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Chautauqua Institution packed with entertainment

June 14, 2008
CHAUTAUQUA — Anyone who doesn’t believe in magic might want to take a short drive out Route 394 next Saturday to see Chautauqua Institution spring to life for the 2008 season.

As it always does, Chautauqua will unite the traditional things we have known and loved for well over a century, with brand new information, challenges, suggestions and delights.

There are new buildings on the grounds, in among the venerable Amphitheater, Norton Hall and the majestic Hotel Athenaeum. The flowers are planted, the schedule is announced, and thousands upon thousands of people have their plane tickets purchased, their GPS systems programmed, and their thousands of pennies plucked from their mattresses and ready to purchase the gasoline for this year’s visits to the institution.

Each year, dozens of readers stop me in person, phone or e-mail to request advice on what they should plan to see. Each year, I’m happy to give my personal choices, but I always say that you need to apply your own tastes to what is offered and decide for yourself.

Still, a critic without an opinion is in the wrong line of work, so here I am, offering my opinions, accompanied by my perpetual suggestion that you consider them with a generous helping of salt.

Some general information

As with every institution and every individual who has ever lived, Chautauqua has experienced periods of greatness and periods of relative withdrawal. I often hear people say they haven’t been to the institution for 20 years, then complain about the quality of the performances.

Things have changed. The quality of the programming has grown by leaps and bounds, and if we support it, it can continue to grow.

Chautauqua is a gated community. Automobile traffic is severely limited, which makes for cleaner air, safer walking and bicycling, less noise and a host of similar benefits. In normal circumstances, visitors planning to attend Chautauqua’s performances, lectures, etc., should park in the huge lot, directly across Route 394 from the main gate.

They then should walk or ride one of the free, circulating trams, from their car to the traffic signal on the main highway, cross the highway, and enter the gate building. There you can purchase tickets to anything which isn’t already sold out.

Once inside the gate, you can walk to the appropriate theater or lecture hall along quiet, leafy streets, or if you turn sharply to your right, once through the gate, you will see a covered bus stop, at which you can get free transport within the institution.

There was a time, not as far in the past as it may seem, when visitors were greeted by employees who reacted with disdain to questions about where Bill Cosby would be performing, or where one went to hear the opera, and there was once a major flap about whether Chautauqua would ever accept credit cards. Those kinds of problems are ancient history.

To enter, you need either a gate ticket or a ticket to the opera or the theater company. You need to show that ticket three times: to enter, to get into the appropriate performance space, and to leave the grounds.

When people come to live for periods of time at Chautauqua, by far the most common error is that they try to attend everything offered on the program, only to find themselves stretched too thin and exhausted. It is important to sample from the program, like a box of fine chocolates, rather than an eat-it-all approach.

In all this space, it is impossible to cover all areas of the institution’s nine-week season. I’ll try to cover the main areas. If you have a different question, phone me or send an e-mail to


Each weekday morning, from 10:45 a.m. until noon, the giant 5,000-seat (plus) Amphitheater is the site for an informative lecture delivered by experts in a wide variety of fields. The lectures in a particular week highlight different views of the same theme.

Some of the lecturers are internationally known, while others are knowledgeable, but not focused in the spotlight of the national media. The Chautauqua lecture audience is extremely well-informed and far more varied than many local folks seem to understand.

Next week’s lectures deal with varying aspects of Sports in America. My choices from the five interesting offerings would be Thursday’s speaker, CBS News President Sean McManus, or Friday’s Roger Goodell, commissioner of the National Football League. You might note that McManus recently lost his father: famed sports broadcaster Jim McKay.

Between June 30 and July 4, lectures will deal with restoring lost faith in our electoral system. My suggestion for those who can’t do it all would be Wednesday’s speaker, former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young.

From July 7 to the 11 is the most exciting week for an arts columnist. The lectures that week include famed essayist Roger Rosenblatt and deal with writing. Hear former U.S. Poet Laureate Gary Dorrien on Monday, novelist E.L. Doctorow on Tuesday, author and boxing expert Joyce Carol Oates on Wednesday, novelist Amy Tan on Thursday, and ‘‘Doonesbury’’ creator Garry Trudeau on Friday.

How could anyone choose only one of those folks?

July 14 to 18 will bring lectures on the ethical elements of science. My interest runs to Friday’s Marc Hauser, co-director of the Mind, Brain, and Behavior Program at Harvard University.

July 21 to 25, hear lectures on American foreign policy. I’m especially anticipating Monday’s lecture by former United Nations undersecretary Shashi Tharoor.

Information on Healing the Globe will be offered July 28 through Aug. 1. My nod goes to Monday’s speaker, Stephen Lewis, former U.N. special envoy for HIV in Africa.

Save some time from Aug. 4 to 8 for lectures on faith in public life. My pick would be Rabbi David Saperstein, who will speak on Wednesday.

Aug. 11 to 15, the Amphitheater will be alive with discussions regarding the critical inter-relationship between food and politics. Watch for Tim Zagat, of the famed Zagat Guides, on Wednesday.

The final week’s lectures are on the impact of Darwin and Linnaeus. It’s a tough choice, but I incline toward Friday’s presentation by Mattias Klum, of the National Geographic film ‘‘The Linnaeus Expedition.


Directed by the very talented Jay Lesenger, the Chautauqua Opera Company is one of the oldest in this country. Performances are in Norton Hall and are always in English, regardless of the language in which they were written. The company will offer four operas, most of which will be performed on a Friday and the subsequent Monday.

