georges Bizet’s “Carmen” is Saturday, September 15, 2012 at 8 p.m. at Guild Hall’s John Drew Theater, 158 Main Street, East Hampton. Tickets are $35 orchestra or $25 balcony ($15/$10 for students). A $75 VIP ticket includes preferred seating and pre-show wine reception. Call 772-9544 to reserve.
Top photo: Kara Cornell as Carmen and David Guzman as Don Jose. Photo by Olivia Mesquita.