Summer arts festivals are in the business of selling experiences to a public that doesn't know it wants them.
Audiences have long puzzled over the dramaturgy of Mozart's The Magic Flute, but could they ever have expected the legendary director Peter Brook to shrink, shorten, and reorder it into something titled A Magic Flute? It promises to be a dominant presence July 5 to 17 in the first month of the 2011 Lincoln Center Festival.
Rossini's William Tell overture wore out its welcome decades ago, but the great, seldom-performed four-hour opera - including often-cut music never before heard in this country - is sure to have Philadelphians driving up to Katonah, N.Y., when it is performed at the Caramoor Festival July 9 and 15.
Summer sites in the symphonic world - whether Tanglewood or Saratoga Performing Arts Center - are often well-established extensions of what happens the rest of the year. But in Princeton, Opera New Jersey is still finding its footing, though promisingly in its ninth season, with its leafy campus setting, easy access from Philadelphia and New York City, plus superb theatrical facilities at the McCarter Theatre. Its formula is an alternative to big-star, big-venue opera - emerging artists performing favorites (Rossini's The Barber of Seville July 9, 17, and 23) and the semi-familiar (Menotti's The Consul July 16 and 24).
Though they're all sustained by their own logic, even the biggest festivals have a certain fragility, often seeming like regular-season add-ons that can be passed over by foundations supporting them. And ticket buyers can be capricious. At the Mann Center for the Performing Arts in Fairmount Park, a Philadelphia Orchestra concert might be packed, or (depending on weather) play to a wilderness of empty seats. Often, it's not clear until performance time.
"We sell 50 percent of our tickets after June - for a July season. That's really nerve-wracking," says Opera New Jersey general director Richard Russell. "But that's the model everybody is going to have to accept. People are buying fewer subscriptions in any art form."
Financial times being what they are, Opera New Jersey cut its usual three-production season to two plus a new-opera workshop, and has moved out of the 360-seat Berlind Theater in the McCarter complex to the larger, 1,100-seat Matthews Theater, where more seats can be sold and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra has a bigger pit. And Caramoor's presentation of William Tell - whose conductor, Will Crutchfield, is an expert in this period of opera - required two years of fund-raising after a successful previous outing in Warsaw.
The Philadelphia Orchestra cut its three-to-four-week Mann Center presence to a single week - this one - ostensibly because of scheduling issues caused by its end-of-summer European tour. Filling that void, the Mann is bringing in the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra for an all-Beethoven concert July 9. And it's trying out some new things with the Russian National Orchestra (July 27 to 29): The first concert, titled "Blue Planet Live!," features music, underwater video, and narration by broadcast journalist Jane Pauley; the second has an aerial troupe, Cirque de la Symphonie.
The summer differentiation factor is never more challenging than in polyglot New York City, often described as an ongoing arts festival. How does Lincoln Center sustain that pitch and still draw audiences? "I wonder that too," says festival director Nigel Redden, who doubts that funding such an event would be possible if it were not under the budgetary umbrella of Lincoln Center.
This year, the festival goes for the grand (the Royal Shakespeare Company with five plays in repertory July 6 to Aug. 14), the exotic (Yukio Mishima's wrenching novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion adapted to the stage July 21 to 24) and the eccentric (the Cleveland Orchestra drawing spiritual connections between ultra-Catholic Anton Bruckner and American minimalist John Adams July 13, 14, 16, and 17).
Such eclecticism is perhaps equaled only by Bard SummerScape in Annandale-on-Hudson. This year, Kimmel Center architect Rafael Vinoly is designing the obscure Richard Strauss opera Die Liebe der Danae in a run (July 29 to Aug. 7) that intersects with Noel Coward's operetta Bitter Sweet (Aug. 4 to 14) - in a festival whose main theme is Sibelius and his world.
Differentiation isn't always about aiming high. In Cooperstown, N.Y., Glimmerglass Opera aims sideways, continuing to champion lesser-known operas from the past - this year it's Cherubini's Medea, July 8 to Aug. 16 - but also presenting Broadway's Annie Get Your Gun (July 16 to Aug. 21) starring Wagnerian diva Deborah Voigt. And while she's there Voigt will premiere her one-person show Voigt Lessons (July 29), written with Terrence McNally, which acknowledges her food and alcohol addictions.
"I've never talked about myself that openly on stage," she admits. "It's exciting, but because it's so personal, it's also a little daunting."
The latest differentiation wrinkle, though, is workshops that regularly turn into fully staged productions during regular seasons. In vacationlike settings, audiences are often happy to get in on the ground floor with the unknown, such as the Thomas Pasatieri opera The Family Room, which will have a staged reading in Princeton with two veteran stars, Lauren Flanigan and Catherine Malfitano, July 23 and 24.
"I hope I'm staking out my territory, and saying that we're making a serious commmitment to American opera and new works," says Opera New Jersey's Russell.
Glimmerglass is presenting two new one-act operas with banner-name authors on the same bill (July 21 to Aug. 22): A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck by the Tony Award-winning team of Jeanine Tesori and Tony Kushner, and Later the Same Evening by John Musto and Mark Campbell (Volpone, The Inspector).
Naturally, expectations are different for such commodities, and many come with outside development money. Thus, it's not always easy to say how well any given festival is doing. Redden admits miscalculating audience appeal - and prefers to look at festival attendance figures overall rather than for individual events.
"The measure of success," he says, "is that they let you do it again next year."
Bard SummerScape: Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.; 845-758-7900 or www.fishercenter.bard.edu
Caramoor: Katonah, N.Y.; 914-232-1252 or www.caramoor.org
Glimmerglass Opera: Cooperstown, N.Y.; 607-547-2255 or www.glimmerglass.org
Lincoln Center Festival: New York, N.Y.; 212-721-6500 or www.lincolncenter.org
Mann Center for the Performing Arts: Fairmount Park, Philadelphia; 215-893-1999 or www.manncenter.org
Opera New Jersey: McCarter Theatre, Princeton; 609-258-2787 or www.Opera-NJ.org