Saturday, August 18, 2018

THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES – REVIEW OF SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

James Karas

The Shaw Festival has produced Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles as adapted for the stage by R. Hamilton Wright and David Pichette.

It is advertised as a “CANADIAN PREMIERE! It’s the return of the murder mystery to The Shaw.” Wright and Pichette are American actors who adapted the famous novel for the stage in 2013 and even if it is the first time that it is produced in Canada, it hardly rates a mention let alone in capitals and an exclamation mark as a premiere. Murder mysteries may be crowd pleasers and theatre fillers and those are potent arguments for inviting over Sherlock Holmes.
 
Ric Reid as Dr. Watson and Damien Atkins as Sherlock Holmes in 
The Hound of the Baskervilles. Photo by Emily Cooper
The Hound of the Baskervilles tells one hell of a great story. It is set in the Baskerville mansion on the forbidding moors in late 19th century England. Sir Charles has died mysteriously (murdered, that is) and the question is (you guessed it) whodunit? The Baskervilles are subject to an ancient curse and there is a diabolical hound lurking in the dark moors. Shivers.

Call Sherlock Holmes and give the job to Damien Atkins to deliver him in the Festival Theatre. We all know that he is a genius – Holmes that is, Atkins is a good actor, and may also be a genius. He can deduce and recite more facts about someone at a glance than mere mortals can gather in a month of Sundays and a credit check. Director Craig Hall is not happy with that and he gives us a Sherlock who is a bit of a clown which I found incongruous.

Dr. Watson (Ric Reid) is no fool at detection work but he cannot compete with the master. In the Baskerville mansion, we find Barrymore the butler (Patrick Galligan) and his wife (Claire Jullien) as well as her brother, a convicted and escaped murderer! The new owner of the estate is Sir Henry Baskerville (Kristopher Bowman) who lived in the province of Alberta before it became a province but please do not bother me with historical facts.

We meet the neighbours and we suspect no one, but, everyone is a suspect. Beryl Stapleton (Natasha Mumba), Jack Stapleton (Gray Powell), Mr. Frankland (Cameron Grant) and the Hound. Well, we don’t meet the hound but we do see him projected on the screen and as a puppet. And we suspect him too. Dr. Mortimer (Graeme Somerville) is the first to suspect foul play and brings in Holmes to the job.
 
Ric Reid as Dr. Watson and Damien Atkins as Sherlock Holmes in 
The Hound of the Baskervilles. Photo by Emily Cooper.
In the English country estate, the servants and the aristocrats would speak with distinctive and high-toned English accents. There are some exception but the accents of the cast are generally atrocious. Sir Henry may be excused because he lived in Alberta but if you believe that an accent can be lost that easily between Edmonton and Calgary then I can offer you some land in Florida. Somehow I find that failure a major obstacle to creating the appropriate atmosphere for an English mystery.

The play has more than half a dozen scenes and Hall seems to be a great believer in the use of projections. Some of Jamie Nesbitt’s projections are effective but in the end they are also distracting. The entire stage and the wings on each side are plastered with projections. When Holmes goes to the cellar, the descent is shown on a projection and in the end what starts as effective becomes gimmicky overkill. Alan Brodie’s lighting designs are dark and foreboding as you would expect in a murder mystery.

I am not sure that The Hound of the Baskervilles is the best choice for bringing back murder mysteries to The Shaw. Mystery aficionados are bound to love it but the production is carried more by Arthur Conan Doyle than the cast and the creative team.
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The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle, adapted for the stage by R. Hamilton Wright and David Pichette, opened on August 11 and will run in repertory until October 27, 2018 at the Festival Theatre, 10 Queen's Parade, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

HENRY V – REVIEW OF 2018 SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

James Karas

This year is the 100th anniversary of the end of World War W1. Tim Carroll, the Shaw Festival’s Artistic Director, no doubt wanted to mark the occasion and his production of Bernard Shaw’s O’Flaherty V.C. was a good start. Oh What a Lovely War was all about the Great War with Canadian content.  He seems to have had another idea. How about a production of Shakespeare’s Henry V set in a World War I dugout involving Canadian soldiers?

