“It’s just a terrific opportunity to get the kids, get the picnic basket, a bottle of Pinot Noir and hear some great music,” says Keith Clark, creative director and musical conductor for Portland Summer Fest: Opera In The Park.
This year, Portland Summer Fest celebrates its 11th anniversary of bringing free opera to the public with a presentation of Verdi’s Otello. Audiences will have two opportunities to experience the outdoor concerts: The first performance will be held at the Washington Park Amphitheater on August 2 and the second at the Concordia College Green on August 4.
Portland Summer Fest initially got off to a modest start as its own independent organization founded by noted vocal trainer Ruth Dobson and Clark, who have served as the creative directors since 2003. Those early performances were the result of a lot of hard work from not only Dobson and Clark, but a whole host of professional musicians and talent.
Clark says that the goal of Summer Fest is “to give a combination of opportunities to singers to perform in the summer and for Portland audiences, especially Portland families, to experience the music out-of-doors in an informal setting without charge, but at the same time maintaining very high musical standards.”
And with those high musical standards comes the talent to match. Tenor Allan Glassman, who will be singing the role of Otello, has been a regular at The Metropolitan Opera in New York, as well as several renowned opera companies throughout the United States, including the Portland Opera. Glassman also happens to be fresh off of his performance of Otello at this year’s Astoria Music Festival.
Richard Zeller will sing the role of Otello’s famed antagonist, Iago. Zeller is a local favorite and has been involved with Portland Summer Fest since its early days. Rounding out the main cast is Centralia, Washington’s own Andrea Meade, who will sing the role of Desdemona, Otello’s Venetian love interest.
“Desdemona has gorgeous music and it is going to be a joy to sing the stunning vocal lines that Verdi wrote for her,” says Meade via email from Spain. “I’m also looking forward to bringing out her vulnerability and the fact that she is a victim of circumstance. She loves Otello so much and she just can’t understand what she did to make him hate her. It’s such a tragic story.”
Meade has performed in both the Astoria Music Festival and Portland Summer Fest.
“There is a bit of an informal crossover between Portland Summer Fest and the Astoria Music Festival, because both were founded in the same year by Ruth Dobson and myself,” explains Clark.
Dobson has since retired from her organizational duties, but still remains close to Clark and others who are seeking to grow the summer concerts.
“There are many models to follow — all over the country summer concerts are extremely popular. San Francisco does summer [concerts], the Metropolitan Opera does park concerts in the summer; all over the country this is being done.”
Clark believes that offering these outdoor concerts free of charge is crucial, as part of Summer Fest’s mission is to help make the music available to people who otherwise might find it inaccessible.
“It wouldn’t be unusual to spend $200 for a ticket,” explains Clark.
“We have usually well over 5,000 people at each concert,” he continues, “and I’d say a good number of them know what they’re coming to, and then there are those who are coming because it’s part of a larger concert series and [they] think they’re coming to see The Rhythm Kings, or something.”
And those are the people Clark says he is most interested in.
“The music that we’re performing is so infectious, but it’s the sort of thing that lay-audiences wouldn’t go to during the year. Tickets are expensive, opera has a negative association about it, [people say] it’s for the ‘elite,’ it’s in a different language’ — [all are] excuses not to go, until you’ve actually experienced it, and then they discover, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is out-of-this-world, this is great, I’ll come next time!’”
“What would be extremely satisfying would be … if some of those people who have drifted in for one reason or another suddenly experienced opera for the first time and then end up at Keller Auditorium later this year at Portland Opera,” Clark says.