The one exception to that long-standing rule will be the first offering of the season: Mozart’s ‘‘Cosi fan Tutte.’’ Since it’s normal Friday would be July 4 and audience members might be distracted by fireworks, flares and family picnics, it will be performed Thursday, July 3 and the subsequent Monday.

July 18 and 21, hear Czech composer Leos Janacek’s beautiful but rarely performed ‘‘The Cunning Little Vixen.’’ The characters of the opera are costumed as animals. A vixen is a female fox, if you didn’t know.

Aug. 1 and 4, hear Giuseppe Verdi’s beloved classic ‘‘La Traviata,’’ the tale of a courtesan who loves her man too much for her own good.

Aug. 15 and 18, hear the gritty, dramatic ‘‘Street Scene,’’ the creation of a brilliant trio. Kurt Weill composed the music, Langston Hughes wrote the lyrics and it’s all based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Elmer Rice.

I would hate to have to choose only one of these sparklers, because I know and love them all, but if you held me to it, it would be the Janacek work, which I have heard in recordings but never seen performed live.

You might note that the film department of the Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Library System has acquired at least one DVD recording of each of the four. The modernistic recording of ‘‘Traviata’’ was especially thrilling.


The Chautauqua Theatre Company is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. This has inspired a number of phone calls and e-mails to our column, because people remember theater performances at Chautauqua from far longer than 25 years ago. A quick reminder that for more than 50 years, plays were performed at Chautauqua by the Cleveland Play House’s professional company. There followed a period of confusion and presentations of varying quality, and then the Juilliard School’s celebrated Acting Company was in residence for several years. Finally Chautauqua formed its own, home-based performing company.

The company will offer three full productions of plays which will mingle top-quality professional actors with the invariably gifted young actors who study at Chautauqua. By ‘‘young,’’ I mean late college and graduate students in some of the finest acting programs in the nation.

The program is currently under the joint direction of Ethan McSweeny, one of the most celebrated young directors in the world today, and Vivienne Benesch, a greatly praised actress with a gift for finding the perfect truth in even a marginally written role.

Internationally celebrated actors Stuart Margolin and Amy Van Nostrand will start the season with one of the greatest plays ever written in this country: Arthur Miller’s ‘‘Death of a Salesman.’’ See it June 28 through July 6.

July 19 to 27, see Benesch repeat a role she once played at Chautauqua 10 years ago, in Craig Lucas’s ‘‘Reckless.’’ It’s a story of a wealthy suburban housewife who wakes on a winter’s night to the realization that her husband has hired a hit man to put her away, and he’s just broken in downstairs.

Aug. 9 through 16, watch the genius of Shakespeare blend the worlds of history, magic and blue collar workers in ‘‘Midsummer Night’s Dream.’’

For the past several years, the company has given staged readings of plays by new playwrights, which involve the theme of the lectures for the week in which they are offered.

This year, catch ‘‘Variations on a Theme’’ by Anna Ziegler on July 10 to 12 and ‘‘Sick,’’ by Zayd Dohrn, July 31 to Aug. 2. The staged readings always sell out and have long lines of people waiting in the hope that someone who bought a ticket will fail to show up for some reason.

A special treat this year will be the performance on June 24 of ‘‘Every Good Boy Deserves Favor,’’ written by Tom Stoppard with music by Andre Previn. All other productions will be performed in the beautiful — and air conditioned — Bratton Theatre. This celebration of the company’s anniversary will be performed in the giant Amphitheater, jointly with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra.

I want to see them all, but the combination of Arthur Miller and Stuart Margolin shines out for me above all the rest.

Curtain times include both evening and afternoon performances.

In the Amphitheater

The Chautauqua Amphitheater offers some large entertainment every night of the week but Sunday.

Typically, the first and final weeks of a season are filled with special performances by brought-in professionals, from The New Christy Minstrals to a Frank Sinatra stylist to the comedy of Bill Cosby. The other seven weeks feature a fairly dependable schedule of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday nights, and a major popular guest, such as Wynonna Judd on July 18, Kenny Loggins on July 25, and Vince Gill on Aug. 22.

Mondays and Wednesdays range from the institution’s younger symphony, the very talented Music School Festival Orchestra, through performances of Chautauqua’s brilliant dance company, under the direction of the internationally celebrated Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, to a team of acrobats, a big band ball, a humorous look at today’s remarkable political situation by television celebrity (and Jamestown native) Mark Russell, to the haunting sounds of ‘‘Four Celtic Women.’’

The CSO will be under the baton of their new music director, Stefan Sanderling, plus the occasional guest conductor, and will give performances ranging from popular ‘‘pops’’ concerts to serious readings of the finest of classical compositions, mixed with some contemporary creations.

Any time the orchestra performs with the dance company is a good reason to be in the audience, in my estimation.

The July 12 concert, featuring pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk, will almost certainly be a stand-out, as will the performance with pianist Sara Buechner on July 26. The performance given each year with young singers from the opera company are favorites with many of our readers. Hear them this year on July 19.

Guest conductors this year include local favorite Grant Cooper and Buffalo Philharmonic Music Director JoAnn Falletta.

And, so ...

As I always do at this time of year, I find myself standing at the gates of Chautauqua, crying ‘‘I want it all,’’ like a character in the old ‘‘Dynasty’’ television series. It’s going to be a rich and exciting season. I hope to see you on the grounds, many times in coming weeks.

Article Photos

Submitted photo
This will be Stefan Sanderling's first year as music director of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra.



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