Seven Canadian soldiers are in the dugout, rifles, gas masks and equipment at hand and they are rehearsing Henry V. Scripts in hand, they seem to be going through an early reading. The Chorus is barely able to read the first line of the opening speech when the actor playing the Archbishop of Canterbury refuses to continue because he does not want the part.
 
Damien Atkins in Henry V. Photo by David Cooper.
The actors who play the soldiers are professionals but the soldiers who are rehearsing Henry V are amateurs – and they look it. The seven actors perform, if I counted them correctly, some 35 roles. Take the Chorus, for example, he is played by four actors. The rest play several role or more each and you are challenged to keep track of who is playing what when, if you care at all.

The second half of the play takes place in a hospital where six beds are lined up and occupied by the soldiers who have been seriously wounded. We see crutches, head bandages and evidence of other wounds on the soldiers and four nurses who take care of them. They continue rehearsing roles in the play with no particular attention as to whether the characters are men or women. Lines are muffed, we are told acts and scene numbers and the rehearsal goes on.

The amusing scene with Princess Katherine and her attendant Alice, where she is trying to learn English is played twice. In the first round Damien Atkins is Katherine and Kristopher Bowman plays Alice. In the repeat of the scene, Natasha Mumba plays Katherine and Yanna McIntosh is Alice. I may be approximately right and I only recite these details to give you an idea of the mish mash of the production.
 
Julia Course and Claire Jullien with Patrick Galligan, Cameron Grant, 
Kristopher Bowman and Damien Atkins in Henry V. Photo by David Cooper.
Gray Powell plays Henry V but he is just an ordinary soldier as are all the other men and what is the point of putting on the play when the production has almost nothing to do with Shakespeare’s work? What in the world are we supposed to get out of the travesty of Shakespeare’s play and what are we to make of these “amateurs” doing a run through?

The eleven actors who played the Canadian soldiers and nurses on the Western Front and the roles they rehearsed in Henry V are as follows, straight from the programme:
  
Damien Atkins           Scroop/Nym/Dauphin/Gloucester/Katherine
Kristopher Bowman   Bardolph/Gower/Duke of Brittany/Alice/Westmorland/French                                                               King
Julia Course                Williams/Messenger/York/Duke of Bourbon/Queen Isabel
Patrick Galligan         Ambassador/Chorus/Cambridge/Constable/Fluellen/Salisbury/
French Soldier
Cameron Grant           Hostess/Messenger/Chorus/Boy/Governor/Rambures/
Alexander Court/Montjoy/Westmorland
Claire Jullien              Orleans/Gloucester/Duke of Burgundy
Yanna McIntosh         Alice/Chorus/Erpingham/Grandpré/Warwick
Natasha Mumba         Katherine/Dauphin/Bates/Bedford/Herald
Gray Powell                King Henry V
Ric Reid                      Grey/French King
Graeme Somerville     Chorus/Exeter/Pistol

This is the first Shakespeare play that the Shaw Festival has produced and the choice is a complete mystery considering the approach that Carroll has taken. There are some jokes that the soldiers make about lines and actions in the play but they are much funnier for the participants during an actual rehearsal.

No doubt Tim Carroll and his co-director Kevin Bennett envisioned something dramatic in their approach to the play but they did not deliver anything of the kind. A deep disappointment.
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Henry V by William Shakespeare continues in repertory until October 28, 2018 at the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.

Monday, August 13, 2018

O’FLAHERTY V.C. – REVIEW OF 2018 SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

James Karas

Bernard Shaw was a master of turning the tables around on a subject or using irony as a comic tool. O’Flaherty V.C. is a one-act play that he wrote in 1915 and he subtitled it A Reminiscence of 1915 (A Recruiting Pamphlet). Needless to say it was nothing of the sort.

