Paul Kellogg: Humor, Grace, and Glimmerglass
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Every summer for the past 28 years, Paul Kellogg has decamped from his Midtown apartment – a short walk from Lincoln Center, where he runs City Opera – and traveled four hours north to a stone farmhouse with views of the Adirondacks, where he runs the Glimmerglass Opera.
The new season, which opens July 7, will be his last. That the remote, rural outpost of Cooperstown, N.Y., is known not only as home to the Baseball Hall of Fame but also for an opera festival is due in no small part to Mr. Kellogg.That he transformed a two-bit, two-opera event into an internationally renowned, full-blown, unmissable operatic experience is a tribute to his powers of personal charm, determination, and vision.
That he has retained his grace and sense of humor is miraculous in a highdrama world peopled by larger-than-life characters. It’s a world in which the simple designation “prima donna” has become a byword for impossible behavior. When asked for stories betraying the recalcitrant singers, scenery disasters, conducting terrors, and nightmarish composers over the past three decades, he genuinely cannot recall anything – or maybe he has just put it conveniently out of his mind.
“I started at Glimmerglass in January 1979,” he said. “I came with no experience of running an opera company. I learned on the job because the company was learning on the job.”
As Cooperstown was largely a farming community, there were limits to the repertoire. “My first season was the ‘Merry Widow’ and ‘The Barber of Seville.’ We had brought up directors from City Opera in New York to do them. In the second season Raymond Hahn did ‘Cavaliera Rusticana’ and ‘Pagliacci.’ We were getting out the popular pieces one by one because people who don’t know much about opera will always come to something they have heard of.”
Then came an interesting and valuable paradox. The modest nature of Glimmerglass’s audience provided enormous advantages for an opera company wanting to musically challenge its patrons. “By the time it came to the ‘Bartered Bride’ a couple of years later, there had begun to be some confidence in the company.They thought, ‘I’ve never heard of ‘The Bartered Bride,’ but let’s try it.'” And it was that attitude that set Glimmerglass on its way, this willingness to take a chance because they didn’t know any better.
“They didn’t know you are not supposed to like ‘The Bartered Bride.’ And for a while we got away with attracting people who didn’t know you are not supposed to like Benjamin Britten, either. Then that stopped, because as our audience changed and more people came from New York City, people with a core of sophistication – which I use in very large quotes – began to resist the pieces they knew they shouldn’t like. But still we kept an audience growing for pieces that were unusual.”
The tension between catering to those who know little about opera and those who know everything became a guiding spirit of Glimmgerglass’s mission and set Mr. Kellogg a conundrum he has spent the last 28 years trying to solve.
“There are always so many audiences, and so many attitudes,” he said. “Apart from the visual arts, I know of very few art forms that are quite so fragmented as opera, whose audiences are so fragmented that they will come to one thing but not another.
“In the end people were coming from all over the place into the little high school auditorium to see things they weren’t getting a chance to hear elsewhere. They knew we were musically strong and dramatically interesting, even though everything was done on a shoestring. And all of that was great fun. In the meantime I was growing and learning what I felt we ought to be doing and developing a very strong attitude about what Glimmerglass could be and should be aesthetically.
“Eventually I realized that we were always going to be held back as a company by the theater we were in, which had a mail-slot proscenium stage with no backstage area at all,” he said
In order to “turn it into the kind of summer festival it had the potential to be” and spurred by “this huge energy behind the idea,” he began the arduous business of raising money for a new theater, which, large and barnlike to fit the rolling dairy meadows that surround it, opened in 1987.
“By 1993 we had a solid audience and could take a lot more chances,” he said. “We could do a lot more Britten, like ‘Paul Bunyan’; more contemporary American pieces. We could do the neglected repertory. We did ‘Il Re Pastore,’ a lost opera by Mozart, which was one of our greatest hits.
“There was not one single person responsible for the growth of Glimmerglass. It was a team effort. But there were some who made a great difference. Like Gene Thaw, one of the most prominent, private art dealers in New York, who gave us $1,000 and said, ‘I will support you, and support you enthusiastically, so long as we make it a company that is as good as I think it could be.’
“The personality of the company changed.It became more informal.I had to fight Gene on clothing. He wanted a Glyndebourne atmosphere, stiff and black-tie, and I thought that was wrong. To his huge credit, he accepted it.”
Out, too, went singing everything in English in favor of operas in the original language with surtitles. The Glimmerglass Mr. Kellogg leaves behind is a mature, established company with a mission to make unlikely operas accessible.
Only one thing sticks in his mind as an unexpected and not entirely welcome element to the Glimmerglass experience.”We are deep in the country and sometimes, when the wind is in the right direction, there is a pungent smell of cow manure. George Harewood [his counterpart at the English National Opera] told me, ‘If you want beautiful flowers, you have to risk a smell.’ So I guess that is a lesson for us here at Glimmerglass.”