CHAUTAUQUA - Chautauqua Institution presents the first Amphitheater performance of the 2011 season, tonight, and for a great many people, that's very good news.
Thousands upon thousands of people from all over the globe are wending their way to the beautiful, leafy enclave near the north end of Lake Chautauqua, and soon the place will be alive for nine weeks, with singing, dancing, instrumental music, lectures, panel discussions, and much more.
Although events on the grounds are more expensive than the things we go to during the rest of the year in our area, they are much more reasonable in cost than they are in most of the rest of our country.
Chautauqua is a place where young people who love and thrive on education and culture, find themselves welcome and celebrated, rather than ridiculed and insulted.
All day and well into the evening, virtually every day until Aug. 28, when everything goes back into hibernation for the long, icy winter, our region will hear our culture celebrated, debated, decried, reinforced and examined.
Always, I am bombarded by readers who want suggestions of what to choose from Chautauqua's bountiful menu of events. My suggestion is always to choose the things which appeal to your own tastes, which fit into your own schedules, and then to choose something unusual for your experience, in the hope that your horizons can be expanded.
Somehow, that advice is never enough for some, so I always comb through the artistic announcements and offer my advice, always with the caution that what I want and need is not necessarily what you want and need. Still, let's look briefly at how to go to Chautauqua, because there are many folks in our area who have never been there, as hard as that is to imagine. Then we'll turn our gaze on the season to come:
The main grounds of Chautauqua are located between Route 394 and the shores of Lake Chautauqua, just a few miles southeast of Mayville. From Jamestown, you can get on I-86 and drive west, toward Erie. Immediately after crossing the Veterans' Bridge across Lake Chautauqua, exit on Route 394, turn right, and drive a few miles until you reach the Grounds. When you see beautiful golf fairways on your left, you're just about there.
From the northern part of the county reaching Route 394 can be accomplished by heading into Westfield on Route 20 from either direction. Where Route 394 intersects Route 20 in Westfield turn south at the light and follow Route 394 to Chautauqua.
Once you're there, you'll need additional time to get your ticket and to arrive at what you want to attend.
Driving along Route 394, you will see a long, red brick building which resembles a train station. That is Chautauqua's gate building Turn right, just before you come to the building and drive around to the side away from the highway. There is a parking lot with spaces granting you 30-minutes' free parking, while you go to the ticket windows and arrange for your tickets. If you have special needs, such as handicapped parking, you can arrange those, at the same place.
You can buy a ticket for an individual event or for a period of time, such as a weekend, a week, or the entire season. Whatever ticket you buy, be certain to keep it with you, as you must show it both to enter and to leave the grounds.
Chautauqua strives to be an auto-free environment. If you're going to attend a performance, you must continue around the gate building to the traffic light on Route 394. Drive straight across the highway and along the winding driveway to the gate. Pay the daily parking charge, and find an empty space. The spaces near Route 394 are usually filled with parked cars, meaning you will need to go some distance from the highway. There are a series of trams which bring parkers back to the highway, but my experience suggests that you count on walking, and if you get a lift, it's a plus.
Cross the highway, at the signal light, pass around or through the gate building, and show your ticket for computer scanning at the pedestrian gate. Morning lectures, symphonies, popular concerts and the like are presented in the Amphitheater. Ask when you get your ticket, where it will be presented, and how to get there.
Once inside, you can walk to your destination, or turn to your immediate right, where you will see a large bus shelter. Wait there and buses and trams make regular stops which will take you to all areas of the grounds. Ask the driver if he or she is going to your destination, before entering.
For most events, a valid ticket to the grounds will get you into your individual event, as well. Tickets are checked again at the entrances to the Amphitheater. Operas, plays, and a few other events require a separate ticket. Opera and play tickets will get you onto the grounds without additional charge, but not into the ampitheater. On Sundays, there is no admission charge to enter the grounds, and always there are some public performances as well as religious services.
The Institution offers a Family Entertainment Series on Tuesdays, which may be attended without charge. They begin June 29 and run through Aug. 16. Also, community appreciation nights allow those of us who go for a single performance at a time, to enjoy an Amphitheater performance for only $18. Check out the Institution's web site or get one of the printed calendars which are to be found all around our area, and take advantage of these. Some of them are especially attractive.
Most tickets allow you to arrive a bit early, to look around, shop, dine, etc. Most also allow you to stay after the specific event and do the same things. You can purchase tickets with your computer at www.ciweb.org, or you can phone 357-6250 for information or ticket purchases. Tickets for events which have not sold out can be purchased at the box office in the front gate building, before the performance.
Theater at Chautauqua was once the frail sister among the arts there. In recent years, the company has developed an energy which makes audiences feel welcome and very involved. A company of young professional actors, most of whom are university or post-graduate students of their art, work all summers with top directors, guest artists, technical experts and more, and audiences get to see the results. All is under the artistic direction of professionals Vivienne Benesch and Ethan McSweeny.
Plays are performed in the beautiful, new Bratton Family Theater, and are presented at various times of days. The company surrounds their audience with chances to attend demonstrations of stage combat, discussions with playwrights and actors, tours of the backstage facilities, and more.
