“Some of the greatest music is opera.” So said conductor Thomas Crawford, Music Director and Founder of The American Classical Orchestra (ACO), in an exclusive interview with byteclay.com. “But it’s always been a bit scary to me, from a production standpoint; operas can be a nightmare to bring to the stage.” Tuesday evening, Feb. 23, he will do just that, leading the ensemble and four vocal soloists in a semi-staged opera concert featuring Franz Joseph Haydn’s “L’isola disabitata” (Desert Island), the 11th of his 15 operas, rarely done by performing arts entities.
Why “L’isola disabitata”? you may wonder. Maestro Crawford answers, reminding us he doesn’t helm an opera company, “The ACO is New York City’s premiere period instrument ensemble. They are the whole reason for the concert. And this opera by Haydn is unique; it’s more like an orchestral work with singers.” Only four characters total appear—no supporting or even minor roles—and the work is devoid of chorus. “It is the most economical of Haydn’s stage works, and not just financially.”
“‘L’isola disabitata’ is every bit as good as the major Mozart operas,” says the maestro. “It’s an example of Haydn using his crack Esterházy orchestra to the finest. It has a 10-minute overture, which is a full-fledged, four-movement symphony with contrasting speeds and dynamics. What other opera includes a major flute solo plus major solos for cello, violin and bassoon? It’s like Haydn composed this spectacular symphony, then he added singers.”
The Esterházys were Haydn’s chief patrons, or employers, during nearly four decades (1762-1802) of his life’s twilight years; he died in 1809. A Hungarian noble family whose origins date back to the Middle Ages, they were wealthy landowners in what was then the Kingdom of Hungary, loyal to the Habsburg Empire and later the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Habsburg rulers gave them the title Count in 1626; the Holy Roman Emperor in 1712 promoted the Forchtenstein Esterházys to the rank of Ruling Prince. Successive Princes Paul Anton, Nikolaus, Anton and Nikolaus II signed Haydn’s paycheck as Kapellmeister (Music Director).
Elegant, pristine, congenial—qualifiers proposed to describe Haydn’s music. “I would reserve ‘pristine,’ for Mozart’s compositions,” says Thomas Crawford. What descriptors would he use? “Elegant and congenial it definitely is, but it’s also witty. One problem I’ve always had with Haydn is, he has a lot of humor in his music. It’s so rich with rhetoric and wit. This opera alone probably has 500 humorous elements written into the score, which elegantly trips along and then something flippant has been thrown in.”
What’s so scary about staging (or even semi-staging) operas? “As soon as I see the stage director arrive, I tend to start checking my watch—an awful lot. It just takes exponentially more time, far beyond orchestral rehearsal sessions, to coordinate all the extra elements, from singers’ entrances and exits, stage movements, lighting, costumes, even where to place what limited props we use.”
But the experience has been far from ghastly. “We have an excellent stage director in Cynthia Edwards, who’s a real professional; she knows what she’s doing and is a pleasure to work with.” She worked with The ACO in 2014, staging their premiere performance of Georg Frideric Händel’s opera “Alceste,” which added ballet scenes and choreography to the nightmarish mix. That performance was a resounding success.
Staging “L’isola disabitata” has even required a fascinating field trip, to a theatrical warehouse in Queens. “Inside this warehouse are entire castles, ghouls, Roaring Twenties costumes, you name it. It was as if I were a boy stepping into Fantasyland.”
Why the field trip? Costanza, the main character, has been abandoned by her husband, Gernando, who’s off more than 13 years chasing pirates, and she decides to chisel an inscription into a rock. “Since that’s central to the plot, we needed to rent a rock that’s large enough for Costanza to sit on and to inscribe.”
“The opera premiered in 1779, but we’re using a new edition of the score prepared by music scholar Thomas Busse seven years ago.”
Thomas Busse’s comments printed as an introduction to his prepared edition of the score include these: “‘Isola’ is perhaps most appealing to modern opera companies and conservatory programs with limited instrumental and choral resources. It is particularly suited to concert or semi-staged presentation” and: “Ultimately, ‘Isola’ is more of an experimental piece than a progressive success, but one will immediately grasp the importance of ‘Isola’ in Haydn developing the recitative technique he eventually used to great success in his monumental late oratorios.” Those oratorios include “Die Schöpfung” (Creation) and Die Jahreszeiten (Seasons).
American soprano Sarah Brailey will perform the role of Costanza, whose much younger sister by 13 years, Silvia (soprano Sherezade Panthaki), is her only companion for the greater part of the work; whereas tenor Owen McIntosh will portray her seemingly faithless husband, Gernando, who returns for Costanza with his best friend, the much younger Enrico (baritone Timothy McDevitt). You see where this is going, don’t you?
Having worked with Sarah Brailey before, Thomas Crawford approached her about learning the role of Costanza—dubbed “mezzo-soprano” but whose range in the score is equal to Silvia’s—because “she’s a smart singer, a respected New York artist, intelligent, with a beautiful voice. She does old music, new music, everything really. Her decorum is always well-mannered when she expresses artistic differences with her colleagues, even the stage manager.”
The 90-minute lyric drama will run without intermission, “just like a movie,” says the maestro. Thomas Crawford, a self-proclaimed “music theory nerd”—he’s also a recognized composer, chiefly of choral and organ works—wants you to come enjoy the fruitage of his frightening labors and relish Haydn’s wit. “If you’re there, you can’t help but enjoy yourself.”
“L’isola disabitata,” 8:00 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 23
Preconcert discussion with Stage Director Cynthia Edwards, 7:00 p.m.
The American Classical Orchestra
Alice Tully Hall
Broadway and 64th Street
New York, NY 10023