“I had a lot of opportunity through the years to work on my operas here, and a lot of them have been inspired by Irish writers,” said the Sembrich Opera Museum artistic director Richard Wargo. “It’s part of my heritage but it’s also just the writers themselves; their works I greatly admire.”
One of these writers is Brian Friel. Wargo adapted his play Lovers into an opera called Ballymore. In more recent years, Wargo has admired the work of John B. Keane, who passed away in 2002. “I did have an opportunity to meet him, to work with him,” said Wargo.
Those are two of the Irish bards that Wargo’s program "From the Bards of Ireland" will feature. The other two bards that will be included in the program are John Millington Synge and William Butler Yeats. “It’s just selections of different arias, different selections of pieces that I’ve written over the last decade or two, based on Irish writers,” said Wargo. “Part of the aspect of the program that makes it a little but unusual, a little bit different, is that it has a narrator as well. I guess you’d call it a behind the scenes glimpse of my travels in Ireland and the opportunities along the way to meet these writers.”
A couple of years ago, Wargo was in Ireland for the performance of his opera Ballymore. He said that it was an exciting opportunity. While the material in the opera was new to American audiences, it was familiar to the Irish viewers. “It was actually a little intimidating to go before an audience where the story they’re seeing told in music is something that they all read in their eighth grade classrooms. But the response was very warm,” said Wargo. “It just was a delightful experience and sort of a dream come true, if you will.”
In past years, Wargo has devoted summers at the Sembrich to particular themes or personalities. This summer’s theme is “exploring a world of music.” According to Wargo, a couple of things went into the choice of this theme. He said, “Part of it is that we have a wonderful new exhibit of trunks and travel paraphernalia that Sembrich had through the years that have been in storage for 75 years.”
This is the 75th anniversary year of the Sembrich Opera House. Wargo says that they wanted to highlight the travels that Marcella Sembrich had. “Imagine an artist, in her day, travelling from Dresden to St. Petersburg to Stockholm: just all the miles she would travel. And then each year, she would travel back and forth between New York and Europe as well.”
Wargo says that this summer’s theme is also based on the fact that this year marks the 100th anniversary of the Titanic. The opera house has a centennial series about how that event affected the world of arts and letters at the time. Wargo said, “It was, fortunately, not a journey that Sembrich herself made; she travelled on the Germania line. But it was something that really ended that gilded age that she was so much a part of.”
According to Wargo, when Sembrich made her debut in 1883 at the Metropolitan Opera, the people that were funding the opera at the time and that were underwriting opera houses throughout America, may have been the same passengers aboard the Titanic in first class. Sembrich also sang before thousands of immigrants, and they are the people who would have been in third class.
“It really changed the world of the time in 1912 and then in 1914, they kind of sealed the end of the gilded age with the start of World War I. So we’re highlighting that cultural aspect with some programs at the studio as well,” said Wargo. “So again, exploring a world of music, not only the destinations and the cultures that we’re visiting week to week with different music programs, but also just the act of travel itself and the means of travel in that era in which Sembrich lived.”
In August, the Hyperion String Quartet will visit the opera house. This will be the second year that they be there for the string quartet in residence program, and Wargo says that the opera house is delighted to have the them. The quartet will participate in all of the opera’s series. On Wednesday, August 22, they will present a program with Thomas Larson called “And Titanic’s Band Played On.”
“It’s about the eight musicians, they were all either keyboard or string players, who perished very famously by playing during the last hours of Titanic,” said Wargo. A couple years ago, Larson worked with the opera house’s Barber series. Larson will examine the lives and the legacy of these eight musicians. Wargo said, “It should be a fascinating program.”
On the following Saturday, the Hyperion concert will take on the exploring a world of music theme by playing songs by a wide variety of international composers. One of these is Percy Graham, an Australian composer who wrote many arrangements of Irish folk tunes. “Molly on the Shore” is song that he arranged, and Wargo says that there is a photograph of the Hyperion quartet’s orchestra and Sembrich together listening to a recording from the early 1900s.
“So again, tying all of this together, it’s a lot of fun for me as artistic director planning a season like we have this summer at the Sembrich,” concluded Wargo.