Small opera companies need to take different routes in order to stand out and compete against the wealthier and more international competition. One way is to perform rare works that the Metropolitan Opera or New York City Opera can’t or won’t do.
On May 28, New Amsterdam Opera performs François-Adrien Boïeldieu’s 1825 opera-comique “La Dame Blanche” at the Center on West Park on 86th Street. It is a fanciful yarn based on the novels of Sir Walter Scott involving a lost heir, a mysterious castle on the moors, hidden treasure and a ghostly white lady who protects the house of Avenel. Not everything is gloomy, as the score has lilting romances and sparkling typically Gallic ensembles.
“La Dame Blanche” was presented at the Metropolitan Opera in the late 19th century and very early 20th century in German. It was presented in concert by Opera Orchestra of New York in 1992, with an up and coming young Renée Fleming as Anna who poses as the “White Lady” of the title.
I spoke with the conductor and founder of New Amsterdam Opera, Keith Chambers, about his journey into the forgotten byways of French opera:
“La Dame Blanche” is a forgotten opera these days rarely performed even in France. It was last performed at the Met over 100 years ago. Yet in its day (before WWI) it racked up thousands of performances in Paris alone. Opera Orchestra of New York performed it in January 1992. OONY Maestro Eve Queler has been a huge supporter of New Amsterdam Opera. What made you choose this work?
We decided that we wanted to slightly veer from our normal dramatic repertoire choice and program something of a lighter nature. As New Amsterdam Opera has been fortunate to inherit Eve Queler’s Opera Orchestra of New York orchestral music library, we have a large variety of titles from which to choose. This will be our second French opera – following the very successful “Hérodiade” in 2019.
“La Dame Blanche” is an opéra-comique which is a very elusive and forgotten genre where sung passages alternate with spoken dialogue. The opéra-comique performers were trained in both speech and song. Most other countries used recitative since it is difficult to get non-francophone singers to convincingly project spoken dialogue. Note the Guiraud recitatives in Bizet’s “Carmen” which was originally an opéra-comique. Eve Queler hired tenor Nico Castel to do a spoken narration in 1992 for OONY. How are you handling the dialogue?
We are using a narrator for our May 28th performance – baritone Steven Herring, who thrilled audiences as Don Pizarro in our first performance of Beethoven’s “Fidelio” in 2016, will be delivering the dialogue first written by the great Nico Castel in 1992. As we are performing in concert, there was no question that we wanted this performance to be enhanced by a narrator – our fans will remember our “Fidelio” performance from 2016 and how the great bass-baritone Richard Cross both wrote and delivered brilliant dialogue that masterfully held the performance together.
What have you learned about the piece – its difficulties and its beauties?
I think that the main difficulty of “La Dame Blanche” is that it is an ensemble opera from start to finish. This is exciting for the audience but definitely difficult for us to rehearse! Of course, the great large ensembles of opera are always the most difficult to assemble but the most thrilling to experience.
It is difficult to find good French opera stylists. Tell me about your singers?
Our leading lady is soprano Katy Lindhart, who first joined New Amsterdam Opera last year for our performance of Verdi’s “I Vespri Siciliani.” She is singing the role that Renée Fleming thrilled New York audiences with at Carnegie Hall in 1992 – it is a tour de force sing that runs the gamut with the difficulties of a great bel canto heroine. The role encompasses a wide range, demanding coloratura and calls for a great beauty of tone.
Tenor Arnold Livingston Geis is known to NYC audiences for his captivating performance as Mr. Marks in Ricky Ian Gordon’s recent run of “Intimate Apparel” at Lincoln Center in early 2022. In “La Dame Blanche,” Mr. Geis sings the role of Georges Brown, which is one of the great high lyric tenor sings in all of the operatic repertoire. The role requires an easy access to high note after high note in addition to a facility to effortless coloratura – we are thrilled to have Mr. Geis in our cast and know that NYC audiences are going to be beside themselves after hearing his thrilling performance!
What are the challenges of running a small independent opera company?
Running a small opera company is challenging in any city but New York City in particular is a thrill but always a challenge. We are thankful to our faithful donors and audience members, who have been supporting us since our inaugural performance in June of 2016. We guarantee that our performance of “La Dame Blanche” will be a thrilling night of theater and hope that you can join us on the evening of May 28, 2022 to experience this rare but thrilling opera!
Information and tickets available here: https://www.newamsterdamopera.org/