I attended my first opera at The Met, The Barber of Seville, with my grandparents when I was
eight years old. For the ensuing decade, my grandfather’s tutelage nourished my nascent love of opera. In high school, my decision to see Janáček’s Jenůfa created an unexpected schism between my grandfather and me in our operatic appreciation, as he did not know much about Czech opera. His primary gripe was simple: it was not Italian, and the writing did not (in his opinion) put a premium on legato singing. I joked that he simply didn’t like it because it lacked a soprano in a bloody nightgown going mad in fluent Italian with flawless coloratura. (Opera lovers all know that image from any number of works where the heroine goes insane). Believe it or not, there was a time when operas like Lucia di Lammermoor and La sonnambula were not part of the ‘standard’ repertoire.
The pieces that we now consider the backbone of Italian opera—works primarily written by Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini—were absent from opera houses until the Bel Canto revival, begun by Joan Sutherland and Maria Callas after World War II. Considering that Lucia, I puritani, and even lesser performed works like Semiramide and Lucrezia Borgia are more or less familiar to today’s audiences, the Bel Canto revival has come a long way in a relatively short period of time. The key to its success lies in the ability of opera houses to demonstrate that these operas can be compelling works of theater and not just vessels for vocal display.
In the past 25 years, one of the leaders to take up the torch of the Bel Canto revival is conductor Will Crutchfield. From 1997 to 2017, he was the director of the opera program at the Caramoor International Music Festival in Katonah, New York. During his tenure, he was known for pairing a well-known work like Norma alongside rarities like William Tell. On those few occasions when he ventured away from the Bel Canto era and performed pieces like H.M.S. Pinafore, they still maintained some connection to the Bel Canto era. In the case of Pinafore, composer Arthur Sullivan began his career as a music copyist, which helped him become familiar with the structure of the Bel Canto operas that he later parodied.
In 2017, Crutchfield parted ways with Caramoor and formed Teatro Nuovo. Just like at Caramoor, Teatro Nuovo is dedicated to the rediscovery of Bel Canto operas and teaching young singers the proper skills to sing them.
Many singers who have gone on to major international careers have gone through Will Crutchfield’s programs either at Caramoor or Teatro Nuovo. Two people in particular come to mind: Jennifer Rowley and Angela Meade. In the latter case, Norma has become one of Meade’s signature roles. She even sang “Casta Diva” when she won The Met’s National Council Audition in 2007. Her performance gained notoriety when it was recorded in Susan Froemke’s documentary The Audition; but it was under Crutchfield’s direction at Caramoor that she first sang Norma.
The son of a tenor, who sang with the local opera company, Crutchfield grew up among musical relatives in Newport News, Virginia. He sung in the children’s chorus of the local opera company and developed a love for old records. Crutchfield fondness for old records has become the cornerstone of his training program for young singers. The program develops the voice, focusing on strengthening traditional techniques of Italianate singing like legato and Portamento. He believes that by focusing purely on singing technique, Teatro Nuovo sets itself apart from other young artist programs which put a premium on teaching singers to navigate conceptual productions.. According to Crutchfield, “I don’t believe anyone falls in love with opera except through the emotional impact of the singing and the music.” As such, operas at Teatro Nuovo are largely done in concert form.
On July 27-28 Teatro Nuovo will perform The Barber of Seville outdoors in Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park. The choice to perform something as ubiquitous as Rossini’s Barber may seem out of place, but if it wasn’t for Covid they would’ve performed Rossini’s seldom heard Maometto II last season. Teatro Nuovo will return to live performances with operatic comfort food. That said, this is in no way a conventual Barber. Not only will the performances make use of period instruments but as Crutchfield puts it, “Our rule for this production is any ornament familiar from current performances is forbidden in ours.” Instead, singers will either create their own ornaments from scratch or based them on historical models such as Manuel García.