From its modest beginnings in 2005, when it took the stage after the demise of the Opera Festival of New Jersey, the Princeton Festival has come a long way. Beginning with two ticketed shows and five performances that year, the festival has grown to an extended run of nine ticketed events and more than 30 performances of work including opera, musical theater, and jazz and baroque music. The initial audience reach of 1,600 now has grown to 4,000.
This year’s offerings run from June 7 to 30 and include a modern operatic masterpiece (“Nixon in China”); a musical (“She Loves Me”); choral music by Bach and Vivaldi with Baroque orchestra; a jazz concert with the prophetically named vocalist Jazzmeia Horn; a piano recital by 2017 Van Cliburn Competition winner Rachel Cheung; and much more in an eclectic array of performers and places. For the full schedule visit princetonfestival.org.
Yet it’s also obvious that it could be much more than that. As festival board member Benedikt von Schroder, an angel investor and mentor to business start-ups, said at an arts roundtable in March, out-of-state visitors make up about 18 percent of the audience. “We’d like to see this be much higher. We would like to make it a truly Princeton event with other arts organizations here participating.”
“In the beginning people asked, ‘why are we getting involved with an Italian arts festival. What will it do for us?’”
Von Schroder, the incoming chairman of the Princeton Festival Board, was exposed to opera as a child in Hamburg, Germany. His mother took him to opera there, and — during vacations in Bavaria — would take him to the Salzburg Festival. “I always loved it,” he says. His family moved to Princeton in 2007 so that one of the kids could enroll at the Cambridge School. He commuted for five years between Princeton and Frankfurt, where his investment banking job was based, and finally moved here fulltime in 2012. He learned about the Princeton Festival when he happened upon the organization’s booth at Communiversity.
“There are already a lot of things going on with the festival,” von Schroder says. “We want to explore how to make it a bigger platform, with others contributing, as well. Our vision has Spoleto as a role model.”
He is referring to Spoleto USA in Charleston, South Carolina, which offers a dazzling array of events over a 17-day period. This year’s festival, which runs through June 9, is expected to attract around 80,000 people.
Notwithstanding the fact that Charleston’s population is 110,000, compared to Princeton’s 31,000, people here see some possibilities for a Spoleto USA North. To that end the Princeton Festival invited Joe Riley, the retired mayor of Charleston, to spend a few days in Princeton to share the secret sauce for a cultural program of that magnitude. It took some selling, Riley said. “In the beginning people asked why are we getting involved with an Italian arts festival. What will it do for us?”
But in the 1970s, Riley said, Charleston was “down at the heels. We believed the new festival would give us some energy.”
“We had to sell it,” Riley said. “The percentage of people interested in opera was very small” and some arts groups believed in the beginning that the new festival would siphon away money from them. “We did everything we could to make the festival appear to belong to everyone.” A fringe festival, with no-cost and low-cost events, was added to the program to get more kids involved. “We had events in churches, parks, on the steps to the Customs House, and other public spaces,” Riley says. “We wanted the community to feel that the festival is theirs.”
Spoleto USA North? It may sound far-fetched, but there are already some connections between the two towns. And Princeton, while smaller than Charleston, should keep in mind that smallness was one of the things that made Charleston attractive as a site for the festival in the first place. Spoleto USA was conceived as a counterpart to the Festival dei Due Mondi (The Festival of Two Worlds) in Spoleto, Italy, founded in 1958 by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Gian Carlo Menotti.
In 1977, when the Italian organizers searched for an American city that would offer the charm of Spoleto, Italy, and also its wealth of theaters, churches, and other performance spaces, they settled on Charleston. As Menotti said of Charleston at the time: “It’s intimate, so you can walk from one theater to the next. It has Old World charm in architecture and gardens. Yet it’s a community big enough to support the large number of visitors to the festival.”
