Chautauqua Institution will open with a boom

Only one week from today, the gates of Chautauqua Institution will slam shut, to anyone who doesn’t have either a ticket or a gate pass, and the 2013 summer season will open with a bang.

The opening performance in the giant open-sided Amphitheater will be by the popular a cappella singing group, Straight No Chaser, and professional performances will begin taking place in our area, once again.

The Chautauqua season lasts for nine weeks, from June 22 to Aug. 24. Chautauqua has its own Symphony Orchestra, its own opera company, its own theater department, its own visual arts program, and its own ballet and dance company.

These are in addition to recreational opportunities, opportunities to learn and study from first-class professionals, a very active series of religious lectures, seminars, and other programs, and so much more. But, this is an arts column, so rather than write one sentence about everything they will be doing this summer, let’s focus our attention on the visual and performing arts.

Readers often phone or write to ask for advice on what to choose, if they cannot afford long-term admission tickets. I’m always happy to provide my personal choices, although as always I caution you, the fact that I like something doesn’t mean you will, and the fact that I’m not looking forward to seeing or hearing something doesn’t mean you won’t be delighted by it. For what it’s worth, here are overviews of the coming artistic seasons at Chautauqua, and my personal picks of what to attend.

Let me begin by saying that I am eagerly anticipating July 27, when Chautauqua’s Symphony Orchestra, Dance Company, Theater Company, Opera Company, and the Music School Voice Department will all pool their resources to present what they are calling ”The Romeo and Juliet Project.” Producer Vivienne Benesch, of Chautauqua Theater Company, told me recently that there will be, live on stage, an actor portraying Juliet, for example, a singer singing the role of Juliet, and a dancer, dancing the role of Juliet, all to the orchestra’s accompaniment. It will all take place in the Amphitheater, beginning at 8:15 p.m., and I expect it to be packed with spectators and to be absolutely thrilling, no matter which elements of the arts are your favorites.

Finally, we went out to Chautauqua the day before writing this and got what I was assured is the most recent schedule of events which is available. Surely we all understand that artists are human, and that they may become ill, they may be stuck in some airport, on their way to our area, or any of dozens of possible reasons why last minute changes might need to take place. I’m a critic, not a seer of the future.

THEATER COMPANY

Chautauqua’s theater program was operated for many decades by the Cleveland Play House, which repeated most or all of each year’s season of productions, each summer, at Chautauqua. Although it seems only a few years since the Institution parted company with Cleveland, and founded its own theater company, a look at the facts show that this is the 30th season of that change.

This year, under the inspired leadership of award-winning actor, director and stage professional Vivienne Benesch, the company will present three full productions in their beautiful, new facility at the Bratton Family Theater, in addition to two partially staged productions of brand new plays, which they call New Play Workshops, plus they will participate in the Romeo and Juliet Project.

Furthermore, they will present ”Brown Bags,” which are invitations for the public to bring their lunches to the Bratton Theater, to listen to talks various elements of the stage productions, to learn elements which will help them to appreciate the coming performances. These are presented Thursdays at 12:15 p.m.

On June 30, July 21 and Aug. 11, the company offers what they call ”’Fore Plays,” which are chats by members of the artistic company, offered one hour before curtain time. Each season, recently, the company has presented what they call ”Chau-Talk-One,” which is an opportunity for an alumnus of the company or a member of the current company to perform a new, solo work, often in preparation for a professional staging of the play. This year’s offering will take place Aug. 13.

Finally, on Aug. 16, the conservatory actors, who are post-graduate students who have been studying at Chautauqua, will perform a Late Night Cabaret, beginning at 10 p.m., and giving them relatively free rein to ”put on a dandy show.”

The full productions this year will begin with Tennessee Williams’ classic ”Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” which will play June 28 to July 7. The second will be ”Clybourne Park,” a wildly popular play which has set Broadway on its ear, in the past year. It is an examination of the all-white suburb to whom the central family of the play ”Raisin in the Sun” are planning to move, to give a hint of what lies ahead for the African-American Younger Family.” See it July 19 through July 28.

Every season seems to end with Shakespeare, and this year is no different. This year, enjoy ”The Comedy of Errors,” an early play by William Shakespeare which imagines two sets of twins, both separated by a shipwreck, and the confusion which reigns when each brother is mistaken for the other, when their paths accidentally cross. It will be on stage Aug. 9-16.

This year’s New Play Workshops will be these: July 11-13, see ”Dark Radio,” by Colin McKenna. It is a play about a contemporary young man who suddenly sees no one on the streets, no one answering phones, no contact with the rest of the world, except one AM radio station.

