Opera Lafayette: From Violins to Opera, Cloaked in Romance

Opera Lafayette logo; courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

Opera Lafayette logo; courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

The romance of the Opera Lafayette story is very compelling.  There must be a play or movie there. The company was born out of “ambitious artistic inspirations” to find new ways to explore music of the past, spurred on by the rise of interest in period instruments in America.  These operas are typically forgotten works of French composers that once enjoyed considerable popularity and have now engaged the interest of Opera Lafayette in the company’s exploration of music from this period.  As with almost every small opera company, Opera Lafayette is led by a music professional who is dedicated to a specific mission and who has the charisma and connections to elicit the interest of other music professionals and garner support from donors.  In this case, Founder, Conductor and Artistic Director, Ryan Brown, a noted violinist himself, has this company focused on performing and recording 18th century French music and opera (occasionally spilling over into the 17th and 19th centuries), and successfully so since 1995.  One gets a sense of Mr. Brown as a real-life Ichabod Crane-type from the TV show, “Sleepy Hollow”, a character transported to present day who gives us glimpses of our not too distant history.  The company began as the Violins of Lafayette and was focused only on music.  Singing, dance, and semi-staged operas were added, and finally, fully-staged operas with orchestra, and the name was changed to Opera Lafayette for the 2001-2002 season. (Had the name been changed to the Voices of Lafayette, it might have been even more romantic, if less descriptive.)

There is also romance in the intellectual commitment of this group, which augurs well for the quality of its productions.  Each performance is preceded by a good deal of research.  Their retrospective on their first twenty years states: “Regarding the discovery and presentation of new repertoire, we have been lucky to be a stone’s throw from the extensive collections of the Library of Congress, to have generous colleagues in Europe who have made scores available to us, and to have the assistance of several distinguished musicologists and experts in the field, ... With their help, we have introduced multiple works from the traditions of the tragedie lyrique, the opera ballet, the pastorale, the drama giocoso, and the opera comique.”  Opera Lafayette’s mission also includes creating a recorded legacy of their explorations.  Starting in 2005, they now have eleven recordings published on the Naxos label.  I have sampled several of these, which can be streamed on Apple Music, and I can report that they are of exceptional quality and the music will find favor with most opera fans.

The company has added educational and outreach programs to its efforts to keep alive and explore the music from this period.  The Young Artist’s Program was begun in 2007-2008.  And they help make the fruits of their labors more accessible to audiences by performing in low cost venues to keep ticket prices less expensive.  Opera Lafayette productions are each presented once in DC and once in Manhattan.  They also made an invited presentation at the Opera Royal in France in 2012.

Opera Lafayette website banner with photos of past productions.  Jean Paul-Fouchécourt in Menu: Plaisir (Photo by Bruno Amsellem); Kimy McLaren in Into the Woods at Paris' Thêatre du Châtelet (Photo by Francois Guillot); and, Sherezade Panthaki (Photo by David Fung).  Courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

Opera Lafayette website banner with photos of past productions.  Jean Paul-Fouchécourt in Menu: Plaisir (Photo by Bruno Amsellem); Kimy McLaren in Into the Woods at Paris' Thêatre du Châtelet (Photo by Francois Guillot); and, Sherezade Panthaki (Photo by David Fung).  Courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

What does Opera Lafayette have planned for us in its 2016-2017 season?

Feb 19, DC; Feb 23, NYC: Leonore, Ou L’Amour Conjugal; composer, Pierre Gaveaux, and librettist, Jean-Nicolas Bouilly

May 31, DC; June 2, NYC: Les Indes Galantes – Part IV; composer, Jean-Philippe Rameau, and librettist, Louis Fuzelier

Nowhere is romance more evident than in the program for 2016-2017.  Leonore, Ou L’Amour Conjugal (1798), translated Leonore, or Married Love is the story of a woman who takes life threatening risks to save her husband.  Composer Gaveaux utilizes the same libretto by Bouilly that was later used by three other composers to tell this story.  The last and most famous of these versions is the one by Beethoven, titled FidelioFidelio is the great maestro’s only opera.  It is based in part on the Gaveaux version, and actually, three versions by Beethoven titled Leonore were presented (each with a different overture) over a ten-year period before being resolved into Fidelio.  Opera fans in the mid-Atlantic region are presented with a rare opportunity.  The Washington Concert Opera is presenting Leonore by Beethovern, the earlier version of Fidelio, on March 5 in Lisner Auditorium (previously covered by OperaGene).  And for the hat trick, after hearing these productions, you can travel to the Met Opera in NYC to hear Fidelio, itself, offered from March 16 to April 8.  This juxtaposition of the Leonore versions probably happens less often than Haley’s Comet makes an appearance.  If you need more of an inducement to attend a performance of the Leonore story, let me add that the Opera Lafayette version occurs very close to St. Valentine’s Day.  So, why not get tickets for you and your sweetie, though only if you are serious about that particular sweetie, and see an opera about the power of marital love.  Bound to win you points.

Les Indes Galantes (1735), to be performed as a concert opera, only involves one composer, Rameau, but has its own complicated history. This opera has a prologue and four entrees (acts).  Opera Lafayette will present the Prologue and Entrée IV.  The complete opera underwent several iterations and different entrees were performed separately before the complete opera was presented.  Entrée IV is titled Les Sauvages (the Savages), not used for obvious reasons, I suspect, by Opera Lafayette.  Despite the threatening and racist title of its day, it is a multinational love story where a native American maiden has three suitors of different nationalities from whom she picks one, and according to the Opera Lafayette description,"all celebrate in “Forêts paisibles” (“Peaceful forests”), an idyllic depiction of diverse cultures living in harmony with nature and one another."  This may be why Rameau’s work is not performed more often today; unlike most operas, nobody is killed or forced to submit to an unwanted love.  Nevertheless, the opera became quite popular in its day.  It is worth noting that Rameau may be the most prolific and popular composer you never heard of.  The “New Penguin Opera Guide” devotes fifteen pages to Rameau’s work, including thirty-one entries.  The article also notes that an epitaph printed for Rameau on his death stated, “Here lies the God of Harmony.”  The Washington Post’s Anne Midgette calls Rameau, “one of the most important French composers, but you’re unlikely to see his work at the Washington National Opera or the Metropolitan Opera, compelling as much of his music may be.” He was one of the music theory experts of his day.  You can sample other work of Rameau on the Opera Lafayette Naxos CD by his name.

YouTube video excerpt from Opera Lafayette production of Rameau's opera-ballet Les Fetes de l'Hymen et de l'Amour, 2014-2015 season; also available on Opera Lafayette website:

Opera Lafayette productions have uniformly drawn praise over the years from area music critics, especially for performing important musical works that no one else is performing.  What they do pleases, and they do it exceedingly well.  This opera company appears to be a gem among those in the U.S. mid-Atlantic area, and adds a large dollop of romance to the rich Washington DC opera scene.  Tickets and information can be found at this link

Note: Opera Lafayette and the Washington Concert Opera are presenting a joint discussion of their two Leonore works in a free seminar in DC on January 26 (reservations required).