The play takes place in an Irish country house where we meet Private O’Flaherty (Ben Sanders) who has been awarded that rare recognition for extraordinary bravery and service to the British Empire, the Victoria Cross medal. He is a hero and his landlord, General Sir Pearce Madigan (Patrick McManus) is parading him through the Irish countryside to persuade more Irish boys to enlist.
 
Ben Sanders as O'Flaherty and Patrick McManus as General Sir Pearce Madigan 
in O'Flaherty V.C. Photo by Emily Cooper
Now for the surprises. O’Flaherty is no hero. He is just an ordinary chump who was more afraid of running away than of fighting. And that’s just the beginning of the shocks that the cartoon recruiting and Irish estate-owning General is about to get.

O’Flaherty’s mother who raised the General’s children and is a patriotic Irish woman does not know and would never allow her son to fight for the British. She thinks he is fighting for the French and the Russians who would never fight with the English. She draws her own conclusions.

The play provides a marvelous joke and a bitter satire on war and patriotism. Sanders is splendid as the young innocent who goes to a war that he knows nothing about. He has the Irish lilt and the cunning, intelligence and innocence to make an attractive character. He was a thief as a young man and explains his conduct to the General simply. His mother sold her geese to pay her rent to the General. He stole the General’s geese to pay for the rent.

Tara Rosling is the tough, no-nonsense mother who bought bottled milk for her infant but nursed the general’s daughter. She prays for the conversion of the General and cuffs her son’s ears on a regular basis. Quite a woman and a fine performance by Rosling.
 
Gabriella Sundar Singh as Teresa, Ben Sanders as O'Flaherty and Tara Rosling 
as Mrs. O'Flaherty. Photo by Emily Cooper
McManus as the general is the pipe-smoking Central Casting, as they used to say, English officer. He shocked, just shocked at O’Flaherty’s conduct and his mother’s attitude. Everyone is loyal and patriotic, no? NO.

The servant Teresa (Gabriella Sundar Singh) is another tough Irish woman with plans of her own. She sees an opportunity in the new hero. She gets into a fight with Mrs. Flaherty and delivers some marvelous insults. In the end, O’Flaherty V.C. does turn out to be, in a Shavian ironic way, a recruiting pamphlet. Go see it to figure out how.

Director Kimberley Rampersad sets a perfect pace with terrific performances and gives us a delightful 45 minutes of theatre during lunch time.
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O’Flaherty V.C. by Bernard Shaw continues on various dates until October 6, 2018 at the Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

THE ORCHARD (AFTER CHEKHOV) – REVIEW OF 2018 SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

James Karas

There are many reasons for producing The Orchard (After Chekhov) at the Shaw Festival during the current season. It is a first play by a Canadian writer and that’s worth several solid points. It is about immigrants and their integration under the policy of multi-culturalism enunciated by former Prime Minister Pierre Eliot Trudeau and it salutes native Canadians. What more do you want?

The “more” (and perhaps “less”) is suggested by the title. Sarena Parmar has found a short cut to inventing a plot and characters by borrowing them from Anon Chekhov’s 1903 play The Cherry Orchard.  She transplanted Mrs. Ranevskaya’s orchard from provincial Russia at the turn of the twentieth century to British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley in 1975 taking most of the characters along.
 
The cast of The Orchard (After Chekhov). Photo by David Cooper.
In Chekhov, the aristocratic order represented by Mrs. Ranevskaya is in decline and a new class is coming up. It is the end of Tsarist Russia. In Parmar’s play, the people are immigrant Sikhs from Punjab, India who, like their Russian counterparts, are on the verge of losing the orchard and I suppose their way of life.

The immediate cause for the loss of the estate is simply bad management. Mrs. Ranevskaya has been living extravagantly in Paris for five years and is left penniless. Loveleen (the name is a loose translation of Ranevskaya’s first name Lyubov), the owner of the Okanagan estate has been living in Bombay with a user and spends whatever money is left for her return ticket to Canada.

