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Opera Stars Coming to The Church

Mon, 09/18/2023 - 14:30
The vocalists in the Sag Harbor Song Festival are, clockwise from top left, Brandon Cedel, Jennifer Johnson Cano, Jack Swanson, Liv Redpath, Zachary Nelson, and Alaysha Fox.
Courtesy of the Sag Harbor Song Festival and The Church in Sag Harbor

The second iteration of the Sag Harbor Song Festival will bring six opera stars to The Church in Sag Harbor for three programs of opera, musical theater, songs, and lieder, starting Friday evening and continuing through Sunday.

Conceived by Lena Kaplan, a philanthropist and music lover, the festival will again be led by Brad Woolbright, artistic director, and Robert Tweten, music director, and will feature as pianist John Arida, a full-time faculty member at the Juilliard School. 

Last year, Ms. Kaplan, a longtime aficionado of vocal music and founder of the Birgit Nilsson Prize, given every three years to a young singer, had the idea of offering a platform for young singers in the Hamptons.

"I mentioned this to April Gornik, the co-founder of The Church, and April immediately said, 'That sounds great, can we do it at The Church?'," Ms. Kaplan said during a Zoom conversation with Mr. Woolbright. "So we started working on this little idea, and then I found Brad, who came out of retirement to join me on this journey."

"When Lena invited me over for the first time last March, she asked if we had a deal," Mr. Woolbright said. "I said I really needed to get a music director in tow. I asked Bob, my longtime partner-in-crime at the Santa Fe Opera, and he agreed."

Mr. Woolbright was the artistic administrator of the Santa Fe Opera for more than four decades and has been involved with the presentation of more than 40 American and world premieres. Mr. Tweten is a conductor and pianist who is head of music staff for the Santa Fe Opera and music director of opera studies for the New England Conservatory. He has performed throughout the United States and Canada.

Once Ms. Kaplan laid out a blueprint for the festival last year, Mr. Woolbright and Mr. Tweten selected six singers they both knew. "We then asked them to send us their party pieces. All these singers have repertoires, and from each we got a list. From those, Bob and I chose our favorites."

Among this year's vocalists, Alaysha Fox recently performed the role of Lady Clarence at the Fisher Center at Bard in Saint-Saens's rarely performed "Henry VIII." During the upcoming season, Liv Redpath will perform at the Royal Opera House, Berliner Philharmoniker, and the Metropolitan Opera. Jennifer Johnson Cano's more than 100 performances at the Met have included the roles of Nicklausse, Emilia, Hansel, and Meg Page.

On Monday morning, both Ms. Cano and Jack Swanson will get on the same flight to Houston, where they will perform the roles of Mistress Quickly and Fenton in "Falstaff." Mr. Swanson will also appear with the Lyric Opera and the Norwegian Opera later in the season. 

Zachary Nelson's credits range from the title role in "Sweeney Todd" with the Des Moines Metro Opera to Marcello in "La Boheme." Brandon Cedel's recent appearances include the title role in "Le Nozze di Figaro" for the Glyndebourne Festival and Zuniga in "Carmen" for the Chicago Opera Theater.

The festival's extensive program and information about the creative team and vocalists can be accessed on The Church's website. A sampling of featured composers include Handel, Rachmaninoff, Mozart, Debussy, Sonny Bono, Verdi, Brahms, Bernstein, Copland, Sondheim, Rogers and Hammerstein, Stephen Foster, and Mahler.

"The world of singers is very small," said Mr. Woolbright. "Singers live from gig to gig, they literally live out of suitcases. This series we create with a group of singers who are friendly with each other is something unique in a singer's life. It's wonderful to have it in a really special place like Sag Harbor."

Indeed, when considering where the singers would stay during the festival, one suggestion was to put them up in individual homes. However, Ms. Kaplan voted for the American Hotel, and Mr. Woolbright agreed. "One of the reasons the singers love so much coming out here is to be together and to have breakfast together and to talk about the program together," Ms. Kaplan said.

She added that while last year the festival was a program of The Church, since then it has incorporated and has its own 501(c)(3) designation, "so we are a publicly supported nonprofit organization." As for the future, "The singers have talked to many of their colleagues and we now actually get requests from agents and singers to be kept in mind for next year's festival. It really has a life of its own now."

Concerts are set for Friday and Saturday at 6:30 p.m. and Sunday at noon. Tickets to individual programs are $75; festival passes are $200.

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