Aug. 1-3, see ”Transit,” a play about a Muslim woman who has jumped in front of a commuter train, on the first anniversary of a major terrorist attack. Both NPW plays are presented with partial props and scenery, usually with actors holding scripts in their hands. After each performance, the playwright and the director and sometimes one or more of the actors entertain a discussion with the audience, to gauge how the audience has reacted to the new play and whatever suggestions the audience might like to make for future productions. The play you see on the third night of the run might well be substantially different from the one you see on the first.

Guest performances this season will be by Harris Yulin and Candace Buckley, in ”Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” and former conservatory member Marin Hinkle,” best known from the ”Two and a Half Men” television series, in ”Clybourne Park.” Yulin replaces Stewart Margolin, who was previously announced for the production of ”Cat.”

People who saw the production of ”Ancestral Voices,” which was presented by the National Society of Arts and Letters, in Jamestown, last January will be happy to note that Chris Corporandy, who played the lead in that production will be returning to the CTC to play the actor version of Tybalt, in the cast of the Romeo and Juliet Project.

My personal choice from the 2013 season will be the New Play Workshops, because they are new and it’s exciting to be an actual part of the creation of art, and although I want very much to see all three plays, my love for well-produced productions of Tennessee Williams will draw me most avidly to ”Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

Tickets to the three regular productions cost $30 each. Tickets to New Play Workshops cost $15 each. Tickets to the Romeo Project cost $40 per person. Purchase them through the institution’s web site at www.ciweb.org, or by phoning 357-6250.

I know a great deal more about the CTC, but I went out to Chautauqua and visited all the arts organization, and found specific information available only from the theater folks in time for this writing, so I’ll do my best with the other elements of the summer program.

OPERA COMPANY

Sadly, Chautauqua Opera will continue its two-production season, which has been the norm for the past few years. The company, which not terribly long ago produced seven operas each season, now performs a single performance of a giant opera, in the Amphitheater, plus one regular, two-performance production of a more manageable opera in Norton Hall.

This year, opera lovers will delight to the opportunity to see and hear the relatively rarely performed opera ”Peter Grimes,” by Benjamin Britten, in the Amphitheater on July 6, and the beloved classic, ”Falstaff,” based on Shakespeare’s ”Merry Wives of Windsor.” It was composed by Giuseppi Verdi, and will be performed July 26 and 29. Tickets to Norton Hall range in price from $15 to $52, depending upon where you sit. Seating in the Amphitheater is festival style, meaning you may take the first empty seat you come upon, on the evening of the production. I believe those tickets are $40 per person.

The opera company will present in the Amphitheater an evening of music by two composers having an important anniversary. Richard Wagner would be 200 years old, if he were alive today, and Britten would be 100 years old. Young artists will sing, accompanied by the CSO. That will be July 13.

The company also offers a major pops concert on Aug. 3 in the Amphitheater, and various art song recitals, musical theater revues, master classes and other opportunities. These are in addition to the recitals and performances of the voice students from the Music School. Get a Chautauqua schedule, and check out what interests you the most. The company is under the artistic directorship of Jay Lesenger, internationally celebrated director of operatic production.

My own selection from the season is ”Peter Grimes,” and I’m very excited about seeing a live performance of an opera I’ve only known from recordings, until now.

DANCE COMPANY

Chautauqua has a very high quality of dance performances, under the leadership of former Balanchine dancer and choreographer Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, assisted by well-known choreographer Mark Diamond. Chautauqua has a partnership with the North Carolina Dance Theater, from Charlotte, N.C., which is also directed by Bonnefoux. The North Carolina dancers bring their skills to Chautauqua to delight audiences and to inspire students.

If I have counted correctly, from the season schedule, I see professional performances on June 27, July 9, 24, and 31, and Aug. 10. There will also be a performance by Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre on Tour on Aug. 21.

Chautauqua Festival Dancers, who are students just on the verge of professional careers, will perform in the Amphitheater on July 14 and 22, and Aug. 11. Sunday performances are at 2:30 p.m. Not having a specific program of what will be danced by whom, I would truthfully say that I would be happy to see any of the performances, especially by the full professional company. I haven’t seen Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in many years, but I suspect their August performance will be well worth attending.

SYMPHONY PERFORMANCES

The CSO performs, almost without exception, each Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, beginning July 2, and lasting through Aug. 20. The concerts range from familiar repertoire, to pops highlights, to new and exciting music by living composers.

Among the names of instrumentalists which leap out at me from the printed program are violinist Augustin Hadelich on July 16, and pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk, who will perform with the orchestra July 20 and do a solo recital on July 17. Cellist Jolyon Pegis will join the CSO on Aug. 1. Cellist Sharon Robinson will perform Aug. 20.

Guest conductors in the coming season will include Grant Cooper on July 9 and Aug. 10, Elizabeth Schulze on July 20, former music director Uriel Segal on Aug. 1, Maximiano Valdes on Aug. 8, and Jaime Laredo on Aug. 20.