Loveleen (Pamela Sinha) is a beautiful and classy woman. One can’t say that she has mismanaged the estate, because she has not managed it at all and maybe she is just plain stupid. The mortgagee is about to foreclose and the estate is going on the auction block and she can’t quite grasp the situation. But she is always lovely.

Loveleen has a large family and friends. Like all immigrants, they are facing the issue of maintaining the culture of the “old country” and integrating into the new way of life. As Sikhs, some of them have the additional problem of being highly visible and having to choose between turban-and-beard and clean-shaven and hair-cut. Her niece Barminder (Krystal Kiran) has converted to Christianity and speaks of becoming a nun. Talk abou assimilation. 
 Pamela Sinha as Loveleen with Rong Fu as Donna in The Orchard (After Chekhov). 
Photo by David Cooper.
Her daughter Annie (played by the author) is a beautiful and intelligent woman who speaks English without an accent (just about all of them do) and survival and success in the host culture should be relatively easier if her mother knew some arithmetic when she was blowing the family farm.

The “Canadian” representatives are Paul (Neil Barclay), a genial neighbour who is broke and Michael (Jeff Meadows) a local shyster who acts (and overacts) like a clown but has his eye set on grabbing the orchard. No he is not a lawyer, just a local businessman rising from the bottom.

Kesur (David Adams) is the turbaned and bearded father of Loveleen and represents the old country, I suppose, and Gurjit (Sanjay Talwar) is Loveleen’s brother who meets the reality of looking “different” and searching for a job.

Parmar salutes Canada’s first nations with the presence of Charlie (Jani Lauzon) and leftist thinking with Peter (Shawn Ahmed).

The plot and the characters are grafted one way or another from Chekhov but the major themes do not take to the Canadian environment as well as one might wish. The sale by auction of the Okanagan cherry orchard and the premise of the whole play are not convincing as the decline and fall of immigrants from Punjab.

The production is directed by Ravi Jain and the play was dramaturged by Guillermo Verdecchia. It presents an interesting idea that should resonate with immigrants and “locals” and again kudos for the choice of play for the reasons enumerated at the beginning of this review.
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The Orchard (After Chekhov) by Sarena Parma continues in repertory until September 1, 2018 at the Jackie Maxwell Studio, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

WEST SIDE STORY – REVIEW OF 2018 GLIMMERGLASS FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

James Karas

A great production of a great musical.

That is a succinct review of The Glimmerglass Festival production of West Side Story directed by the Festival’s Artistic Director Francesca Zambello. It is a co-production with the Houston Grand Opera and the Lyric Opera of Chicago and one can fairly say that she pulled out all the stops and the result is triumphal.
 

Vanessa Becerra as Maria and Joseph Leppek as Tony in "West Side Story." 
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
She has a great work to work with. West Side Story has a masterful score by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents. That is three theatrical geniuses combining forces to bring an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to Broadway in 1957. Jerome Robbins’ choreography remains extraordinary and unsurpassable. This is no pleasant dancing but an integral part of the plot that not only adds dramatic punch to the story but is an essential part of it. Remove the dancing and you have caused irreparable harm to the musical.

The original choreography is reproduced by Julio Monge. The scenery by Peter J. Davison and the costumes by Jessica Jahn show the seedy side of New York and the clothes worn by gang members, as far as we can tell. They do the job superbly.

West Side Story needs talented principals like Tony, Maria and Anita, and the main members of the two gangs and this production has them all. Aside from the love plot between Maria and Tony and the effervescent Anita, the musical is an ensemble performance because it is the portrait of two social groups at war. Who are they? Open the news and you will find them in most corners of the great United States. In this case they are Puerto Ricans and “real Americans” for which read white bigots.
 
