During the dress rehearsal for Chautauqua Opera Company’s rendition of John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles on July 24, Michael Baumgarten sat at his switchboard paying close attention to the cue sheet.
Baumgarten, Chautauqua Opera’s director of production and resident lighting and video designer, has been involved with shows at Chautauqua since 1995. This year, he celebrates his 25th summer with Chautauqua Opera.
Raised in Brooklyn, Baumgarten fell in love with the arts and got involved in his high school’s theater program.
“By the time I graduated from high school — and this was New York in the ’60s and ’70s,” he said, “I had seen over 100 Broadway shows.”
He originally thought he was going to be a lawyer, “or I should say. My mother thought I was going to be a lawyer,” Baumgarten said. “And I started by becoming a political science major.”
Baumgarten enrolled at The State University of New York at Binghamton. In college, his studies diverted from political science to theater. He graduated in 1978, with a Bachelor of Arts in theater. Then, Baumgarten went to the Yale School of Drama and graduated in 1981, with his master’s in lighting and technical design.
“I knew from my first lighting class that I would be a lighting designer,” he said. “All I remember is that at the first class I said, ‘This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.’ ”
After teaching for a year at Stony Brook University, he assisted in his first Broadway production, called Master Harold and the Boys, which was a “major hit.” Meanwhile, Baumgarten was also growing a family, as he married his wife Meryl in 1986. As a lighting assistant, he kept the paperwork, took notes and did anything to help the lighting designer.
“The assistant basically needs to think like the (lighting) designer, but they are not the designer,” he said.
He said he stayed on the Broadway scene to assist in “some of the most forgettable shows” and even worked with “All in the Family’s” Carroll O’Connor on a show called Brothers.
“We opened on Broadway, and the next day it closed,” Baumgarten said. “Then I worked on a show starring Richard Dreyfuss — it opened and closed in 10 minutes.”
Baumgarten said now he fondly looks back on his Broadway past, as all types of show business — good or bad — built his career. Throughout his career, he has made connections to opera companies around the country, which helped him land jobs at Opera Omaha, Opera Carolina and Opera Columbus.
In 1988, he began teaching at Amherst College, where he taught for 17 years.
In 1992, he was working as a resident lighting designer at Des Moines Metro Opera. In that same year, Baumgarten met the former general and artistic director of Chautauqua Opera, Jay Lessinger, who brought him to Chautauqua in 1995.
Baumgarten said he arrived at Chautauqua with his daughters in tow to a musty “Mayville basement” — the arrival turned out to be one of his favorite memories. But his daughters started having asthma attacks, and he quickly moved to the Magnolia Lodge in Mayville.
“They moved us there and we stayed for four weeks at this studio apartment-like room,” he said. “And across the hall was Hal France — he was a famous conductor — so I don’t remember a ton about the lighting, but I remember my housing situation.”
Chautauqua Opera presented Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Così fan tutte and Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca in 1995. For both shows, Baumgarten was the guest lighting designer. Four years later, he became the resident lighting designer for Chautauqua Opera.
Baumgarten said he fell into the opera world by “dumb luck,” and now he would never think to do anything else.
“You never know where you are going to end up,” he said. “For me, opera means that I get paid to sit and listen to a 60-piece orchestra and glorious voices.”
Since Steven Osgood was hired as Chautauqua Opera’s general and artistic director, Baumgarten stayed on staff working for every opera as both the director of production and lighting designer. As the director of production, he handles all the money involved with the opera
This season, with the first ever Opera Festival Weekend and the staging of the Figaro Trilogy, Baumgarten and his team had to work quickly and as a well-oiled machine. Osgood said that throughout the festival, the production team and Baumgarten got the job done, despite challenges.
“Every step of the way had so many moving pieces that had to connect and interlock,” Osgood said. “We needed every single member of the company to be operating at peak for eight-and-a-half weeks.”
Baumgarten said during the shows many problems can occur, but “if a light breaks, it breaks,” and they move forward.
When Baumgarten is not at Chautauqua, he works at Opera Carolina as the director of production and the resident lighting designer. As he continues to work in the opera world, he said opera is something special, so he “better like it by now.”
“It’s been 38 years,” Baumgarten said. “I don’t necessarily listen to opera at home, but there’s nothing better than doing opera.”