Profile: Christopher Fecteau and dell'Arte Opera Ensemble

Christopher Fecteau is on a mission. By creating opera productions that ensure the intent of the music and libretto are clear, and by offering young singers training in music, theater, career building, and sometimes even life skills, he intends to keep opera relevant in today's world. He wants to keep opera alive.

Christopher Fecteau
Photo:  Brian Long Chris and his wife Karen Rich created dell'Arte Opera Ensemble in 2000 with ambitious goals in mind:
  • Helping singers bridge the gap between training and career
  • Nurturing singers and attracting new opera lovers
  • Building a foundation of musical and acting essentials
  • Providing world-class enrichment to singers and audience alike

Dell'Arte's official mission statement only hints at the effort required to raise the standard of opera productions and the skill levels of opera singers. The company focuses on giving young singers and other young artist professionals (pianists, conductors, stage directors, stage managers and designers) tools to create successful opera -- tools that enable them to create successful careers. The list of alumni, many of whom have become very successful, shows their approach is working. Some impressive names on that list include soprano Amanda Pabyan, baritone Kyle Pfortmiller (both Metropolitan Opera), and tenor Edwin Vega (English National Opera).

dell'Arte's 2014 The Fairy Queen
Photo:  Brian Long Dell'Arte's program is up to five months long, culminating in performances of three operas in repertory. A season usually has a theme, and often includes rarities alongside more familiar operas. In 2014 the theme was Shakespearean, and the operas presented were Purcell's
The Fairy Queen
, which was written as a masque to be interpolated between acts of
A Midsummer Night's Dream
(non-singing actors presented an abridged version of the Shakespeare play); Salieri's
; and Verdi's
. This year the company presents a season of operas based on Beaumarchais. Included are Paisiello's setting of
Il Barbiere di Siviglia
, Mozart's beloved
Le Nozze di Figaro
, and
, a 1978 Minnesota Opera commission by Hiram Titus. They will also present a Beaumarchais concert, "Les belles et les beaux", featuring excerpts of other settings of the Rosina/Figaro trilogy, including music of Rossini, Massenet, and Corigliano. Performances are August 14-30 at New York's Baruch Performing Arts Center. More information and tickets are available at the company's
Jennifer Townsend, Gary Ramsay, company

Salieri's Falstaff 

Photo: Richard Termine, NY Times Dell'Arte's first production in 2000 was an artfully staged and beautifully costumed version of Bellini's
I Capuleti e i Montecchi
, with piano accompaniment and integrated narration from Shakespeare's
Romeo and Juliet
. Later that year the ensemble offered
Ariadne auf Naxos
with a reduced orchestration created by Chris, the first of many such reductions. 2000 also was the beginning of a series of opera readings, allowing singers the opportunity to learn roles and perform them publicly in concert. In 2004 the series was formalized into the Summer Readings Project, concentrating all the work and performance into several weeks over the summer. In 2009 the series name was changed to the Standard Repertoire Project, while the same year also brought more fully-staged operas in the new Black Box series, which produced lesser known master works in smaller, "black box" theaters. The two combined series are now the single Summer Repertoire Project.

Just as impressive as these artistic achievements is the fiscal stability and growth the group has maintained. With consistent revenue and budget growth of 15% per year on average, dell'Arte now has the resources to hire a small number of employees and interns. One goal in coming years is to pay singers more, in order to attract those who might choose other programs for monetary reasons.

Other small opera companies in New York have similar stated missions, but few offer the depth of instruction or the variety and professional level of artist teachers dell'Arte offers. Chuck Hudson, renowned opera director and acting teacher associated with several well known young artist programs, spends a week working with the singers on acting technique. Lucy Yates, highly regarded diction coach on staff of The Caramoor Festival, teaches Italian. For last year's production of Purcell's The Fairy Queen, dell'Arte brought in director and dramaturg Kate Powers to teach the singers about Shakespeare's language and works, and Caroline Copland, Associate Director of New York Baroque Dance Co., to coach them in Baroque gesture.

Not only do singers gain a very deep understanding of the operas they're working on through this instruction, but stage directors, music directors and pianists, designers, and other people involved with the production do as well. Wherever possible, all those who are part of a production are starting out their careers. It is a rule to cast only singers who have not performed their roles before. If part of the process is learning how to learn a role, it is vital the role is completely new.

Language is of utmost importance. When singers study the language of an opera, it goes much deeper than conversational language skills. They study the language of the time the libretto and opera were created; they learn about the structure and syntax of the libretto, historical context, and connections to original source material, as well as poetic style; they become aware of multiple meanings behind the librettists' words, all of which would have been understood by the original audience.

In addition to "hard" skills (to borrow a phrase from the business world) of role preparation and performance practice, singers are also coached in "soft" skills. Although the company offers a workshop covering everything that happens in an audition before singing the first note, most soft skills coaching comes from teachable moments. Many involve behaviors that might never be mentioned by anyone, but which might stall a career by causing an opera company not to rehire a singer. Sometimes singers (or directors or conductors) might be advised to adjust their communication styles, or to leave personal troubles out of the rehearsal room. Singers sometimes need to learn how to receive and manage a director's or conductor's note. Some singers need coaching in social skills, for they might not realize it when they say or do something awkward or inappropriate.

The "whole is greater than the sum of its parts" formula of singers who are viscerally committed their roles, creative staging and production regardless of budget, and the immediacy of the performance itself create a very large impact on audience members. Karen and Chris have many stories of audience members who finally understand some element of an opera they've seen many times; of productions so simple they had only one prop, but which left the audience emotionally devastated; of audience members becoming major financial supporters because a single show had affected them very deeply. These are great indicators of success in dell'Arte's mission, and of keeping opera relevant and exciting in today's world.

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