Spoleto USA almost went under in 1993, when the composer and festival founder Gian Carlo Menotti fell into a dispute with festival officials. At that time Menotti decreed that anyone who continued to work with Spoleto in Charleston would not be invited to participate in the original Spoleto festival in Italy. Only one artistic leader challenged Menotti and chose Charleston over Italy. That was Joseph Flummerfeldt, conductor of the Westminster Choir in Princeton, who was director of choral activities for 37 years at Spoleto USA until retiring in 2013. As reported in the New York Times obituary after the death of Flummerfeldt at age 82 in March of this year, the decision to support the American festival was critical. “It is impossible to overemphasize how important that decision was to the preservation of Spoleto Festival U.S.A.,” Nigel Redden, the general director of the American festival, told the Times.
The Westminster-Charleston connection continues with the Westminster Choir, conducted by Joe Miller, performing on five occasions this year in Charleston through Friday, June 7.
Here in central New Jersey, the Princeton Festival already has stretched far beyond its “opera festival” origins by offering more than a dozen events in what it calls “education and community engagement.”
“We need to find ways to come together, to coordinate our calendars so that people can craft a whole package of events.”
For opera lovers and those seeking to learn more about opera there is a two-hour opera workshop scheduled at three different locations: Saturday, June 1, from 10 a.m. to noon at the Turning Point United Methodist Church, 15 South Broad Street, in Trenton; Tuesday, June 11, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Lawrence Branch of the Mercer County Library, 2751 Brunswick Pike; and Wednesday, June 12, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Princeton Public Library.
On Sunday, June 23, at 1:30 p.m. there is a backstage tour and discussion with the set designer at McCarter Theater, in advance of the 3 p.m. production of “Nixon in China.”
Stacy Wolf, professor of theater at Princeton and director of the university’s program in musical theater will speak on women in musical theater Tuesday, June 4, at 7 p.m. at the public library.
On Wednesday, June 12, at 7 p.m. at Mary Jacobs Library in Rocky Hill, John Burkhalter, an expert in early music, will discuss Chinese emperors’ fascination with Western music and musical instruments in the Baroque era. To pre-register go to PrincetonFestival.org or call 908-458-8430.
Stephen Allen, a music professor at Rider University, will discuss the music of John Adams’s opera “Nixon in China,” and the rich experience in sound it provides even though it is described as “minimalist.” Allen will speak Tuesday, June 11, at 7 p.m. at the Princeton Public Library.
Lecturer Marianne Grey, a docent at the Princeton University Art Museum, will speak on “Ping Pong Democracy,” the historical and social context of China, circa 1972, and the genesis of “Nixon in China,” on Thursday, June 13, at 7 p.m. at the Princeton Public Library and Thursday, June 20, at 7 p.m. at the Lawrence Library.
The Chinese poet Xue Di offers a multimedia bilingual poetry reading on Friday, June 21, at 7 p.m. at the Princeton Public Library.
For some theatrical nostalgia, “The Shop Around the Corner,” the movie starring Jimmy Stewart that was the basis for the musical, “She Loves Me,” will be screened Tuesday, June 25, at 7 p.m. at the Princeton Public Library.
When you think of a festival you think of a cluster of events that reverberate through the community. As von Schroder says, a festival should also attract visitors for more than one day. Events scheduled on a Tuesday and then a Friday and a Sunday do not encourage those overnight stays. “We need to find ways to come together, to coordinate our performing calendars with other organizations, so that people can craft a whole package of events,” he says.
Beyond coordinating calendars there is the more ambitious idea of artistic organizations collaborating on specific productions. It has been done. In 2016 the Princeton Festival and the Princeton Symphony Orchestra worked with the Garden Theater and Notre Dame University’s female vocal quartet to present the multimedia “Voices of Light” oratorio about Joan of Arc.
And beyond all the events there is the potential for serendipity. The people sitting next to you at Richardson Auditorium might show up later at a restaurant on Witherspoon Street. Princeton, like Charleston, has a concentration of big and small performing spaces within walking distance of each other:
McCarter (the big and small theaters), the new Lewis Center for the Arts, Richardson Hall, Taplin Auditorium, the theater at 185 Nassau Street, the Arts Council, Westminster Choir College, Nassau Presbyterian Church, and the community room at the Princeton Public Library, where, if weather cooperates, an event could also take place outdoors at Hinds Plaza. And if the town can handle an infusion of 25,000 visitors for Princeton Reunions it ought to be able to handle a smaller number for an arts festival (though another hotel at the site of the old Borough Hall — a project being given consideration — might be a welcome addition).
