CHAUTAUQUA - Opera is rare and precious at Chautauqua, in recent years, but fortunately, the Chautauqua Opera Company has devoted itself to producing a high quality product, leaving local fans hoping that more and more people will feel compelled to demand more and more opera, in future years.
This year started very well, with an excellent production of Donizetti's ''Lucia di Lammermoor,'' fully staged in the Amphitheater. Now, the company's second and final production will return opera lovers to the otherwise abandoned Norton Hall, to examine Giacomo Puccini's poignant ''Manon Lescaut.'' Watch for it on Friday evening, or in its second performance on July 30.
This week, I have spent a whirlwind evening, running from one interview to the next, until I had spoken to the four principal singers of ''Manon Lescaut,'' as well as to the conductor of the orchestra for the production.
Let me tell you a bit about the opera and its background, then offer you a bit of what I've learned about each of the gifted musicians who will be offering us this opportunity.
''Manon Lescaut'' was the first major success in the career of Giacomo Puccini. It received its first performance in Turin, in February of 1893. It was based on a novel by Abbe Prevost, although a number of librettists participated in carving the opera's story from the Abbe's original book.
Nine years before Puccini presented his world premiere of the opera, composer Jules Massenet had set the same story for the opera stage, using as the title only the heroine's first name: ''Manon.'' Sometimes opera lovers confuse the two. An even earlier setting of the story, by Daniel Auber, is also to be found.
We're going to look only at the version set to music by Puccini.
The opera begins with the entrance of a stage coach. The setting is in France, shortly before the French Revolution, in the 18th Century.
Inside the coach is an aging man who has considerable amounts of money, and is a favorite of the king. His name is Geronte di Ravoir. Also travelling in the coach is Manon Lescaut, who is a young woman - 18 for our purposes, although several years younger in the original story. She is a sweet, young girl who is being sent to a convent, to keep her from being tempted away from her virtues by young men. Accompanying her is her older brother, who is only called Lescaut.
Lescaut is a pragmatist who loves his sister, but believes that sensible people adapt their beliefs and their behavior, to suit the real situations with which they are confronted.
When the coach stops for a rest stop, in the French city of Amiens, Manon meets a poor knight, the Chevalier des Grieux. The two fall in love at first sight. Geronte has been hinting, during the ride, that he would like to offer Manon a life of luxury and ease, in return for her affections. To escape him and her brother's encouragement of him, Manon elopes with des Grieux. Lescaut advises Geronte not to despair. He knows his sister, and he believes that when the lovers run out of money, Manon will accept the older man's offers of riches and luxuries.
Sure enough, when des Grieux' money runs out, Manon abandons him for the elderly suitor. But when he wins a big purse at gambling, she returns to her original lover. Geronte is stung and angry, so he denounces Manon to the police, as an unmarried woman of loose morals. She is put on trial, and condemned to be exiled to the French colony of Louisiana. Her lover abandons his family, his noble title, and his entire way of life, and accompanies her aboard the prison ship.
And now, a spoiler alert for those who don't already know the story. When the couple arrives in Louisiana, which in the 18th century, stretched from the Mississippi River to the crests of the Rocky Mountains, as far north as the state of Montana, they try to start a new life. They venture out into the wilderness, but Manon is weakened by all that has happened to her, and she dies on a desolate plain, in the arms of her lover.
Like so many of his familiar operas, Puccini tries to create in music the enormous feelings of a woman who is confronted by more than she could possibly expect, or cope with. His achingly beautiful, passionate music has elements which will spark recognition from those who are familiar with his next creations, ''La Boheme,'' which he followed by ''Tosca,'' and then ''Madama Butterfly.''
The original novel was banned by the French government, because it suggested that the law was too cruel and it created sympathy for people whose moral character is not according to the traditional values. Naturally that made it a best seller, and probably the original audience arrived at their seats in the opera house, already familiar with the story.
