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Summer Festivals Beckon. Covid Variants Loom. Should You Stay Or Should You Go?

In Europe and the U.S., the longstanding tradition of summer vacations at music festivals has been on hold for two years. Now — just when enthusiasts thought it was safe to go back into the concert hall — emerging strains of Covid have thrown plans into doubt. But some festivals offer an option between staying and going, and there’s still time to book an August outing.
The Santa Fe Opera House

Did you ever have the feeling that you wanted to go
But still had the feeling that you wanted to stay
You knew it was right
Wasn’t wrong
Still you knew you wouldn’t be very long
Started to go
Changed your mind
Started to go again
But changed your mind again…

With apologies to fans of The Clash, the great Durante had a better idea for serious music enthusiasts this month: “Do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, si, do. I go.” Take the kids, mask up, and listen up at a summer music festival. A number of festival venues have family-friendly outdoor spaces with lawns just right for picnicking. Head for the music shed at Tanglewood (Lenox, MA) to take in orchestral playing at the highest level, or to Wolf Trap (Virginia), where the eclectic fare spans stand-up comedy, Country and Western, kid-friendly movies, and opera, and a few genres I never heard of (wolftrap.org). For opera lovers there’s the Santa Fe Opera, where the opera house offers comfortable seating and unobstructed views, and is open on three sides.

Located in a 117-acre park in Vienna, VA, Wolf Trap’s summer season runs through September in the rustic Filene Center, which seats over seven thousand patrons. Performances can draw thousands more, who enjoy proceedings on the lawns outside the hall, weather permitting. What, you’ve never seen Carlisle Floyd’s opera Susannah? Here’s your chance (Friday, 8/12). Programming continues year-round at Wolf Trap’s smaller, enclosed performance spaces, which also present genre performances during the festival season.

Tanglewood, the best-known classical music festival in the U.S., marked its first summer season in 1936. From its earliest days it was a major draw, attracting some fifteen thousand summer listeners to its first three concerts. Over the years it has gained international renown as the summer home of the Boston Symphony and as an important training ground for young professional musicians — especially conductors. Set in the picturesque Berkshire hills, the Tanglewood “shed,” with a seating capacity of over six thousand, is named for Serge Kousssevitzky, who led the BSO for 25 years. Congenial acoustics; picnics on the lawn; hospitable, picturesque B-and-B’s; and challenging, orienteer-style parking (allow an extra hour) are all part of the experience. The range of high-level classical performances offered each summer here is unparalleled elsewhere in the U.S., but major concerts in other genres are also on offer — this year including Judy Collins, Ringo Starr and Van Morrison. (bso.org/tanglewood)

For operagoers in Europe, the summer season runs to extremes — for example, the seriously huge productions at the Arena di Verona, which include La traviata, Turandot, and Aida this year. A casual, celebratory atmosphere prevails at the Baths of Caracalla, and huge productions of Aida are a tradition. So are live animals in the triumphal scene, along with onstage cleaners trailing after them, always enthusiastically applauded. In 2020 and ’21, when Covid closed the venue, this festival relocated to Rome’s even more enormous Circus Maximus, where 150 thousand citizens once witnessed gladiatorial spectacles.

On the more intimate and more serious side, many festivals are located at historic homes that are adapted for music theatre — such as the legendary Glyndebourne Festival in the town of Lewes, in southeastern England. Since 1934, Glyndebourne has exemplified the festival ideal of artistically uncompromising opera productions. Its opening night in May of each year, along with the opening of the Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower Show, marks the beginning of the summer social season in England. Another example, across the Channel and to the southeast, is the phenomenal Festival d’Aix, in Aix-en-Provence. It offers challenging, diverse productions provocatively linked by an overall theme during the month of July only. This year, under the direction of the remarkable Pierre Audi, the critically acclaimed festival explored “trial and rebirth.” (Plan now for next year.)

In the U.S., summer opera has a vibe that suggests regular-season values in Europe: smaller venues, offbeat productions, repertory favorites alongside rarer works past and present. Festival goers tend to be more open to new music and new ideas than regular-season patrons; for performers, festivals are an opportunity to try new roles and to rehearse on an unhurried schedule in a collaborative environment. The Glimmerglass festival, on Otsego Lake New York State’s historic Leatherstocking region, is a prime example of these virtues. But for the Covid-conscious, the clear choice among American festivals is the Santa Fe Opera — an influencer in the opera world punching far above its weight. And since the SFO’s season runs through the end of August, which is prime tourist season in the Land of Enchantment, there is still time to book for this year.

Perched in the scenic high desert seven miles north of Santa Fe’s historic plaza, the company’s John Crosby Theatre has a seating capacity of over 2100 and is open on three sides, providing the natural ventilation of breezes that blow through the Sangre de Cristo mountains each night. It has been described as the most beautiful opera house in the world…and as the one most closely resembling the Starship Enterprise.

During this period of uncertainty in cultural travel, the SFO’s combination of a comfortable, almost-outdoor auditorium with comfortable seating, excellent acoustics and uncompromising production standards of operatic production is hard to match. (Tanglewood’s opera productions are generally not staged.) Remarkably, the SFO has maintained its leadership through steady evolution since its founding in 1957. From its pioneering earliest days, when six hundred patrons per night paid $2.50 to sit on benches under the open sky, musical and production standards have been uncompromising, and its spirit of innovation remains undiminished. This year’s world premiere — composer Huang Ruo’s opera M. Butterfly, with libretto by David Henry Hwang based on his hit play — is the company’s eighteenth.

Long noted for championing the operas of Richard Strauss, the SFO ventures into late Wagner this season with its first Tristan und Isolde. In addition to Tristan, M. Butterfly shares the Santa Fe stage this August with three other masterpieces: Carmen, The Barber of Seville, and Verdi’s Falstaff. Information is at Santafeopera.org.