By JIM LOWE
The Lowe Down
When Boston tenor Joshua Collier came to Vermont last June to perform in Puccini’s “Il trittico” with Opera Company of Middlebury, he and his family stayed at a house on Lake Dunmore.
“Liliana, my 2-year-old daughter, saw Lake Dunmore for the first time,” Collier said. “And I have a picture of her head in her hands — ‘Like wow!’ — just this completely unadulterated natural vista, which she had never seen before. So I looked at my wife and said, ‘Something’s got to change. We need to do something about this. Let’s consider Vermont.’”
It wasn’t long before they found a farmhouse in Brandon and made Vermont their home.
“It’s been better and better and better,” Collier said from his Brandon home. “My daughter came in covered in mud in the fall — because she was playing outside. And I thought, this was why we did this!”
Vermont obviously made an impression on Collier, but the 30-year-old tenor is already making an impression on his chosen state. When he discovered Brandon Music, a barn converted into an arts center by owners Edna and Stephen Sutton, Collier saw an unusual opportunity.
Collier cited an opera company in New York, Sing Through Central, which presents six or seven “readings” of standard operas every year, offering emerging singers the opportunity to learn and sing standard roles.
“It’s a Catch-22,” Collier said. “You won’t get hired for them until you’ve done them, so you can’t do them until you’ve done them. It’s one rehearsal, then they perform, and it’s loved by the emerging artists.”
Collier’s problem with that program is the singers must pay for the opportunity. So, he created Barn Opera, which has now invited a cast of young singers to perform Puccini’s beloved “Madama Butterfly,” at 7 p.m. Saturday at Brandon Music. The hall’s 50 seats sold out within a week of the announcement.
“There are no sets, no costumes, with only suggested staging and piano accompaniment. It’s the music and it’s the voice that I’m going for,” Collier said. “What I’ve changed is that instead of paying to learn these roles, paying to sing them, we’re offering a small stipend and housing. It’s a very niche market, it’s more for the artist than the audience.”
The cast for this production will feature professionals who all reside in Vermont. Soprano Helen Lyons (Butterfly) tours, but lives in Ferrisburgh. Baritone Cailin Marcel Manson (Sharpless) lives in Putney and leads the Bennington Choral Society. Mezzo-soprano Julie Olssen (Suzuki) of Jamaica has sung with regional companies throughout New England. Husband Ken Olssen (pianist and conductor) and his wife are founders of the Southern Vermont Lyric Theatre.
Tenor Cameron Steinmetz (Goro) and soprano Allison Devery Steinmetz (Kate Pinkerton) live in Montpelier. Collier will sing Pinkerton, but will likely not perform in all productions.
This performance and all subsequent performances — planned to be quarterly — benefit Brandon’s Compass Music and Arts Foundation. Barn Opera seeks to provide opportunities for the local and regional talent to be featured, as well as raise funds to enable cost-free arts education to families and residents of Vermont.
“It’s only a weekend — it’ll never be more than four or five days,” Collier said of the rehearsal period. “We’ll be able to introduce Vermont audiences to a level that might be just below what Opera Company of Middlebury hires. They’re just on their way up. And after the performance, you’re going to get to talk to the singers. I’ll be the last one to leave.”
Collier closed on his Brandon home on Aug. 25, opening night for “La Bohème,” which he was performing in Grafton with Southern Vermont Lyric Theatre.
“I finished that on the 27th, and came back here and we did six weeks of really hard work on the house before it was really livable,” he said. “So we’ve been here since the beginning of October.”
As to balancing an international career, involving protracted residencies and living in Vermont, Collier has a plan.
“It was actually a career move to move to Vermont,” he said. “I was gone so much — I missed my daughter’s first birthday. I am working enough that I can support my family, so they can travel with me. It frees me up.
“It also allows me, when I’m home, to cultivate something in the community I live in.”
Barn Opera, in its inaugural performance, will present a staged reading of Pucccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” at 7 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 17, at Brandon Music in Brandon. The performance is sold out; to check for cancellations, call 802-247-4295, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For information about Barn Opera and its upcoming productions, go online to www.barnopera.com.