The plot has been made into five major feature films. While it has not been modernized, as have ''La Boheme,'' which became ''Rent,'' and ''Madama Butterfly,'' which is beloved on the contemporary stage as ''Miss Saigon,'' ''Manon Lescaut'' is copied or heavily referred to in a great many works of literature, including Oscar Wilde's ''Picture of Dorian Gray,'' Alexandre Dumas' ''The Lady of the Camellias,'' and in the beautiful 1980s film ''Manon of the Springs.''
If you're in the audience when ''Manon Lescaut'' is performed at Norton Hall, bass-baritone Kevin Glavin will be singing the role of Geronte, Manon's aging pursuer.
''When I started my singing career, I looked into the mirror and said to myself, 'O.K., you're not the dashing lover type.' I'm more of a 'barichunk' than a 'barihunk,'
''Fortunately, there are a great many comedy roles in opera, for men with bass voices. We call them 'buffo' roles. My job is to make Geronte so self-centered and pompous that he deserves some of the humor which is poked at him, throughout the opera. But, he is good to Manon, and doesn't deserve the way she accepts, then rejects him, according to whether she needs his money at the moment, so when he turns her over to the police, to some degree she deserves it,'' he said.
Glavin was born and raised in nearby Pittsburgh, although this is his first performance at Chautauqua, which he claims to be enjoying greatly. ''When I was growing up, I loved the recordings of Frank Sinatra, and Dean Martin, and the other members of what they called 'The Rat Pack.' For a long time, I imagined myself performing in that style.''
As he studied voice and learned the qualities his voice was taking on, he soon learned that he was more effective in offering an aria than he was crooning ''Strangers in the Night.''
''I still own a nightclub in Pittsburgh, but I love the operatic life, travelling around the world, meeting the great singers of the world, living in different places and working with different people,'' he said. ''I just wasn't destined for Las Vegas. When I finish singing Geronte at Chautauqua, I'll be going to Philadelphia. I've recently sung at Glimmerglass, at Seattle, at Manitoba Opera, at Washington Opera, New Jersey Opera, and many more.''
Each Christmas season for the past 10 seasons, Glavin has headlined a touring program with conductor/composer Marvin Hamlisch, which combines challenging music with popular, seasonal fare which he says is enthusiastically enjoyed by audiences.
''Marvin and I will agree on a couple of major works to performed, and then we'll noodle around and try to have fun, and to help our audiences to forget about life's problems and just enjoy themselves for a while. That's very satisfying,'' he said.
Tenor Robert Breault has become something of a regular at Chautauqua Opera. His performance as the lover des Grieux will be his 10th time treading the boards for the COC.
''I love Chautauqua because it has the same look and feel as Marinette, Wis., a small town on Green Bay, which is where I was born. And, I love the audiences who are warm and very accepting. And, I love the fact that artistic director Jay Lesenger doesn't just replay the popular operatic literature. He is constantly offering roles which are challenging new areas of my voice and which force me to do a lot of research and to enact men with strong personalities. One can never just walk through a performance at Chautauqua Opera,'' he said.
Making a quick count on his fingers, Breault says than eight of the 10 roles he has sung at Chautauqua have been sung by him for the first time, at Chautauqua.
''It is such a treat to step onto an operatic stage, knowing that if there is an unusual musical quality in the role, of any kind, conductor James Meena will recognize it and know how to deal with it, and if there is any special dramatic quality to the role, Jay will recognize it and know how to make me effective in performing it. It's wonderful to be supported by the top pros,'' he said.
The tenor remembered his first opportunity to work with Lesenger. ''Jay was presenting a master class, at the University of Utah,'' he explained. ''One of the women in the class was singing 'Losing My Mind,' from Stephen Sondheim's musical 'Follies.'
''When she finished, Jay started to work with her, teaching her background about the character and why she was singing that song, and suggesting ways to stand and when to move and when to be still, and by the time he finished, everyone in the room had tears in his eyes, including me,'' he said.