Joseph Leppek as Tony, Vanessa Becerra as Maria and Amanda Castro as Anita in 
"West Side Story." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Vanessa Becerra as Maria has a ringing voice and shows emotional intensity of the highest order. Tony (Joseph Leppek) is man in love with the voice and the passion to show it. The gang members do dance routines that are athletic, perfectly timed and executed with dramatic power and marvelous passion. Amanda Castro makes the perfect insouciant recent immigrant who is full of optimism but can tell the difference between a dream and a daydream.

The “adults” of the show are the very sympathetic Doc (Dale Travis) and the cops, Lieutenant Schrank (Zachary Owen) and Officer Krupke (Maxwell Levy) who are perhaps exactly how we imagine police officers.

David Charles Abell conducts The Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra bringing out Bernstein’s wonderful songs and music to an audience that seemed to be thrilled by every note.

A magnificent night at the theatre. 
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 West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) and Arthur Laurents (book) is being performed thirteen times between July 7 and August 24, 2018 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or www.glimmerglass.org

Friday, August 10, 2018

THE CUNNING LITTLE VIXEN – REVIEW OF 2018 GLIMMERGLASS FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

James Karas

There are productions and recordings of Leos Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen but it is not an opera that has joined the standard repertoire. You are grateful for any production and especially thankful for one that is done well. E. Loren Meeker’s production for The Glimmerglass Festival qualifies as such as Artistic Director Francesca Zambello deserves a bow for her choice of an off-the-beaten track work.

The Cunning Little Vixen is a fairy tale about a vixen (sung marvelously by the agile Joanna Latini) fox from her youth to her death. As a cub, she is captured and taken home as a pet by the Forester (the ever sonorous Eric Owens). After killing the Forester’s hens, she escapes back to the forest where she grows up and finds love with another fox. Her cunning fails her and she is killed.
 
Joanna Latini as the Vixen and Eric Owens as the Forester in Janáček's "The Cunning Little Vixen." 
Photo: Karli Cadel/ The Glimmerglass Festival
The opera’s characters are mostly animals and insects including hens, grasshoppers, frogs, dragonflies, a wolf, a badger, a mosquito, a dog, a boar, a woodpecker …and you get the idea. Aside from the Forester and his wife (Kayla Siembieda), there is a Schoolmaster (Dylan Morrongiello), a Parson (Zachary Owen), Pasek the Innkeeper (Brian Wallin), his wife (Gretchen Krupp) and Harasta, the Poacher (Wm. Clay Thompson).

It should be noted that the entire cast with the exception of Eric Owens is made up of Glimmerglass’s Young Artists Program and the Glimmerglass Youth Chorus. Most of the young men and women take on more than one role and the performances are simply admirable.   

The Cunning Little Vixen is an orchestral piece, an opera and a ballet. There are some beautiful orchestral interludes and a great deal of dancing. With a few changes and additions, I think the work can easily be converted to a full-blown ballet. As such the Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra by Joseph Colaneri performs brilliantly. The dancing as choreographed by Eric Sean Fogel is done quite well.

The flexible set by Ryan McGgettigan represents a large faux tree in the forest and it is easily adaptable to represent the Forester’s house or the tavern where the men drink and talk about love or the lack of it
 
Gretchen Krupp as Pasek's Wife, Eric Owens as the Forester, Dylan Morrongiello as the Schoolmaster. 
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Janacek adapted the stories of Rudolf Tesnohlidek for his libretto which is of course in Czech. Glimmerglass presents the opera in English in a translation by Kelley Rourke. That no doubt solves the problem of finding singers who know Czech or can memorize the libretto phonetically. But the translation does have problems. Without knowing Czech, but having heard the opera in its original language, I felt that the English translation had many more syllables. The singers had to rush through phrases that simply did not fit the music and we lost the advantage of having the words married to the music and vice versa.

