It is the nature of the universe, as far as we understand it, that darkness far exceeds light, and light requires great energy to create and maintain. Thus, the powers of light need ever-vigilant stewardship to overcome the mysteries, chaos, and fear that darkness is inherently capable of invoking.
Contrasting, defining and explaining darkness versus light has been a theme of mankind ever since our ancestors used charcoal to draw pictures on the walls of caves. On Friday, the world premiere of the new opera “These Valleys and Mountains,” presented by the Berks Opera Company as part of a collaboration with the directors of the Reading Theater Project at the Miller Center for the Arts in Reading, most skillfully pitted these two elemental forces by presenting Mountain Mary Jungen as light and Matthias Schaumbacher as darkness.
One has a soul and spirit powered by light, while the other has a soul and spirit corrupted by the power of darkness. The contrast between the giver and the taker was most deftly evoked as the captivating original music and lyrics, created by Chris Heslop and Vicki Haller Graff, combined with a brilliant cast led by Joel Richard Gori, on a set which perfectly captured the mood of both light and dark. Kudos to the Miller Center team and lighting director Brett Buckwalter for the perfect lighting throughout the opera.
Knowing almost personally the two historical main characters of the opera, due to many years of research, visits to their tombs, their houses, their lands and their haunts, I wondered if these vestiges of history living Berks County could come to life in a way that was more authentic than predictable or campy. Do not worry. The set immediately transported the audience back in time, and the story unfolded with dignity, a lot of compassion and poise, and was as real as it gets.
Maria Damore breathed life into Mountain Mary and exuded a soul of light and love, while Connor McLaughlin as Schaumbacher, from his first moments on stage, with trembling arms and limbs, revealed a man tortured by darkness so black that his very essence had been infected and poisoned by it with no hope of redemption.
I enjoyed the entire cast as they took us through this folk tale of morality, consequence, light and dark. Thomas Killourhy, Emily Bryne, Mary Fetterman, Jennifer Laubach, Orin Strunk, Christopher Jon Hartung and Matt Mangus used the full range of their vocal instruments to infuse life, emotion, compassion, concern, joy, love, hope and fear into their roles. .
Lily Oglesby’s fluid portrayal of “Hawk” was particularly intriguing. Without words, Ogelsby’s dance and movements transported the audience through the forest, scene by scene, almost ubiquitous, sometimes a harbinger, sometimes a silent observer, always a gracious gift from Mother Nature herself.
With Francine Black on piano in the orchestra, assisted by her daughter Tamara Black, Robin Lilarose on flute, Julie Drey on clarinet and a very relevant and memorable bass clarinet, Jill Haley on oboe, Shari Gleason-Mayrhofer on horn, Valerie Trollinger on bassoon, Kevin MacConnell on bass, Robert Nowak on percussion and the incredible Brent Behrenshausen, also on percussion, the cast and audience were treated to a virtual who’s who of expert musicians from Berks County.
This set perfectly followed the direction of conductor Heslop, creating all the sonic touches of magic necessary to bring the opera to life and soar into a position of one of the most beautiful original and creative collaborations. Berks County has ever produced. The Heslop team, composer; Haller Graff, librettist; Gori, director; Tamara Black, production manager; James Damore, stage manager; Bradley Gale, set design and construction; Buckwalter, lighting design; Amy Mozingo, costume design; and Kathie Kustudich, props, created the perfect blend of visual imagery, musical storytelling, and historically accurate storytelling for “These Valleys and These Mountains.”
Funding to create the score was provided by the Reading Musical Foundation Outreach Committee over two years ago, and the end result was well worth it. I’ll expand on my thoughts here in an upcoming episode of my weekly column in the Reading Eagle newspaper, but until then, thank you all for once again showing the world what a creative and empowering place Berks County is. how wonderfully inspired and talented its musicians, poets and playwrights are. , actors, designers, directors and supporting crew are. Well done…well done!
Now that I’ve shared my feelings about this wonderful new local opera, I’d like to add that I’m a big proponent of finding, facilitating, and/or creating artistic collaborations between local arts and music organizations. I think collaborations are one of the best ways to nurture and grow our considerable local talent. To that end, I have been involved with the Reading Musical Foundation for over 37 years, and during that time we have raised and distributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund the growth, aspirations and education of hundreds of students. in Berks County Music. , teachers, professional musicians, as well as music and theater organizations.
At our outreach meetings, we discuss and create strategies to financially assist forward-thinking organizations that see the value of showcasing local musicians on a stage or forum equal to that of any major artist. We particularly value organizations that are led by board members who are responsive enough to realize that by supporting local talent and giving them the wings to fly at the highest possible level, not only they raise the stature of our entire community, but they also present themselves as more inclusive, rather than less exclusive, in the sense of artistic snobbery.
Having the business acumen to realize that their support of local talent also opens doors for a wider audience to come and experience what they stand for as an organization, enlightened groups in governance roles inherently know that supporting localism still plays well at the box office in terms of attendance, audience diversity, brand loyalty, and garnering new audience members, patrons, and a broader range of consumer demographics.
I have enjoyed interesting and successful collaborations and performances with The Ringgold Band, Reading Pops, Reading Philharmonic Orchestra, Berks Opera, Reading Symphony Orchestra and others. As former Chairman of the Board of the Reading Symphony Orchestra, I would like to state here that I would like to see the Orchestra, its current Board and staff seek out and develop as many local artist collaborations as possible. . The new opera I reviewed here could be extended to a full symphonic presentation.
I know Heslop has the talent to score it for full orchestra. Haley is recognized across the country for her original “Soundscapes” compositions, and she would make an ideal candidate for a collaboration with our Reading Symphony Orchestra. Believe me, funding for such collaborations that elevate our local songwriters can be secured by those wise enough to realize that our local audiences would appreciate and support the growth and ability of our Indigenous daughters and sons of music, of theater and the arts to bring the products of their creativity to the big stage in what is the biggest of the big league music in our community. I would love to see a continued showcase of these local collaborations throughout the City of Reading’s 275th anniversary celebration in 2023.
Dave Kline is an award-winning writer, photographer, host and producer, singer-songwriter, travel guide and community advocate. Contact him at [email protected]