Fifty-something Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes was, by all accounts, an abject failure when he published the first part of what would become his epic two-part novel, Don Quixote, in 1605, following it up with a sequel a decade later. The novel caught on like wildfire, and though Cervantes died in 1616, just a year after he completed the story, Don Quixote has lived on for centuries, reimagined through countless authors, philosophers, visual artists, composers, librettists, choreographers and filmmakers.
Indeed, Cervantes’ timeless story of the knight who sees the world not as it is, but as it ought to be, has inspired all of the productions set for Opera Saratoga’s 60th anniversary season. This June and July, the company will stage the Tony Award–winning musical Man of La Mancha alongside the Baroque comic serenata Don Quichotte at Camacho’s Wedding; as well as an operatic mixtape of sorts, Quixotic Opera, featuring a concert of scenes from several different adaptations of the classic novel.
Why has the story of Don Quixote proven to be such an inspiration for artists throughout the centuries? “It’s a really adaptable book, because it’s so expansive,” says Grace Burton, Associate Professor of Spanish at Skidmore College, who also spent two years as the chair of the theater department. “You can pick out little pieces and work with them.” Burton likens the book to a tapestry, each thread of which is a separate storyline or character study that artists throughout history have expanded on in their own unique way. There’s also the plot’s own dichotomy: one part telling the tale of Don Quixote, the man and knight-errant, and the other, the story of the book itself. In other words, Cervantes delves into the metafictional, coaxing his reader into believing that the story of Don Quixote had, in fact, existed beforehand and was just being retold or translated for a modern audience. “What Cervantes was doing was developing what we understand now as ‘the novel,’” explains Burton. “Think about what ‘novel’ means: It just means ‘new.’ Cervantes was developing a new art form on the basis of old ones, in this case epics.”
It’s the strands of the greater tapestry that have taken on a life of their own, having been adapted into novel ideas, whether they be by Mark Twain in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) or screenwriter Alexander Payne in the movie Sideways (2004). Kicking off Opera Saratoga’s summer season will be one of the most famous adaptations, Man of La Mancha, a musical that first debuted on Broadway in 1965 and went on to win five Tony awards, including Best Musical. (It has also been revived multiple times.) Opera Saratoga’s new production features Broadway and opera star Zachary James in the title role; and Kelly Glyptis, an accomplished alumna of the company’s Young Artist program, in the role of Aldonza. The musical, which is only loosely based on Don Quixote—and actually includes its author as one of the lead characters, who, while awaiting trial in prison during the Spanish Inquisition, stages a version of Don Quixote with his fellow prisoners—is about “reusing or remaking the mind,” says Burton. “It’s about a new imagination that emerges that nobody can imprison.”
Also on Opera Saratoga’s programming slate is the one-act opera, Don Quichotte at Camacho’s Wedding, based on a specific moment in book two of Cervantes’ original, the one published just before the author’s death. It has a familiar theme: A girl is engaged to marry a rich boy, but she’s actually in love with a poor one instead. The Quixote-esque arc begins when the poor boy interrupts the wedding in dramatic fashion.
Additionally, the company will stage a concert of scenes from several other Quixote-inspired operas, including moments from Don Quichotte chez la Duchesse (1743) by Joseph Bodin de Boismortier and Charles Simon Favart; Die Hochzeit des Camacho (1827) by Felix Mendelssohn and Friedrich Voigts; Il furioso all’isola di San Domingo (1833) by Gaetano Donizetti and Jacopo Ferretti; Don Quixote (1898) by Wilhelm Kienzl; La Venta de Don Quijote (1902) by Ruperto Chapí and Carlos Fernandez Shaw; Don Quichotte (1910) by Jules Massenet and Henri Caïn; and El retablo de maese Pedro (1923) by Manuel de Falla.
In these nearly-post-pandemic times—the ones on the cusp of being between insanity and normalcy—Don Quixote has taken on an even newer hue. “As we considered how to best return to the stage this summer, I found myself repeatedly drawn to works inspired by Don Quixote,” explains Opera Saratoga’s Artistic and General Director, Lawrence Edelson. “I think we’ve all needed to channel some of the famous knight-errant’s idealism and extreme optimism—and to dream impossible dreams in the face of unprecedented challenges.” We cannot wait to join Opera Saratoga for some exhilarating and inspiring adventures.