The other good news is that the Princeton Festival and McCarter are already coordinating their ticket sales through the McCarter box office. But what if — possibly a big if — all the arts organizations in town were able to coordinate their offerings and ticket sales. You might discover that Princeton is already well on its way to a month-long festival of artistic offering that might entice someone to come to town and even stay a few days — increasing the level of out-of-state visitors from its current level of 18 percent.
Imagine this: You take an old-fashioned print calendar, with enough space for each day to write in some reminders and upcoming events. You pencil in all the Princeton Festival events. Then you add in what’s happening elsewhere in town. Among the June events that could be overlaid on that calendar:
Jazz in June at McCarter: Friday, June 7, Grammy winner Cecile McLorin Salvant with Fred Hersch, piano; Saturday, June 8, Christian McBride & Tip City, with Emmet Cohen, piano, and Dan Wilson, guitar; Friday, June 14, Bill Frisell Trio with Tony Sherr, bass, and Kenny Wollensen, drums; Saturday, June 15, the Bill Charlap Trio with Peter Washington, bass, and Kenny Washington, drums; and Saturday, June 22, the Vijay Iyer Sextet, led by the Harvard professor and MacArthur Award winner Iyer.
Elsewhere around town you can pencil into your calendar the La Fiocco Period Instrument Ensemble at Christ Congregation on Saturday, June 1; LaShir, the Jewish Community Choir of Princeton at Hillman Hall on the Westminster Choir College campus Sunday, June 2; the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra at Richardson Auditorium on Friday, June 7; and the Kinnara Ensemble at All Saints’ Church on Sunday, June 8.
Also cabaret singer Katie Welsh performing the music of Richard Rodgers at the Arts Council of Princeton on Saturday, June 15.
The Princeton University Summer Chamber Concerts, which used to be about the only thing stirring in town after the university students cleared out on the first Tuesday of the month, returns for its 52nd season Thursday, June 20, at Richardson Auditorium, with the Horszowski Piano Trio, playing pieces by Franz Joseph Haydn, Robert Schumann, Dmitri Shostakovich; Thursday, June 27, with the PUBLIQuartet, performing music by Caroline Shaw (the Pulitzer Prize winning Princeton University music alumna), John Corigliano, Shelley Washington, and Dvorak.
Do not overlook an artist’s opening and reception on Saturday, June 1, at the Arts Council of Princeton. And the Princeton University Art Museum offers its gallery highlights tour Saturday and Sunday.
Travel a little farther afield to the Hopewell Theater, where Carbon Leaf presents rock, folk, Celtic, bluegrass, and Americana music on Thursday, June 6. Or spend an evening with Sarah Dash on Sunday, June 15, presenting a tribute to Aretha Franklin.
Add to all these the June events in Trenton: Jazz events at the Candlelight Lounge on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturday afternoons; the Capital Singers of Trenton presenting opera and musical theater at the Sacred Heart Church on Sunday, June 2; tours of the public art at the state capitol complex Friday afternoons throughout the month; and the Loeffler Trio at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church Thursday, June 6, at 12:15 p.m.
Imagine that: The opera crowd venturing forth from Princeton and ending up one Saturday afternoon at the Candlelight Lounge in Trenton (less than 12 miles and several light years from Nassau Street). That would not only be a festival; it would also be an adventure.
Impossible? Maybe, but as former Mayor Joe Riley says, “you have to sell it.”
Editor’s note: Richard K. Rein, the editorial director of Community News Service (publishers of the Princeton Echo), is retiring with this issue. He will continue his interest in — and writing about — urban and suburban planning through his involvement in the private nonprofit, Princeton Future, and through his research for a forthcoming biography of William H. Whyte.
Rein will share his work in progress through a forthcoming blog. For details on that send him an e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
For matters regarding the Princeton Echo e-mail editor Sara Hastings: email@example.com. “Working with the Princeton community,” Rein says, “has been occasionally challenging, often fun, and always stimulating. Thanks for that.”