Below is an excerpt of an article written by Francesca Zambello that appeared in The Glimmerglass Festival’s newsletter, Fanfare, which is published twice annually as a benefit for National Council members, Camerata members and members of the Glimmerglass Festival Guild.

Each summer, visitors to the Alice Busch Opera Theater have an opportunity to be transported to many locations around the globe. This year’s The Siege of Calais takes us to the famous and oft-contested port city in France. Porgy and Bess allows us to experience the American South of the early 20th century, while Xerxes transports us to the magnificent Persian Empire. And, of course, there’s Rodgers and Hammerstein’s tribute to the land where the corn grows as high as an elephant’s eye — Oklahoma!

As we prepare these pieces, we try to honor their history and their facts, but also seek ways to theatricalize and find the spirit of the locations. When I work with the designers we try to create spaces the performers can “live” in. It is important for me that we find a personal connection and a way to approach a work.

The Siege of Calais Scenic Design: James Noone
The Siege of Calais Scenic Design: James Noone

The Siege of Calais is surely the most unknown of all our works this year. Why did I choose it? So many things always converge to make a title bubble up. I always start with at least 20 options for a season and then whittle it down, with an eye to creating a balance.

We have not done a Donizetti opera in over a decade. We have given early Verdi, Rossini and Bellini their due in the last few years, but Gaetano has been left out! In addition, I had a personal history with the opera, having directed it over 20 years ago for the Wexford Festival. I was astonished to learn that it had never been done in the United States. When I returned to the score, I was again struck by both the beauty of the music and the powerful contemporary resonance of the story. In this season, where we explore ideas of “home” it is a perfect fit. It deals with the historic, year-long siege in which the English attempted to starve the French out of their homes. The notion of the starving and the homeless powerfully connected with me as I watched the thousands of refugees in the recently dismantled camps known as the Calais Jungle. The camp’s forceful closing sent thousands of refugees into other parts of France. Many of those refugees escaped situations not unlike those faced by citizens of Calais some seven centuries ago. It is heartbreaking to me to contemplate the hundreds of thousands of people who have been forced out of their homes in Syria and elsewhere.

Is this opera our way of making a political statement? No—it is an invitation. As a leading cultural institution in Central New York, I feel that it is important for us to be a home of dialogue, a place where a wide variety of viewpoints can be spoken and heard. The world is a complicated place, and there are no easy answers to the problems we face. But by sharing human stories from across the centuries and around the globe, I hope we can spark meaningful, respectful discussion about today’s complex ideas and issues.

In all of these works, the spirit of the people, and their commitment to each other, is what makes a setting not just a spot on a map, not just a moment in history, but a home. I see that same spirit in the diverse community of artists and opera-lovers who make their home at Glimmerglass each season. I invite you to join us on a trip around the world (no passport required!) and to bring your unique perspective to our ongoing dialogue.

4 Thoughts on “The Siege of Calais - And Home”

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  1. I agree with the topicality of The Siege of Calais but I suggest Zaira by Vincenzo Bellini as much more so. Its rendering of the clash of cultures between the Christian & Muslim worlds is so unusual that the 19th century censors only allowed it to be performed one time. Its next performance was by Renata Scotto in 1976. To my knowledge, it has never been performed in the U.S. I hope Francesca will include it in a Glimmerglass season in the very near future. PS: I am 72 & thus have a very limited number of seasons left to attend. And while I’m at it, I suggest La Muette di Portici by Daniel Auber for its beautiful Barcarolle performed as the prelude of the second act. I enjoy it more than Offenbach’s. It also is most unusual as an opera with a non-singing lead role.

  2. Francesca,

    Your posts are always so interesting. Imagine, starting out with 20 operas and narrowing it down to four. Watching and hearing that done might be more interesting as watching the operas themselves.

    Don’t know if we will be able to come and see “the Siege” or not. Economics, pet responsibilities and travel distance can be hard to manage.

    I wanted to make a suggestion, and I know that running an opera company can be hard but I would like to make the following suggestion. When you have matinees on the days that you are only doing one opera, please push the performance time back a little bit…say 3 pm or so. That way we who are making a day trip to Cooperstown would have a little bit more time to stop and enjoy the surrounding area a little bit longer and we would not have to rush. Just a suggestion.

    Looking forward to the 2018 offerings in case we can’t make it this year.

    Peace, Bill

  3. My wife & I saw L’Assedio today & were absolutely in awe. We have been attending Glimmerglass for more that ten years & not one time have seen a better production or heard better singing. Bravo Donizetti!, Bravo Glimmerglass!, Brava Francesca!, Bravissimo L’Assedio cast & crew! This was the North American premiere of L’Assedio but we predict with confidence that it will be followed by many, many more.

  4. I know we shouldn’t be taking up the whole blog ourselves but we thought Francesca might like this paraphrase of a famous Yogi Berra one-liner about our favorite subject. How’s this? “The opera doesn’t start ’til the happy lady pleads.” ☺ ☺ ☺

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