Photography by Dori Fitzpatrick
Mary Birnbaum has been busy. Opera Saratoga’s new general and artistic director could have coasted for a bit after starting her role in March—after all, the season’s programming was mostly decided before she got here, a normal occurrence during a performing arts leadership turnover. The show, as they say, must go on—even while the country is scoured for that perfect new director. Instead, the tireless producer (she also serves as dramatic advisor to the Masters of Music and Graduate Diploma Program at NYC’s prestigious The Julliard School) hit the ground running.
Birnbaum’s mission: Bring her beloved opera to a whole new swath of art lovers, adventure seekers and well, anyone in Saratoga with a sense of humor or a certain joie de vivre.
“This season is about humanity and people’s foibles,” she says. “The characters are boisterous and funny. It’s necessary that there be people in the audience who are open to new experiences—the same crowd that would go out to an escape room on a Friday night or to a nightclub. Those are the people who we want to teach us what it means to enjoy something real versus being on your screen at home.”
It’s all so perfectly fitting for experience-driven Saratoga. To entice these folks to the theater, Birnbaum is turning every show into an event, via partnerships with beloved local businesses such as Saratoga Tea & Honey and First Fill Spirits—with the pre-party often serving as a hint as to what that evening’s opera is about. (For example: Before the July 7 showing of Don Pasquale, which Birnbaum lovingly calls a “rom-com” with a dose of old-fashioned catfishing, Saratoga Living will be doing a pre-show cocktail hour for singles.)
“It’s the power of the arts, and the power of the opera’s unique combination of music and theater,
that allows us to create community,” she says. “We want to bring unique events to Saratoga—events that make you feel like you belong.”
The season officially kicks off June 3 with its Stars of Tomorrow concert at the Spa Little Theater, which was the opera’s home until Covid. Opening night of its new UPH run is June 30, when the company will perform the musical A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. (For the full season schedule, see page 90.)
“We are thrilled to be moving downtown,” Birnbaum says. “We love the vibe of the space.” Of her innovative streak that is breathing new life into Opera Saratoga, she says, “There’s no way to survive if you’re not thinking, ‘How can we expand? How can we make something that really speaks to our moment now?’”