As a musician (I teach and play guitar in addition to writing for saratoga living) I often imagine what it would’ve been like to get to know a young Renée Fleming or Luciano Pavarotti before they became famous. Believe it or not, that opportunity is exactly what Opera Saratoga has been offering to households in and around Saratoga for more than fifty years now. Since the company’s very first summer season in 1962, back when it was the Lake George Opera in Glens Falls (the company moved to Spa Little Theater in 1998), Saratoga Opera has relied on the generosity of locals to host its many talented musicians and artists. Each summer, around 100 young singers, musicians, designers and technicians from around the country arrive in Saratoga to make the esteemed Opera Saratoga Summer Festival a reality. Many come just to have the rare chance to train and perform with the prestigious company. But as anyone who’s ever spent a summer in Saratoga knows, housing prices are through the roof then, especially for a hundred-plus individuals over a two-month stretch.
Opera Saratoga’s network of housing hosts make the company’s stellar productions a reality by bringing in dozens of professional artists and technicians to Saratoga each summer at virtually no cost to the opera company. “With the increased scope of the festival in Saratoga in recent years, and the expense of housing in Saratoga during the summer months, the need for host housing has increased considerably,” says Lawrence Edelson, Artistic and General Director of Opera Saratoga. The annual Summer Festival is Opera Saratoga’s main event, running two weeks usually in June and July and featuring performances of three to four phenomenal operas. That often includes a US or world premiere of an exciting new work. The 2019 Summer Festival schedule is emblematic of Opera Saratoga’s approach to classical programming under Edelson. It has a little of something traditional—Gaetano Donizetti’s French comedic masterwork, La Fille du Régiment (The Daughter of the Regiment)—and a little of something new—the 2019 world premiere of Ellen West by Ricky Ian Gordon and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Frank Bidart as well as a Manual Cinema’s re-inventive production of the classic Hansel and Gretel by Engelbert Humperdinck (an East Coast premiere). “We are incredibly grateful to everyone who opens their homes to our artists—we couldn’t produce the Summer Festival without their generosity,” Edelson says. “Housing hosts also have the opportunity, if they wish, to get a true insider’s look into the Festival by getting to know the artists who make the magic happen, and by gaining access to special behind-the-scenes opportunities.”
Though host houses aren’t required to provide meals for these gifted young performers, they do have to meet certain requirements (such as a private room and bathroom plus WiFi) and all are totally volunteer. If you’re wondering why someone would open up a room in their home for two months for free (especially in Saratoga during the summertime), it’s for a very simple reason: friendship. Many individuals and families become very close with the artists they share their homes with, forming friendships that last well beyond the summer season, even following these rising musicians as their careers unfold on the great stages across the globe. “I’ve learned a lot from the young people over the several years my husband and I have been involved,” says Susi Ritzenberg, who first became interested in hosting musicians through her husband, Ken, a board member of Opera Saratoga. “The young artists are very personable, genuine and open about their own backgrounds. They’ve fit very, very easily into the flow of our lives.” Over the past few years, the Ritzenbergs have hosted three artists, including a singer in his early 20s from Minnesota this past summer. So far, the Ritzenbergs tell me that they’ve had nothing but good experiences with their guests. “These young people work very hard all summer—they rehearse a lot,” Susi says. “It’s given me a real appreciation for the apprenticeship period for opera singers, which is intense and not highly remunerated.”
The housing hosts network hasn’t just helped form new friendships and experiences—it’s also created new opera fans. “Honestly, I have a music background—piano performance—but never liked opera,” says Cindy Spence who has served as a housing host on-and-off since 2015. “However, the programming of new works at the helm of Larry Edelson have me hooked now. And after you host an artist, it doubles the pleasure. You’re seeing one of your ‘kids’ on stage; there’s a wonderful connection there.” Spence recalls memories of dinner parties spent with other musicians or incredible impromptu concerts and rehearsals that broke out in her living room. “The friendships I’ve made through hosting has been the most rewarding experience,” Spence says. “They truly are family to me, and I can’t speak highly enough about the whole Opera Saratoga experience for me. It’s opened up a whole new world.”
It’s not just two months during the summer when Saratoga’s doors are opened to talented musicians working their way up in the opera world. Many homes have also hosted musicians for shorter stays—ten days or two weeks—in the spring and fall for presentations at senior centers, residencies and other special programming. And even though the 2019 Opera Saratoga Summer Festival doesn’t open for another seven months (it runs June 29-July 14 to be exact), Spence and Ritzenberg are already looking forward to it. As for whether they’ll be hosting some of the next batch of Opera Saratoga singers and musicians, both give me the same response: “Of course!”