Tucked into the rolling hills of Central New York State, edged into the western tip of Lake Otsego, lies an opera experience—the Glimmerglass Festival—pairing artistry and aspiration, elegance and enterprise, greenery and gravitas.
Like swallows to Capistrano, happy patrons return to Glimmerglass season after season to enjoy professional opera, informative talks and lectures, and a growing roster of programs both educational and entertaining in relaxed, comfortable surroundings.
The Glimmerglass Festival has the humblest of origins. It began in 1975 as the Glimmerglass Opera Theater housed in a local high school auditorium. In the intervening years, it has amassed an impressive number of supporters and abundant resources—capital and artistic. Within one generation it transformed itself into a summertime destination where opera lovers can enjoy the most sophisticated of art forms in an atmosphere of pastoral beauty. In 1988, they added a Young Artists program providing performance experience and advanced training for dozens of emerging singers. That’s in addition to gainful employment for hundreds of professionals who make their living in the performing and classical arts.
Glimmerglass is nestled into 26 acres of farmland. The grounds are dotted with a half dozen or more outbuildings including performance spaces, a scene shop, costume barn, wardrobe trailers, and an administrative pavilion. The physical layout of the campus all around you serves as a tangible reminder that it takes a village to produce opera, something we tend to forget whenever we filter our opera experience solely through selected principals’ performances, i.e., whether the tenor hits all his top C’s.
The centerpiece of the Glimmerglass experience is the Alice Busch Opera Theater, towering stories over the landscape’s rolling hills, with barnlike lines and neutral colors complementing rather than clashing with the natural setting. Inside, however, is housed an acoustically engineered, state-of-the-art theater designed expressly for opera performance that rivals and (in some cases) betters big city venues. The 914-seat theater, which opened in 1987, is the first built specifically for opera performance since the Metropolitan Opera Theater in Lincoln Center was completed in 1966.
Despite the fact that the theater is one-quarter the size of the Met, you still might want to bring along opera glasses if you enjoy seeing close-ups of the performers. The audience seating is generously raked, providing great sightlines and ample legroom but ultimately more distance between the house and the stage. Also, the theater isn’t climate controlled. They use fans to cool things down and blankets to warm you up. It can get unseasonably cold and rainy in Central New York during any summer month, so you might want to bring a wrap or dress in layers.
Before performances and during intermission, festival concessions are available and include hearty salads and wraps (even vegan items), snacks, and ice cream, just outside the theater. Beverages include a range of wines and beers, including local brews and varietals worth sampling. New York State wines are often compared favorably to those grown in the German Rhine. Festival goers may enjoy picnicking on the grounds before evening shows and after matinees. And in the event you forgot your picnic basket, one local restaurant delivers. Whether you buy a meal there or bring it in, you can avail yourself of the plentiful spaces set aside for al fresco dining—from café tables to benches to picnic tables situated under a large canvas tent.
If you are considering a trip to Glimmerglass, a name derived from James Fenimore Cooper’s description of Lake Otsego in Leatherstocking Tales, plan to spend several days in Central New York. You need at least three to four days to take in all the productions Glimmerglass offers in repertory (for exactly that purpose). Fleshing out this year’s mainstage schedule are a growing number of informative opera events and recitals including “Showtalks” on and around the festival grounds and a new “Meet Me at the Pavilion” series of special performances showcasing this year’s Artist in Residence Deborah Voigt as well as other guest artists. There’s also a world-class museum in nearby Cooperstown—the Baseball Hall of Fame (which includes the American history of cricket)—as well as boutiques, baseball-kitsch shopping, and café- and fine-dining in and around the museum.
If you favor lakeside lodging, hotels and motels line the shore of Lake Otsego, roughly nine miles long from tip to tip. Some lovely restaurants operate lakeside, too, affording scenic views of the lake while dining. Numerous B&B’s in the region are worth investigating. Many are an easy commute to the festival grounds while possessing more charm and actually costing less than more popular chain motels.
Walking shoes are a must for Cooperstown where’s there’s limited parking within city limits but good public trolley service. You may also be more comfortable wearing your Keds to the opera, too, especially if you’ve trekked to the middle of a shady grove for your pre-performance picnic. Since there’s no dress code at Glimmerglass, people don everything from walking shorts and sandals to shifts and high-heels. However, if you get caught in a midsummer cloudburst, it’s a hike from the parking areas across the front lawn to the theater entrance, so you might want to pack a pair of boots. For those who can’t make such a trek (elderly or handicapped patrons), they offer golf cart shuttle services between the theater and the parking areas.
From the moment you pull into one of the gravel parking lots until the last note the orchestra sounds, literally hundreds of people have worked long and hard, months before you arrive, to deliver the entertainment experience at Glimmerglass. Since they’re all professionals or devoted volunteers, you’re not likely to see them sweat. Unless, of course, you take the free backstage tour. You’ll be amazed at the hours of artistry, the pluck, the pure perspiration that must be invested for every second on stage.