After a two-year intermission, the Chautauqua Opera Company & Conservatory returns with much to celebrate — not just the recent welcome of the School of Music Voice Program into the fold.
In 2020, Chautauqua Opera planned to perform three operas following the theme of women’s rights to commemorate the centenary of the 19th Amendment. The pandemic halted this festival; the company shifted their original schedule and instead conducted a nine-week virtual season with all but one of the artists who signed on to participate in the in-person program.
Chautauqua Opera had a scaled back season in 2021. With a limited number of performers, they produced two operas in the outdoor Performance Pavilion on Pratt and conducted Opera Invasions via golf cart.
Now, two years after the initial pause, the directors, principle singers and guest artists originally brought on for 2020 return not only to Chautauqua Institution but to opera’s home in Norton Hall itself, with their season reaching its apex with that previously planned opera festival. It was a conceit first launched in 2019 with the staging of the Beaumarchais Trilogy. This year, the festival will run Thumbprint, Tosca and The Mother of Us All on consecutive days, with The Mother of Us All in the Amphitheater.
The first opera the company will perform is Thumbprint. Created by Kamala Sankaram and Susan Yankowitz, Thumbprint tells the story of Mukhtar Mai, a contemporary women’s rights activist in Pakistan. Mai particularly advocated for a girls’ school to combat illiteracy, because people who did not know how to read or write had to sign their name with a thumbprint.
While Thumbprint debuted in 2014, the next opera, Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca, is over 100 years older. Steven Osgood, the general and artistic director of Chautauqua Opera, purposefully chose an older opera that follows a woman who did not have to marry “for the end of the opera to be satisfied.”
Often, Osgood said, “death and marriage are kind of the goals for opera heroines, which is problematic.”
For Tosca, she retains her power until the very end, “and she could not be more powerful,” Osgood said.
Susan B. Anthony spoke at Chautauqua in 1854 and 1891, so for the company, it seemed only fitting to choose The Mother of Us All as part of the 19th Amendment centenary’s repertoire. It will have a one-performance run July 30 in the Amp after performances of Thumbprint and of Tosca in Norton Hall on July 28 and 29 respectively.
Lastly, the Chautauqua Opera will do a workshop reading in Norton of The House on Mango Street: The Opera, which is based on the novel by Sandra Cisneros. Cisneros and composer Derek Bermel collaborated on the lyrics, with Cisneros writing the libretto and Bermel composing the music.
In 2017, the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle and the CLSC Young Readers both had The House on Mango Street as a selection, and Cisneros came to the grounds to discuss her novel. She will return this year for programs with both Chautauqua Literary Arts and the Chautauqua Opera. Not many people have the opportunity to ask a librettist about their decisions in a piece, but Osgood looks forward to this experience.
“I think (it is) one of the most magical places to be,” Osgood said. “And it changes the way I look at everything else that I conduct.”
With numerous events and a return to Norton, Osgood is excited that there will be a full company for the first time since 2019 — many of whom have been with Chautauqua Opera for more than two decades. He used the metaphor of “pressing play” after a long pause on everything that had been scheduled for the 2020 season.
“How could anything top that?” Osgood said. “This is finally us back again.”