07/25/2012 04:32 pm ET Updated Sep 24, 2012

Glimmerglass Festival: The Gods Are On Stage

Almighty Spirit, who gives breath to the world, we invoke you.
--from Giuseppe Verdi's Aida

There are quite a few gods invoked onstage at The Glimmerglass Festival this summer. Barricaded in a bombed-out palace, Aida's Egyptians call on Ftha and on Isis, lifting up their war-torn country and their own personal crises. In Lost in the Stars, Reverend Stephen Kumalo cries out, "Oh, Tixo, Tixo" as he faces the loss of his son. They say there are no atheists in foxholes, and likewise, characters in opera, who tend to be in extremists at one point or another, often turn to a higher power for comfort and counsel.

In putting together our 2012 Festival, I wanted to choose works that could inspire discussion about our world today. Opera as a vehicle for social awareness and change is not a new idea: Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro was a harsh indictment of contemporary social structures; Beethoven's Fidelio an impassioned cry for freedom; the list goes on. Religion often forms a powerful backdrop to the stories that unfold on the operatic stage, and sometimes tales from sacred scriptures are even in the foreground: from the Book of Exodus, Moses and Aron; from the Book of Judges, Samson et Dalilah; from the Mahabharata, Savitri; and more recently, from a collage of ancient and modern texts, John Adams' The Gospel According to the Other Mary.

Below are photos from the Glimmerglass Festival. Please continue reading below

Glimmerglass Festival

In opera, as in life, religion is not always the unifying force we would wish. This summer, we will also present Lully's Armide. Written in 1686, the opera is based on Torquato Tasso's poetic recounting of the First Crusade. The plot involves a Muslim warrior princess who has fallen deeply, desperately in love with a Christian knight -- her sworn enemy. When she is faced with an opportunity to kill him, she convinces herself that it would be a greater victory to take him as a lover. While he has feelings for her, as well, the call of duty proves too strong and he abandons her, leaving both of them shattered.

Today, we are still choosing sides based on religious traditions -- traditions that, ironically, often center around a loving God who urges us to love one another. The stories we are telling during the 2012 Glimmerglass Festival give us an opportunity to observe and explore a few of the ways people relate to their gods, and the ways these relationships inform their relationships to one another.

I believe one of the most important things we can do, as artists, is to inspire dialogue. The word inspire is derived from the Latin spirare, which has to do with breath. In many faiths, the animating force of breath serves as a metaphor for God. In certain contemplative practices, an internal focus on the breath serves the same basic purpose as other traditions' prayers to an external deity: Both voluntary and involuntary, our breath reminds us that individual will is never the final word.

For an opera singer, the breath is a vehicle for making sound, for bringing to life characters that -- we hope -- make us think differently about ourselves and about the world we inhabit. Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson wrote Lost in the Stars, their musical version of Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country, in direct response to the racism they observed in mid-20th century America. Verdi and Lully may not have had such specific political intentions when writing Aida and Armide, but each of these pieces is timeless in its exploration of what it means to be human. The logistics of war or subtle theological distinctions don't make great subjects for song, but how war feels, what our beliefs mean to us -- these are ideas that make us want to gather our breath, lift our voices, and share our stories.

There's only one show from the 2012 Festival I haven't yet mentioned: The Music Man. Compared with the crises faced by the characters in Aida, Lost in the Stars and Armide, the worries of The Music Man's River Citizens seem like small-t troubles indeed. But to the 9-year-old with a speech impediment or the ostracized single woman, small-town slights are serious business indeed. The script doesn't have Marian the lonely librarian pray to any particular deity -- instead, she wishes on the evening star for "someone" -- someone who, as she later elaborates, will be "more interested in me than he is in himself, and more interested in us than in me."

Here at Glimmerglass, we hope that our 2012 Festival will inspire you to be more interested in "us" -- not us as an opera company, but us as a worldwide community of human beings, doing the best we can in challenging circumstances. Our mainstage shows are complemented by a series of special performances and talks, including everything from a discussion of Aida in light of the current turmoil in Egypt to a lecture by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on trials in opera. We warmly invite you to join the dialogue.