Breault believes that audiences will find that ability to show and to connect the audiences to the places inside themselves where they've hidden those feelings is as available in ''Manon Lescaut'' as it is in Puccini's better-known operas.
''Audiences owe it to themselves to open themselves up to new experiences,'' he said. ''Far too often, young people - and people of all ages, really - close themselves off to new experiences, because they've been told those experiences won't be positive, and yet this style of performance has been around for hundreds of years, and millions of people have found it a life-changing experience. I can't tell you how many people have said to me that they had come to a performance prepared not to like it, and found it to open a whole new world into themselves.''
When he's not headlining with opera companies and symphony orchestras around the world, Robert Breault is teaching opera and voice at the University of Utah, Las Vegas, where he is artistic director of the city's opera company. ''In recent years, opera companies have opened in small cities such as Boise and Salt Lake City. Every time they do, some people want to insist that opera can't survive there - and yet it does. It's a wonderful experience, wherever it happens,'' he said.
Singing the title role in "Manon Lescaut" will be soprano Barbara Shirvis. Ms Shirvis began her career at New York City Opera, where she headlined in roles of every kind, from Desdemona in ''Otello,'' to Rosalinda in ''Die Fledermaus,'' to Liu in ''Turandot.'' Her career now keeps her travelling around the country and the world, often appearing with her husband, baritone Stephen Powell.
She has expanded her repertory to performances on the concert stage, as well as in operas, and has sung works such as Beethoven's ''Symphony No. 9,'' Carl Orff's ''Carmina Burana,'' and Giuseppe Verdi's ''Requiem'' to rave reviews from critics around the world.
The soprano admits, however, that she fell into singing opera ''by mistake.''
''When I went to college, I saw myself as a contemporary singer, possibly a jazz singer. I imagined myself singing in a style similar to Ella Fitzgerald,'' she said. ''My parents told me they guess I fell in with the wrong crowd, because the longer I studied, the more I felt I connected with an audience and expressed myself best, through opera.''
She does tell a story about having been given a transistor radio by her father, whose family had come to America from Lithuania to find a brighter future.
''My father was an electrical engineer, who lived mostly in the sciences,'' she said. ''But one day, he gave me a gift of a radio, which he had already tuned to the opera broadcasts which are occasionally scheduled on certain stations. He told me he believed music was a wonderful thing, but that opera was so much more than just music, it seemed trivial to just listen to something intended just to be popular for a few years and then to be replaced by something else. And he was right.''
One of the most positive things about singing this major role at Chautauqua for the leading lady has been the fact that all opera performed in Norton Hall must be sung in English. ''The audience is so important to any performance,'' she said. ''Placing the words above the stage is great and has built and increased the audience for opera, but to be in the same room with the audience and to sing to them in their own language the wonderful words of opera is the reason for doing it all, in the first place.''
The singer has enjoyed her first visit to Chautauqua, and is delighting in having found a place where music and art and learning are revered - where people voluntarily go, principally to be in contact with all those wonderful things.
''If I ever win the lottery or acquire the great wealth which allows someone to do anything she chooses, I'd like to open another place like Chautauqua, to give thousands more people the chance to be in such a wonderful environment,'' she said.
Asked to describe her character, the soprano says that it is common to describe Manon as Puccini's rare female main character who is not heroic or morally strong, but she disagrees.
''Manon is a young girl, who sets out to live in the world with the limited knowledge and limited resources which life has dealt her. Many of the things she tries don't work out very well, but she learns from her mistakes and continues to grow. I think that's very heroic,'' she said.
Baritone Michael Chioldi is another singer in Chautauqua's production who thinks his character is often underestimated by opera performances.
''Lescaut is Manon's brother. He has been sent by their parents to see her safely enrolled in a convent, but he is a guy who sees life as it is, not just as it should be, and he believes in making the best of whatever life offers,'' he said. ''He often says such to Manon things as 'Love is wonderful, but it won't buy pretty clothes. As things are now, you're going to have to choose one or the other,' and that is true. He knows his sister and he knows that she won't be happy, neither to be hidden from the world as a nun, nor to starve in a garrett for love.''
