Glimmerglass director Francesca Zambello speaks on the eve of its release

When Francesca Zambello leaves her post as General and Artistic Director of the Glimmerglass Festival at the end of August, she will still retain ties to the region, including a partnership in a property development she started in early 2020. project, an energy-efficient apartment building of 13 newly constructed units in the heart of Cooperstown, slated to open in the fall.

“Housing is a problem in this region and I have always been painfully aware of the economic problems in the region. I wanted to provide more housing because housing brings people here and creates other businesses,” says Zambello.

Our interview took place before a matinee last month as she sat at one of her favorite picnic tables on the festival grounds. While Zambello will continue as artistic director of the Washington National Opera, she admitted it feels good to step away, at least a little, from nonprofit work.

His real estate company is called Zaed Properties, a contraction of his last name and that of his business partner Joshua Edmunds, who runs his own construction company. Their new building, Chestnut Crossing, attracted 60 applicants. Their second project, already underway, involves historic preservation in the town of Richfield Springs, where they are converting a former bank into 10 lofts. A third project, also in Cooperstown, is already on the drawing board.

Real estate may seem like an unexpected avenue for Zambello, 65, born in New York, raised in Europe and speaking five languages. But multitasking is an essential skill for an opera director and Zambello was one of international renown for several decades before taking the reins of Glimmerglass 12 years ago. His tenure has been filled with new initiatives and new partnerships.

But there’s more than real estate deals keeping Zambello in Otsego County. She and his wife, Faith E. Gay, plan to keep their home in Cooperstown. “We’ve been involved here, we love this place and have lots of friends who have nothing to do with opera,” says Zambello. The couple also have residences in Washington and New York and their teenage son Jackson attends the Dalton School in New York.

Gay, a litigator in her own firm in Manhattan, is also credited with forging new directions and assuming leadership in the community. A few years ago, she set up a legal clinic, primarily for DACA children, at First Presbyterian Church in Cooperstown, where the couple are members. While continuing to practice law, Gay earned his master’s degree in theology from Yale University — “for fun,” as Zambello puts it.

Once COVID set in, their church was left without a minister and newly ordained Reverend Gay became acting pastor for 14 months. “I was the pastor’s wife,” recalls Zambello. Gay is also a licensed pilot and according to Zambello, she is starting a small “flight business” with other pilots in Saratoga Springs. “They’ve purchased planes and will be doing tailor-made trips, dropping people off in the Adirondacks and various locations,” Zambello says.

When asked to reflect on his work with Glimmerglass, Zambello does not recall any memorable performances or special guest artists. As in past conversations, she quietly diverts the discussion from the opera to the people and the community: “I’ve always said we’re here to create a bridge, we’re here to create a dialogue. We create shows for people to talk about and talk about ideas, whether it’s serious or you reduce it to entertainment. I have always said that we are a service industry.

Zambello’s first priority at Glimmerglass was to create the atmosphere of the festival, conveying the message that there is more than just opera. She explains, “You can’t sell opera. You have to sell the experience. You come here, meet your friends, have a picnic, read the program and listen to a lecture. It’s about experience. People don’t mean we’re going to ‘Tosca’ tonight. I want them to say they’re going to the Glimmerglass Festival.

His second agenda was to make the organization more connected to the community and more socially responsible. Establishing the youth opera program was a big step towards the former, while the latter manifested itself most obviously in bringing music to Attica Prison and performing works like ‘Blue », the opera commissioned from 2019 on black youth.

As for bringing diversity to the large team of artists, apprentices, technicians and administrators that make up the company, Zambello says that goes without saying. But apparently she said some things when she arrived. “That first season, I said to the man who ran the young artist programs, the company is very white and very masculine and we’re going to change that quickly. We did that and still a third of the young artists represent that which we now call BIPOC. Among the production teams, there is diversity, gender diversity, everything. That was very important.”

COVID, of course, has thwarted the best-laid plans. This year’s season finally saw the long-planned production of “The Sound of Music,” which was originally scheduled for 2020, when no performance took place. Last summer, the company offered a handful of modest productions on a newly constructed outdoor stage. In an impressive technological feat, the singers were backed by an orchestra performing some distance away on the stage of the Alice Busch Opera Theatre.

If Zambello wasn’t already considered a heroine, pulling off “Glimmerglass on the Grass” certainly earned her the accolade of many. But then again, she prefers to talk about people than shows. Looking back to 2020, she says, “We paid everyone who would have worked here, including apprentices. Everybody. I’m very proud of it.

Still, COVID lingers and ticket sales have been slow to recover. Admission revenue was 40% of normal in 2021, Zambello said, although the novelty of the outdoor scene attracted a number of first-time visitors. For this season, sales are around 60-65% of pre-pandemic numbers, although Zambello gave that estimate during our interview at the start of week three of the seven-week season.

“People don’t go out,” she said. “Last weekend we had four performances of ‘The Sound of Music’ and if it was 2019 they would have sold out. When I think back to ‘West Side Story’, ‘Porgy and Bess’ and ‘Showboat all of these shows sold out 12 to 14 performances.”

Nonetheless, Zambello says the company is in good shape, artistically strong with a budget in the dark, which should reassure his successor, Robert Ainsley. “He’s handed a good situation,” she said. This was not the case when Zambello took over from Michael MacLeod at the end of the 2010 season.

“When I came here it wasn’t a great place,” Zambello recalls. “I was at a point where I wanted to change careers and I had been offered to run a lot of companies. I received an unannounced call from the president at the time, whom I knew. And I thought that was exactly what I wanted, because it’s not just the festival but it’s the young artists and apprentices and the creation of the next generation. That’s why I immediately said yes. It was a very quick thing. They fired Michael and hired me within a week. For my first season in 2011, he had done nothing. He was gone and left the place rudderless, so I had to start from scratch.

While there hasn’t been a major announcement of the 2023 season (the kind of rollout that includes the names of the main singers, bandleaders and directors), the basics are listed on the back of this year’s schedule. . The festival will run from July 7 to August. 20 and have four operas: “Candide” by Bernstein, “La Bohème” by Puccini, “Rinaldo” by Handel and “Romeo and Juliet” by Gounod. It’s been a fairly conservative season, at least by recent standards. At the request of the board, the list was decided by Zambello with input from Ainsley, who is finishing his tenure at Washington National Opera where he directed the Cafritz Young Artists Program and the American Opera Initiative.

Asked if she offered advice to Ainsley, Zambello said: “A lot of it is pragmatic about budget and timing. The bottom line, and it’s all on this page, is to build community through art. He did a lot in Washington. And I think he has to find his own voice.

Ainsley is already on the scene. He was spotted at a recent performance and is apparently aware that Zambello is leaving some big shoes to fill. During intermission, he was heard introducing himself to a few people saying, “I’m the new Francesca.”

joseph Dalton is a freelance writer based in Troy.

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