MIDDLEBURY — Tenor Matt Morgan and baritone Andrew Cummings, in t-shirts and blue jeans, paced the rehearsal space on the ground floor of Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater last week. The two New Yorkers were all smiles until their accompanist started up, and then they snapped into character — goodbye, Middlebury, hello, Ceylon.
The two opera singers are leads in Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers,” the seventh-season production of the Opera Company of Middlebury, and last week’s first rehearsal was the kick off for a three-week blitz of preparation for upcoming performances on June 4, 8, and 10.
Morgan and Cummings moved across the room, their singing voices muted to save their vocal chords from any strain. Leaning back in a chair on the other side of the room, hands clasped behind his head, Doug Anderson kept a close eye on the actors.
“Let’s stop here for a moment,” Anderson said, flapping his hand at the accompanist to stop.
Anderson is perhaps best known in Middlebury for playing the pied piper to the hundreds of local residents who rallied behind a 10-year effort to turn Middlebury’s ancient town hall into a community arts theater to rival the best in the country. He still leads that charge as the executive director of the Town Hall Theater, a job that calls for wrangling acts and events, drumming up funds and filling seats at the renovated venue.
But it’s here, in the rehearsal space at the theater, that Anderson moves into the other role he inhabits: that of the artistic director. And though his tenure as the executive director at the theater has been marked by success, it’s Anderson’s stage efforts that consistently earn standing ovations from audiences and actors alike.
There was no time last week to dwell on past successes, though: Anderson and his company of singers had three weeks to get into shape for their performances. The condensed rehearsal schedule means quick turn-around for the singers, Morgan admitted — some companies spend more than a month on staging alone.
But the mood in the rehearsal space was jovial rather than rushed, and already the singers and director bantered like old friends. Morgan and Cummings were practicing “Au fond du temple saint,” arguably the opera’s most famous song. The duet is beloved by many classical music fans, though few know it derives from Bizet’s opera.
The duet comes early in the opera, shortly after Zurga (Cummings) is appointed the leader of a small community of fishermen in Ceylon (today known as Sri Lanka). When Zurga’s long-lost friend Nadir (Morgan) arrives, the two greet one another affectionately. They sing of a time in their youth when they quarreled over the same beautiful, mysterious priestess. Setting aside the old infatuation, the two men pledge fidelity and eternal friendship.
Anderson interrupted the duo periodically as they moved through the scene. His directions on this evening had less to do with stage movements or music; he was concerned about the relationship between the two old friends. There’s a bittersweet quality to the duet, Anderson reminded Cummings and Morgan. Bring that to the music, he said.
The two returned to the beginning of the scene. Anderson slid down in his chair, clasping his hands behind his head. He nodded after Morgan hit the high note at the end of the duet.
“Trés bien,” Anderson said. “I’m starting to believe it.”
THE DIRECTING BUG
Anderson caught the directing bug early on. A native of Dayton, Ohio, his first gig was with a traveling children’s theater he and some friends started up. The teenagers spent the summer writing and performing their own shows, towing a trailer around Ohio that turned into their makeshift stage.
Ever since, the 57-year-old East Middlebury resident hasn’t been far from the bright lights of the theater. He did a stint as the lead writer on a soap opera, and worked for a little while in children’s television. But after coming to Middlebury College for a three-year teaching stint in 1983, he and his wife, Debby, fell in love with Vermont.
“We thought, ‘This is it, we’re staying,’” Anderson said.
All in all, he estimates he’s directed anywhere from 50 to 60 shows in his life — though Anderson admits it’s a stab in the dark to pin a number down. He’s led opera and musicals, college students and community theater companies. In Middlebury, Anderson serves as the artistic director of the Opera Company of Middlebury, and often directs the Middlebury Community Players as well. He directs three shows a year — a tremendous amount of work.
But it’s difficult for Anderson to pinpoint why, exactly, he’s compelled to direct.
“What makes people want to entertain and tell stories and teach?” Anderson asked.
He doesn’t have an answer. But his attraction to the theater has something to do with forging the intense sense of family and community that a theatrical production inspires. That community is short-lived, Anderson said, but no less authentic for its brevity.