Chioldi believes it is important that when Manon is in danger, her brother risks everything to help her escape.
The singer said he has always sung, but he started in college to be a biology major and like so many of his colleagues, he was drawn into his profession, by a string of situations.
''I decided an extra curricular activity on my resume would be good, so I joined the college choir. I liked it, and when the opportunity was offered to audition for a solo, I decided to try. At the time, the only demanding song I could think of was 'The Star Spangled Banner,' so that was what I sang, and they gave me the part.
''Soon after that, the college was presenting a production of Leonard Bernstein's short opera 'Trouble in Tahiti,' '' Chioldi continued. ''I was offered a role, but I thought it would take up too much time, and I turned it down. But soon, the singer who had been given the role I was considered for dropped out of the production, and they came back to me and offered the part again. I decided to take it, and found that I just loved what I was able to do.''
Chioldi went on to Yale, to earn a graduate degree in music, and he was accepted in the young artist program at Houston Opera. He began entering national and international competitions and won most of them, including the Metropolitan Opera's Young Artists Auditions.
''The winner of that competition gets a contract to understudy major world singers. In 1995, he got a phone call that the singer scheduled to sing Fleville in ''Andrea Chenier'' was unable to go on, in the opening night performance, so he made his Met debut in that role, with only three hours' notice.
His resume now includes 10 roles at the Met and leading roles at a great many opera house, both in the U.S. and abroad, including four previous performances with Chautauqua Opera.
''I'm just delighted with the quality of this cast in Manon Lescaut, and I think the audience will be very glad if they attend,'' he said.
Those who miss his performance will have to travel to Kentucky for his next performance, as Scarpia in ''Tosca,'' or further yet to Barcelona, Spain, where he will be in concert.
Opera audiences often fail to recognize the importance of having a high quality conductor at the helm of the orchestra, but all of the singers I talked with praised James Meena to the stars.
This will be Meena's fifth time wielding the baton with the Chautauqua Opera Orchestra and the cast of a COC production.
The conductor has been waving that stick since his parents used to find him at age five, trying to conduct music on the radio or the television.
''My mother told me that those experiences and the fact that I always wanted to be the person in charge, meant that I had nowhere to go but to be a conductor,'' he said.
Meena said that he believes the way audiences hear performances, and especially the things they come to performances to hear, are in the process of great change.
''Compact discs and DVDs began the change. The high definition movie theater broadcasts have made it bigger. Listeners expect to hear perfection, because when it is recorded, if the slightest imbalance or insignificant error happens, it is either re-recorded, or electronically changed. Live performance can't possibly be that perfect. What they can be is spontaneous and lifelike,'' he said.
This will be the conductor's first time, conducting ''Manon Lescaut,'' and he says it is always a bit daunting to undertake such a large project, but on the other hand, it is a new and fresh challenge and not one more repetition of something familiar.
''I think the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra is an outstanding orchestra, and a major positive for the opera company,'' he said. ''The fact that so many members of the orchestra have been performing together for so many years, and the fact that they perform so many different performances and in so many different styles combines to make them comfortable and confident when they play together, and that makes for an outstanding result.''
While some might complain that Chautauqua Opera is boxed into their schedule by the fact that the orchestra has a season of their own to perform and can only work with the opera on a certain schedule, Meena points out that most large opera companies have a similar situation with their orchestras.
''When you go to the Vienna Opera, for example, you're hearing the Vienna Philharmonic in the pit. It's mostly a very positive thing,'' he said.
Glavin, Breault, Shirvis, Chioldi, Meena, Lesenger, the CSO... What a series of good reasons for hearing and seeing ''Manon Lescaut'' in Chautauqua's Norton Hall.