The Little Opera Company That Could
The brainchild of noted soprano Claudia Cummings, the Opera Company of the Highlands offers up-and-coming singers a chance to perform, and local residents (including schoolchildren) a chance to listen.
The Little Opera Company That Could
Claudia Cummings’s Opera Company of the Highlands nurtures new talent while offering grand opera to young and old.
By Mary Forsell
Cummings (foreground) with the cast of Amahl and the Night Visitors
Hitting all the high notes (clockwise from top): Lori Mirabal (as Amahl’s mother) performs the aria “All that Gold” while Chad Karl (as one of the Three Kings) naps during the company’s production of Amahl and the Night Visitors; Cummings’s husband, actor Jack Aranson; a flyer illustrates some of Cummings’s many leading operatic roles
The aspiring opera singer removes her shoes, cracks what seems to be every bone in her body, takes a long drink of water, and places her hand on her stomach to check her breathing technique. The first notes of her morning lesson pour out.
Claudia Cummings, seated at a grand piano in her New Windsor home (a converted 1860s carriage house that masquerades as a red barn), peers at her student from over her glasses. “It sounds a little bit like the morning after,” she says, knowing full well that the singer had been out late the night before. “You had to muscle your way in there.”
The singer continues as Cummings accompanies her on the keyboard, sometimes
demonstrating the exact vocal sound she is after. After an extensive back-and-forth, the young woman finally nails it. “There you go!” says Cummings, triumphant. “One of the hardest lessons that I’ve had with young opera singers is that they say, ‘I can’t do this, and I can’t do that.’ But if you can sing this today, now, you can sing anytime.”
Cummings would know. For more than 25 years she toured the globe with the likes of the New York City Opera Company singing the high soprano, leading-lady parts in operas such as Lucia di Lammermoor, The Marriage of Figaro, and Don Giovanni. She shared the stage with luminaries like Pavarotti, Beverly Sills, and Joan Sutherland. (“I think she was the voice of the century,” says Cummings of Sutherland. “She taught me how to do needlepoint.”) She also sang with symphony orchestras, chamber music groups — and even on Broadway — along the way. “I’ve been very blessed that I was hired so often that I never had a second job,” said Cummings. But she realizes that most would-be opera singers are not so fortunate. They often have to work odd jobs, attend countless auditions, and endure subsequent rejections; most have no professional venue in which to practice.
So in 2005, Cummings founded the Opera Company of the Highlands in Orange County.
It’s purpose is twofold: to provide a vehicle for young singers to gain operatic performance experience, and to make opera itself more accessible to the masses — including local school children. “Hopefully, it increases the quality of our life here. That’s what I hear over and over,” she says. “People are constantly thanking us for bringing professional opera to the Hudson Valley.”
Since starting with a performance of Die Fledermaus, Cummings, the company’s artistic and musical director, has overseen a host of productions including The Daughter of the Regiment, La Boheme, and most recently, Amahl and the Night Visitors. In May, the company will produce a concert version of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci with a full orchestra. “We’re working very hard to make every production better than the last one,” says Cummings, “and our audience is growing. The real opera crowd — the ones who travel to New York City to see opera — are finally coming to check us out.”
A fifth-generation Californian, Cummings hails from a musical family. “My mother was a great organist,” she recalls, “but they weren’t opera people.” It was her high school chorus teacher who introduced her to an old opera singer, who had fled the Nazis by way of Japan. “She was the only game in town,” recalls Cummings. “The ramifications are enormous for having met the right person at the impressionable age of 14. She got me started.” But Cummings admits that her vocal abilities were always evident. “They put on an opera just for me in high school,” she recalls. Several years after graduating from San Francisco State University, she landed her first big role as Gilda in Rigoletto in San Diego.
But Cummings says her career — and her life — really took off after she married Shakespearean actor Jack Aranson. “I met him in San Diego at his one-man show on Dylan Thomas. He was brilliant. We started talking after the show, and we’ve basically been together ever since. He’s a huge personality. He could tell stories, he could be intimate, he could be noisy and fun. He was always the first on everybody’s party list.”
The pair moved to New York in the 1970s, and Cummings attributes at least part of her ongoing success to Jack’s influence. “I became a very good actress,” she says. “I was in my 30s already and my career just flourished.” A principal singer for the New York City Opera from 1985 to 1995, she also sang with major opera companies in Amsterdam, Miami, Toronto and Chicago, among others. Often on the road, she says, “One has to have a special kind of spouse. Jack was on the road as much as I was, so he understood, although he didn’t always like it. But if you’re going to make it you have to go where the parts are. You do give up certain things.”