And he likes surprising his audiences. Maybe it means setting Shakespeare in a bar in Texas. Maybe it simply means bringing professional standards to community theater — “the only kind of theater worth doing,” Anderson will argue, precisely because it boils down to community, family and teamwork.
“We live in an age of video and computers and texting … We’re finding (fewer and fewer) opportunities to come together, spend time together, and work together on common projects. I’m a true believer in what community arts can do for a community, and that’s what this space is all about,” Anderson said.
‘THE PEARL FISHERS’
If Anderson’s vision for the Town Hall Theater is community theater with professional standards, the annual opera performances make for professional theater with equally high standards: This year the company received more than 300 inquiries from professional opera singers hoping to audition for a part.
“The Pearl Fishers” marks a change of pace for the Opera Company of Middlebury, which until now has stuck to the “warhorses” — show’s like “Carmen,” “La Bohème,” and “The Barber of Seville,” all time-tested favorites bound to fill seats.
“The Pearl Fishers,” though, is more dark horse than warhorse. Despite a successful debut in 1860s, Georges Bizet’s first opera — written when he was just 25 — languished in relative obscurity for decades.
Bringing a lesser known opera to the Town Hall Theater is a little riskier. “The Pearl Fishers” doesn’t have the same pull that Bizet’s “Carmen” does. But after six seasons with the shows everyone knows and loves, Anderson said he was ready to branch out. This, he said, is where a director has an opportunity to teach.
“Every once in awhile you want to say … ‘Can we take our audience someplace new?’” Anderson said. “I’m eager to explore some new terrain, and that’s where this comes in.”
Anderson is used to covering new terrain. He was the one, more than a decade ago, who walked into the shell of the old town hall and envisioned a community theater to rival the best arts centers in the country. As the project to revitalize the town hall picked up speed, Anderson realized that even the most beautiful theater wouldn’t succeed without actors and musicians to serve as performers, so he set up the Opera Company of Middlebury with a small band of like-minded artists: Carol Christensen, Beth Thompson, Meredith Parsons McComb and Greg Vitercik.
And they began performing. After recruiting opera singers from around the country, the company staged “Carmen” in 2004 in the “bombed out” shell of what would become the Town Hall Theater. Among that first sold-out audience were the thousands of bats who’d taken up residence in the abandoned building.
WORKING WITH ANDERSON
Ask the singers, and they’ll tell you that working with Anderson is invigorating stuff. Suzanne Kantorski played Mimi in “La Bohème” in Middlebury two years ago, and returns to play a lead role in “The Pearl Fishers.” Performing a new role with the Opera Company of Middlebury is an exciting prospect, she said, because she has room to play — to experiment — in front of a supportive audience.
That sort of experimentation isn’t always appreciated in the opera world.
“A lot of times, especially in opera, directors rarely allow you to have an original thought,” Kantorski said. She mimicked the robotic movements that some directors ask their singers to fall back on. “Doug has a specific plan, but he really allows the artist to bring their research to the table.
Anderson balks at the idea of “park and bark” opera, and said that allowing actors the chance to engage in the music, plumb their characters and think about back stories can be “very liberating.”
“He leads his projects with a passion that’s just infectious,” Cummings said.
At a rehearsal this week, Anderson crouched beside Kantorski and Morgan on the makeshift stage. The two singers were practicing the duet at the beginning of act two, when the priestess Leila (Kantorski) and Nadir reunite.
Theirs is a forbidden love — and yet Nadir comes to Leila by night, knowing full well that both could die if they are discovered.
“I want them to find the dramatic values as well as the musical values,” Anderson said earlier.
The actors and Anderson went back and forth about the best way for the scene to end, fussing with the mechanics of the robe Kantorski would be wearing. Anderson leaned in even closer, demonstrating how Nadir might pull the corner of the robe from Leila’s shoulder.
This is exactly the kind of scene that Anderson cherishes. In a small theater of just 232 seats, grand opera becomes intimate — as intimate as an embrace between two lovers.
“It’s one thing to see ‘La Bohème’ from the third balcony at the Met where the actors are half a mile away, and quite another to have them right here,” Anderson said.
Reporter Kathryn Flagg is at email@example.com.