"The Pines," the gay summer vacation destination off the coast of Long Island, is usually known more for groovy disco or throbbing dance music than for opera, but that changed this past weekend (August 23-25) when the Fire Island Opera Festival touched down in the fun-loving, whimsical beach community.
Of course, this is the Pines, so forget what you know about stodgy, un-relatable opera. Sex? Check. Hot bodies and plenty of nudity? Check and check. A final scene that effortlessly transitions into a raucous dance party? You betcha. And so the inaugural year of the festival was born.
The festival took place over three days, with a number of ancillary events staggered around the pièce de résistance, a production of L'arbre Enchanté ("The Magic Tree"), staged in the newly rebuilt Pavilion nightclub.
One of the lead-up events occurred Friday evening, when VIP ticket-holders were invited to an exquisite private home for a short performance titled "Bon Appetit." This charming, 18-minute show was an operatic rendition of an actual broadcast of Julia Child baking a chocolate cake. It was performed by Jamie Barton, winner of the Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, and the cake was baked live from Child's actual recipe.
On Saturday, the boardwalks were abuzz with excitement over the upcoming evening performance of L'arbre Enchanté. By the show's 10pm start time, the Pavilion was packed.
Director Edwin Cahill repurposed the piece, which was originally commissioned for Marie Antoinette and last performed in 1775.
"We adapted this particular piece to relate to the Pines audience," Cahill explained. "I took the barebones structure and updated it to a contemporary story which takes place in Fire Island Pines. I rewrote the young female protagonist as a beautiful young man, incorporating a twisted love-triangle between him and two other men."
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Many of the production elements translated into a love letter to the Pines, which has struggled through many obstacles over the past couple of years including a devastating fire and the perils of Hurricane Sandy. Cahill enlisted the artistic talents of Charles Mary Kubricht for the set design. Kubricht -- whose credits include being commissioned by New York City for a widely acclaimed installation on the Highline -- repurposed materials from around the island, particularly items like driftwood and branches from trees damaged in Hurricane Sandy (incidentally, part of the festival's proceeds go to the Sea Shore Defense Fund). Using these found items, she created the production's centerpiece, a "magic tree."
The narrative centered around this magic tree and the love triangle between "Lance," the pool boy/yoga teacher who falls for "Claude," the handsome young man both financially supported and emotionally stifled by his wealthy-but-miserly fiancé, "Thomas." Ultimately, they use the magic tree to pull a ruse on Thomas, convincing him to let true love prevail and the young Lance and Claude to run away together. The story is augmented by a creative and comedic cast of characters, including "Blaze," the straight-shooting lesbian hottie who snaps her chewing gum and talks with a thick long island accent (when she's not belting out French Opera lyrics with her killer mezzo-soprano voice), and a hilarious trio of half-deer, half-human bouffant satyrs who represent the spirit of Fire Island and help tell the story through pantomime and movement. Even iconic Fire Island Pines resident (and famed adult industry legend), Robin Byrd, made a special guest appearance, acting as the final "Deus ex Machina," a fancy way of saying she helped nudge the plot along to a happy ending.
"I worked in so many relatable characters and Fire Island inside jokes because I think it's really important to embrace the community that you are performing for," Cahill explained. "I was so thrilled to see how many people here identified with a number of the iconic, stereotypical characters: the hedge-fund manager with a boy toy; the young boy toy who is being supported; the fisherman or the pool boy who come in from Sayville to service the mansions -- they're all signifiers of things we know and understand, and it was fun to see them in a sort of heightened, farcical way, but also translated into poetic moments."
The Pavilion nightclub -- newly rebuilt after being destroyed by fire and sustaining subsequent damage by Hurricane Sandy -- offered an intimate experience for both cast and audience members alike. The Opera was performed "in the round," with the audience on the same level as the performers, including the 13-piece orchestra, conducted by Music Director, Bradley Moore.
"The crowd loved the layout -- it allowed them to feel like they were on stage!" said Moore of the experience.
This set up, while exciting for theater-goers, is not always easy to navigate when mapping out the action.
"Working in the round is always a challenge," explains the show's choreographer, Yoval Boim. "We had to make sure the story would be told from all sides. But the Pavilion is such a playful space, it kept proposing surprising solutions, like having the satyrs appear from behind the bar and sit on it, transforming it into a box at the opera."
While the show had the professional polish of a major opera company, most audience members would be surprised to learn that as of 10 days prior, the cast had never so much as rehearsed together.
"We had a VERY brief rehearsal period. Usually, Opera has about four weeks to rehearse; we had about nine days!" explained Moore. "We did a week of rehearsals in a studio in New York, and then came out here for a few days of on-site rehearsals."
For some of the cast, it was their first ever foray to the island.
"Lucky for me who has never been here before, we showed up a few days prior to the production, so we really got the vibe of the island," said Jesse Malgieri, who played Thomas. "While walking around, I encountered my first deer on the boardwalk and the pieces started falling into place! Only then did I fully understand the half-deer satyrs, and why that animal spirit was such an important part of the story-telling."
Feedback from the audience was unanimous: the show was entertaining, timely, relevant, and extremely well-done. What surprised many people was how incredibly funny - and naughty! - it was.
"I had no idea what to expect when I was invited to the opera at the Pavilion," chuckles Steve Wilson, who attended the show with a friend. "I really enjoyed how they updated a classic story with a modern, risqué twist! I laughed so hard!"
Explains Cahill, "That's what makes it so much fun. We embrace both the profane and the poetic. Fire Island is one of the few places on earth where you have such an extreme dichotomy of lifestyle: There is the 'profane,' which is the fun, free, party scene, juxtaposed with the 'poetic,' which is nature, serenity, and artistry."
Catering to the artistic lifestyle in the Pines was, in fact, the impetus for the festival's creation. Cahill and Moore got the idea while attending the Fire Island Dance Festival together.
"We went to the [Fire Island] Dance festival last year, and it got us thinking about why there isn't more for artists and theater on the island," explains Cahill. "This community is full of talented, creative people who are interested in the arts, and we wanted to give them something completely over-the-top and different to experience, something we could do year after year."
Given the community's reaction to this inaugural year, they are clearly hungry for more.
"I loved it!" exclaimed audience member and longtime Pines summer resident, Bart Ianantuoni. "It was amazingly fun and delightful -- something truly worthwhile to see in the Pines. The new Pavilion may be just the anchor for culture's return to the Pines!"