A word to the wise, those folks who enjoy seeing young musicians, at the beginning of what might well be wonderful careers are encouraged to seek out performances by the Music School Festival Orchestra, most Monday evenings.

POPULAR ARTISTS

No one picks a popular performing artist based upon a critic’s selections. Among the ones I note on a quick scan of the schedule are Steve Martin, playing the banjo, rather than doing comedy routines, on June 28, and Travis Tritt on July 19. Also, the golden boys of 1950s rock music, Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell and Fabian will do their hits on July 26.

Garrison Keillor will perform and record an episode of his popular radio program ”A Prairie Home Companion,” on Aug. 2. The Beach Boys will be producing good vibrations on Aug. 9. The fabulous Paul Simon, with poet Billy Collins, will conduct conversations on Aug. 16. Amy Grant will perform Aug. 24.

GENERAL INFO

If you’re familiar with traveling to Chautauqua for performances, you can skip this section. If you’re not, this could be a very great help.

Chautauqua is located on Route 394, between Stow and Mayville. The community allows only very limited automobile traffic on its streets during the official season, so expect to park some distance from where you’re going, and to either walk, or to catch passing trams or buses. The principal parking lot for temporary visitors is on the opposite side of Route 394 from the Institution. Typical visitors should turn off Route 394 into a visitor’s parking lot, at the side of the large, red brick gate building which is farthest from the traffic light at the main entrance. For many years drivers could turn into the grounds at the light, but that is no longer true.

The visitor’s lot allows 30 minutes of free parking, while you go inside the gate building and arrange to buy or pick up tickets. If you have pre-paid for theater or opera tickets, you should go in and show them to the staff. They will give you temporary tickets, so you can travel to the kiosk, located between the Bratton Theater and Norton Hall, where you can trade them for the actual tickets. Opera and theater tickets admit you to the grounds for a period before and after the performance for which they are valid, so you can have dinner before a performance or get ice cream and look around after one, although they do not admit anyone to the Amphitheater. You will need to show them, to leave the grounds.

When you have your tickets, drive down to the traffic light and cross the highway, driving into the main parking lot. The attendant will accept payment for parking, and usually will offer suggestions of where in the huge lot to find parking. Once you’ve parked, you can wait for a tram to take you from your car to the side of Route 394, or you can walk it yourself. Sometimes waits for trams have been long.

Exit the tram, walk across the highway and through the gate building to the inner gate and show your tickets for admittance to the grounds. Please note: do not discard your tickets, but keep them handy. If you have bought tickets to the Amphitheater, you will need to show them again to be admitted to that facility. Whether your tickets are to the Amphitheater or the Bratton Theater or Norton Hall, you will need to show them again when you leave the grounds, or you could incur additional charges.

Once you have entered the inner structure at the main gate, look just to your right, and you will see a sheltered bus stop. You can catch a ride, there to almost anywhere on the grounds, on either a tram or a bus. The drivers are usually very helpful to learn which bus to take, although if you just climb aboard and don’t ask, you may end up very far from where you’re going. The buses and trams are free of charge.

If you choose to walk, you should walk directly away from the gate and straight down a traffic-free, brick sidewalk until you reach the village green of Chautauqua, with a large fountain in the center. This is called Bestor Plaza. From the edge of that green, you can turn left. That will bring you first to the visual arts complex, in the former Kellogg Hall, on your left. Then, it leads to the Bratton Theater, and if you continue further, to Norton Hall.

To reach the Amphitheater, walk across the Bestor Plaza green to the opposite side, then turn right, and follow that brick street directly to the back corner of the Amphitheater. As I said before, you will need to show your tickets again, to enter. Seats are available in general seating, and you may sit almost anywhere which is not occupied, with an occasional exception. Sometimes a section of seating is roped off for a visiting group, or for people who have donated at a certain level of giving, above regular admission prices. At some concerts, the seats in the choir loft, behind the stage, are open to the public. If so, you might enjoy the perspective of looking the conductor in the eye, for example.

The aisles in the Amphitheater are very steep. If you have trouble walking, I recommend either sitting at the very back, or going around the facility, and entering from the stage side to sit on the flat floor. Beware of taking a seat which is blocked by a wooden column, supporting the roof, unless there is no other alternative. Seating is on wooden benches, which can get very uncomfortable during a long performance. Bringing a cushion is strongly advised.

Visiting Chautauqua is easier than it sounds to people who are doing it for the first time, although if you know what to expect, it can save a good deal of frustration. Have a wonderful summer, and if you have additional questions, don’t hesitate to phone me or send off an email to pjcritic@yahoo.com.