Glimmerglass Festival: Another side to Cooperstown, New York, and an opera lover’s paradiseMore Info
Cooperstown. Baseball. The two are linked in the popular imagination like New York City and Times Square.
But there’s much more to Cooperstown, as I found out on a recent visit to the Glimmerglass Festival.
Located on Otsego Lake, about two hours from south Berkshire County, Glimmerglass is one of the nation’s premiere opera festivals. As much as I enjoy the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood, I occasionally crave opera, as well, and Glimmerglass is central New York’s answer to outdoor classical flair.
Formed in 1975, the Glimmerglass Festival began with performances in the Cooperstown high school, much like Barrington Stage Company began in Mount Everett Regional School’s auditorium. Much like Barrington Stage, Glimmerglass’ success was early and the festival soon moved into a top-notch seasonal opera house on the lake. The theater is eight miles up the lake from historic Cooperstown in a quiet, rural area, so most guests overnight in Cooperstown.
I had heard about Glimmerglass and had been meaning to go for some time but the opportunity didn’t present itself until my aging parents needed an escort to take them there. I was surprised just how close Cooperstown was, by how gorgeous the drive was and by just how exceptional the performances were.
The first evening, after a leisurely meal at a lakeside restaurant named the Blue Mingo Grill, we watched Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville,” a classic Bel Canto comedy. As with Tanglewood, one parks on grass lots and strolls to the theater. Unlike Tanglewood’s Shed, Glimmerglass is indoors, although the walls are designed to roll open during intermission so that cool breezes flow through the theater.
This I can say: I’ve never seen a better performance of this opera, the Metropolitan Opera included. The voices were sublime; the acting as good as anything I’ve seen in nonmusical comedic theater; and the sets were simple, elegant and eye catching. What Glimmerglass did with minimalist sets — creative lighting, simple cutouts, sparse furnishings — brought the performance closer to its original days. I was left wondering why the Met needs such extravagant sets when something so clever and simple was even more enjoyable and better suited to comedic performance.
That evening I checked my folks into their historic inn, of which Cooperstown is chock-full. We were there early in the week, a time when there were fewer than usual baseball pilgrims. When I asked the desk attendant if the two groups of people — opera fans and baseball admirers — had much in common, he replied: “Absolutely not. We get two types of tourists here and they couldn’t be any more different.”
I’m not sure how Cooperstown absorbs such different fan bases, but it does. That is, unless you’re there on Hall of Fame Weekend, when the town of 1,800 is filled with tens of thousands of baseball fans. Hint: It’s best to choose another destination that weekend if baseball is not your thing.
Cooperstown itself is worth a visit for its mixture of charm and schmaltz — charm in that it’s a very real community with quiet neighborhood streets that feel very much like a northern Mayberry; and schmaltz because, unfortunately, about a third or so of the business district caters to baseball paraphernalia with names like Shoeless Joe’s and Seventh Inning Stretch. But there are some fine restaurants as well as a peaceful lakefront to stroll along.
Cooperstown is so named for the father of James Fenimore Cooper, who purchased the property and founded the town in 1786. Yes, that James Fenimore Cooper, author of many popular books including “The Last of the Mohicans.” The opera festival gets its name from the fictional name Cooper gave Lake Otsego: Glimmerglass. This “Leatherstocking” region of New York state sandwiched between the Adirondacks, the capital region, the Catskills, and the Finger Lakes is named for Cooper’s most famous collection of stories, the “Leatherstocking Tales.”
Cooper was fascinated by Native American culture and the uneasy (to say the least) confrontation between native and European cultures. Evidence of that uneasiness continues to exist in the use of Indian names that swings from thoughtful to crude. The town’s faux historical trollies have Indian names like Mohawks; historical plaques run the gamut from neutral (one marks a ledge at the head of the Susquehanna River, which begins in Cooperstown and journeys to the Chesapeake, as a meeting place of the Indians) to others, much older, which make reference to “savages.”
Perhaps the most poignant is the one that marks the burial place of a Native American whose body was dug up and then returned to the soil beside a native burial mound. The mound is up a hill on the far side of town, a bit tough to find (I found it by accident), but the plaque’s message is well worth repeating:
“White Man … We, near whose bones you stand, were Iroquois. The wide land which now is yours, was ours. Friendly hands have given back to us enough for a tomb.”
Cooperstown was also home to the Clark brothers, inheritors of the Singer Sewing Machine fortune. They built the local hospital, the grand Otesaga Hotel (a must-see, perfect for lunch on the back patio with lake view), the Baseball Hall of Fame (in 1939), the Farmers’ Museum, and the Fenimore Art Museum, among other civic institutions. The two brothers had a falling out, split their fortunes (and artwork), and never spoke again. Robert Sterling Clark took his artwork to Williamstown, Massachusetts, which he deemed safe from a Soviet nuclear attack, and that’s how we ended up with the Clark Art Institute. Although not as famous as our Clark, the FAM has an extraordinary collection, including Native American art; and the Farmers’ Museum is also worth a visit. There’s currently an exhibit on growing hops. Did you know that, in 1880, 80 percent of the hops grown in America were cultivated by Nick Diller in this region? South of town, one can taste this hoppy glory at Brewery Ommegang, which specializes in Belgian-style beers.
Our second performance at Glimmerglass was “West Side Story.” Again, a brilliant performance. (A touch of trivia: the musical was originally going to be about Jewish and Catholic youths rumbling around the Passover and Easter holidays.)
I was reminded of how close the festival is to the Berkshires when I ran into a friend from Great Barrington. He was up for the day with his family, all fans of Glimmerglass’ reputation for excellence.
There’s still time to catch plenty of performances at Glimmerglass before the festival ends Aug. 25. “The Barber of Seville” and “West Side Story” still have several performances to go. And two other operas look quite interesting: “Silent Night,” a modern opera (that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2012) about the Christmas Day Truce on the front line trenches of World War I; and the fantastical Czech opera “The Cunning Little Vixen.”