Cummings had always promised herself she would retire from opera before her voice started to fade — which, generally speaking, is around age 50. “When I was young, I saw people hanging on. That looked pretty ugly to me, so I tried to remember that,” she says. Fortuitously, she was asked to audition for Jack Hammerstein’s production of The Sound of Music and scored the role of the Mother Abbess for 68 performances in New York. Then, in the mid-’90s, Hammerstein mounted a national tour starring Marie Osmond, and Cummings went on the road for a year and a half.
“I didn’t stop singing when I retired from opera. I started a whole new series of events in my life,” she says. “Because opera is a very demanding art form, one tends to get pretty focused in one area. And I didn’t know anything about the popular culture. So having this role [as Mother Abbess] showed me what else was out there.” In fact, Osmond even named one of the dolls in her collection after Cummings. The Claudia is “a baby doll,” says Cummings. “Marie thought I was the most old-fashioned person she had ever met, that’s why she chose that look.” And did Cummings ever watch Osmond during her recent high-profile turn on Dancing with the Stars? “Yes, I caught her a few times,” she admits.
In her next incarnation, Cummings decided to work closer to her Orange County home, which she and Aranson purchased 25 years ago as a refuge from urban life. She teamed up with him in 1999 to create the Festival Theatre of New York, which held performances in a quirky church in Blooming Grove. “For about seven years we did a lot of shows together that mingled poetry, music, and literature, and people kind of got used to us here. It was well received.Then, there was a natural transition to bringing opera to the fore.”
Now, as a producer who is responsible for boosting other people’s careers, Cummings inhabits a completely different sphere. “The opera company is not for me,” says Cummings, who does not perform. “It’s for the people between 22 and 30 who might not have another opportunity to sing a role. So that has become the mission of the opera company: to find the wonderful talent that’s hanging out there on the line, waiting to be picked.”
Cummings sets up auditions for principal roles on a regular basis in New York City, spreading the word through industry magazines like Classical Singer and the Web site yaptracker.com. Singers are more than happy to make the reverse commute up the Hudson.
“They come up for about a month,” says Cummings. “When it gets really busy toward the end of a production, we house everybody. We find homes. We have a cottage here on the property and that usually goes to an artist at some point.”
But not everyone comes from the city. One of her principals, Jeremy Moore, as well as several supporting players, hail from the Newburgh area. “We live and work in Newburgh, so we try to bring in people from our own area,” says Cummings. “We had
six young people in Amahl who are from a local performing arts school.”
Cummings runs a tight ship; rehearsals are rigorous. “In order for me to dare call it a
professional company, it has to be run on a professional basis. There probably isn’t anybody else in the area who’s had that experience, so with my board and volunteers and staff, we all get on that plane. This is not community theater.”
The company usually offers two types of performances. Their dress rehearsals are open to local students. “Every school in Orange County is invited to bring children to our opera. They are thrilled to come, and they are building our next audience,” says Cummings. “We had 800 young people who saw La Boheme. And maybe they would not have had that opportunity otherwise.” There are performances for the public as well, which take place at Newburgh venues including South Junior High School and St. George’s Church. (Go to www.operacompanyofthehighlands.org for more information.)
In short order, the company has transitioned from performing operas in translation to singing them in their original language. The recent production of La Boheme had supertitles (translation of lyrics shown on a screen), a provision which Cummings embraces wholeheartedly.
“There was a big, concerted effort when I was a young singer in the 1970s to sing operas in English so as to bring them to the populace. And since we now have supertitles, we can do them in the original. The young singers that we’re giving rise to need to learn it in the original language, because the next company, the bigger company, is not going to be doing it in translation. So this prepares them for that challenge.”
Better yet, the supertitles are a gift from the New York City Opera. “We are building a relationship with them, which in my wildest imagination I wouldn’t have guessed would happen,” says Cummings with a laugh. “I passed through there like thousands of other people, but I guess I left some good vibes behind. We are going to begin to collaborate in some very minor ways. They’re looking at us as a possible farm-team company.”
Despite the company’s demands on her time, Cummings still gives voice lessons, mostly to girls 12 and up (she won’t teach anyone who hasn’t gone through puberty, despite the protestations of parents). “It’s amusing for me that I have these students who pour through here. And I think, that’s how I began. Somebody brought me there and I stayed. I studied and I became fascinated. It’s a lifelong passion.”