The two professional productions this season will be ''Three Sisters,'' by Anton Chekhov, which will be performed July 6-17. and ''Love's Labour's Lost,'' by William Shakespeare, which can be seen Aug. 10-19.
Both can be expected to be full of youthful energy, and yet true to the classic brilliance of their heritage.
To me, the most interesting element of the company's season will be its New Play Festival, which will take place July 21 to 31. I guess that makes it my pick.
In past seasons, the company has invited playwrights who are still working on scripts, to bring their writing to Chautauqua, where the company provides a professional director and professional technical support, so that the writer can see his own ideas and hear his own words, spoken by experts.
As the season progresses, the playwright revises and adapts his or her writing daily, to make it more effective, and each performance is followed by a talk-back session, in which the audience gets to tell the writer and the play's company what they found most effective, what they found difficult to understand, etc. The actors usually hold their scripts as they perform, because their parts have changed so much and so often, but past experiences have shown that the new plays are usually involving and very entertaining.
This year, three new plays will be presented in this workshop form, and for the first time, they will be presented in repertory, meaning that their performances will be intermingled, so that it would be possible to see all three plays within a relatively short time.
This year's new plays begin with ''Curve,'' by Molly Smith Metzler. Audiences will remember that Metzler was the author of ''Close Up Space,'' which was one of last season's new plays. It is now scheduled for a run off-Broadway, this winter. ''Curve'' is a study of arts lovers' desires to own artists and works of art.
''Elijah'' by Michael Mitnick will be the second play of the festival. It is a tale of a poor music student from Brooklyn in the 1920s, who travels to Paris and finds he has been transformed into something of a Don Juan. Mitnick has written a number of plays, including one which is currently being performed at Second Stage, in New York City, this month.
The dark comedy ''build,'' by Michael Golamco, will be the third of the new plays. It imagines two Silicon Valley geniuses who recognize what they've lost by dedicating their life entirely to their work, and who try to apply their genius to getting their lives back.
Perhaps the biggest news of all is that the Chautauqua Theater Company has commissioned a new play by playwright Kate Fodor. She has had two plays presented in previous years' new play workshops. ''Ten Saints You Should Know'' was seen in the 2007 season, and went on to be performed Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons. ''Rx'' was workshopped in 2009 at Chautauqua, and is scheduled for an Off-Broadway run, during the current season. Both of her New York productions were directed by McSweeny.
Fodor will work for two weeks with the Chautauqua Writers Center, during the current season. In the 2012 season, she will return with the completed play, which will then be either produced in full or workshopped, according to how it has developed over the coming winter.
Whether you love what is distinguished and proven great, or you love what is new and happening, or you love both, it's going to be a great season in theater at Chautauqua.
An opera company is a rare, precious, and wonderful thing, and Chautauqua's company is one of the oldest in our country, with nearly 80 years of performing history. Jay Lesenger, a respected educator and director of operas, is Artistic Director.
For the second year, economic factors have resulted in a severe cutback of the opera season. Once the company gave eight productions per season, for a total of 16 performances. In recent years, it has been cut back to four, with only eight performances, and last year, it became a matter of hearing only three performances of two productions. One production is presented in only a single performance, but at least it is performed in the giant amphitheater.
Perhaps there are a few positive things about the reduction. It means the audience for the Amphitheater performance doesn't need to buy another ticket, in addition to their gate passes, as they do when the company performs in their usual home of Norton Hall. Because people with long term gate tickets tend to drop in on nearly every Amphitheater performance, to see if they'll like it, it gives greater exposure to the art form.
Norton Hall is one of the older buildings on the Grounds, and it has some negatives. It is virtually impossible to air condition. The orchestra pit is small and prevents many operas from being performed. The donors of the building made the legal condition that operas may be sung there only in English, which reduces the number of singers who will learn an entire opera in a language which they will probably not use anywhere else.
This year the giant performance will be Giuseppe Verdi's ''Luisa Miller,'' a grand tragedy about a nobleman whose son has fallen in love with a common woman, when the father is dead set upon forming a marriage alliance between the son and a noblewoman.
The opera has beautiful music, and I'm very much looking forward to hearing it, although it is perhaps a bit grim for an audience of summer vacationers. Experienced opera goers tend to be thrilled. Barbara Quintiliani, who has performed brilliantly at Chautauqua in previous seasons, will sing the title role. Hear it July 9.
The other offering is one of my very favorite operas: Mozart's ''The Magic Flute.'' The opera is filled with dragons and wicked queens and noble princes and slapstick humor, and its music is difficult even for the profoundly cool people to resist.
There are performances by the young singers from the company in the Amphitheater, with the CSO, and various cabaret performances by the singers in smaller venues on the grounds.
The voice students, who are not the opera company, under the direction of the magnificent Marlena Kleinman Malas, also perform around the grounds, although except for the July 18 performance with the Music School Festival Orchestra, the dates and times are rather difficult to find.
If you love the opera as much as I do, you'll want to go, even if you've heard it dozens of times, but the darker choice is my pick, because it is the more precious opportunity.