You may have post-performance rumblings of your own but nothing can take away from the wisdom of choosing to produce the opera, the display of young talent nurtuted by the Festival and the overall high-caliber performance.
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The Cunning Little Vixen by Leos Janacek is being performed nine times between July 8 and August 25, 2018 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or www.glimmerglass.org

Thursday, August 9, 2018

SILENT NIGHT – REVIEW OF 2018 GLIMMERGLASS FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

James Karas

Silent Night is one of the most moving operas that I have ever seen.
              
The silent night of the title of the opera is not the well-known Yuletide carol but a truce among Scottish, French and German soldiers on Christmas Eve 1914 to stop killing each other on the Western Front.

Kevin Puts’ opera to a libretto by Mark Campbell tells a moving story about humanity and decency in the midst of brutality. It is a paean to humanity and a condemnation of our species.

Campbell has woven several personal stories involving soldiers and officers of the warring armies around the national conflicts that brought these people to the war for the sole purpose of killing each other.
 
Arnold Livingston Geis as Nikolaus Sprink in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2018 production of 
Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell's "Silent Night." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Director Tomer Zvulun has staged a superb production that captures the horror and senselessness of war and the human decency that can rise above it.

The Glimmerglass Festival stage is divided into three sections, one on top of the other, and they are occupied by Scottish, French and German platoons. The men are patriots and fighting for their countries. They are convinced of their righteousness and want to kill their enemy.

On the personal side, there are two Scottish brothers, William (Maxwell Levy) and Jonathan (Christian Sanders), who volunteer for service. But William is killed by the Germans and Jonathan, filled with hatred, promises to take revenge.

Nikolaus Sprink (Arnold Livingston Geis) and Anna Sorensen (Mary Evelyn Hangley) are singers with the Berlin Opera and he is conscripted into the German army. He is a good singer but a bad soldier. She is conscripted to sing for the Crown Prince who is camped in a nearby chalet on Christmas Eve and Nikolaos is sent to do the same. The two lovers are reconciled but how and where they will end up is another question.

Lieutenant Audebert (Michael Miller), the son of an officer, has enlisted in the French army leaving his pregnant wife behind. These are the central personal stories that are weaved into the temporary truce that miraculously happens on that Christmas Eve.

As the soldiers are shooting at each other, they realize that their enemies are people, that they have everything in common and no reason to kill each other despite the fervent patriotism and self-righteousness that they have been indoctrinated with.

During the evening the men from the three nations drink, exchange pleasantries, eat and have a good time together. In the morning hostilities are about to resume, but, again miraculously, they decide to extend the truce for a few hours in order to bury the dead.
 
Dale Travis as The British Major with members of the company in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2018 
production of Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell's "Silent Night." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Puts’ score is an exquisite piece of music, expressive, moving, approachable, dramatic and occasionally dissonant. Campbell’s libretto is based on the screenplay of the film Joyeux Noël by Christian Carion. The opera is sung in the three languages of the combatants with some Latin. It was commissioned by the Minnesota Opera and premiered in 2011.

One of the most moving scenes in the opera occurs when Father Palmer (William Clay Thompson), a Scottish cleric performs a Christmas service and all the soldiers join in. The German Lieutenant Horstmayer (Michael Hewitt) joins in for his first such service. He is a Jew. That means he is not a “real” German and the opera prepares us for what will happen to the Jews of Europe in the future.

The commanding officers take an extremely dim view of the truce. The Kronprinz, the British Major (Dale Travis) and the French General (Timothy Bruno) punish the junior officers involved in the truce and make sure that no such event happens again. As Campbell puts it succinctly “war is not sustainable when you come to know your enemy as a person.”

Although there are some atrocious accents as the singers try to manage Scottish, German and French intonations, the opera is well sung and affectively acted.

Nicole Paiement conducted the Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra and Chorus in what is, I can only repeat, one of the most moving productions I have ever seen.
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Silent Night by Kevin Puts (music) and Mark Campbell (libretto) is being performed nine times between July 15 and August 23, 2018 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or www.glimmerglass.org