By Liz DiMarco Weinmann
Tawdry treachery! Dastardly deeds! Sinful sex! Unrequited love between distraught divas and vain villains! More melodramatic mayhem than in whole seasons of Law & Order and Lifetime Movies! Yes, please! More to the point, “Bravo!”
Growing up in an Italian household, I have been listening to opera since I was 5, but I had no idea what it was about, until decades later. Rest assured, this is nowhere near an opera review. Vermont’s authoritative arts reporters have already written glowing reviews of the performances at this rare jewel-box of a space in Brandon, now an official 501c3 nonprofit.
Rather, this is a “Bravo!” to Barn Opera’s visionary leader, Joshua Collier.
Through many performances since 2018, Collier has driven Barn Opera’s upward trajectory, boosting its production capabilities, audience experience, artistic vision and performer compensation.
A classically trained opera tenor, Collier, 35, has garnered accolades around the world for his magnificent voice. Five years ago, he made Vermont his home, bringing along his wife, parents and young daughter. That same year, Collier launched the “project” (his terminology) that ultimately became Barn Opera. Its first production — of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly — sold out in just three days, astounding skeptics who said Collier wouldn’t sell more than a handful of seats.
During a recent Zoom, Collier shared with me his perspectives on opera’s relevance in the 21st century and his vision for bringing opera to new audiences. He also shared insights about the inclusive leadership necessary to sustain a contemporary arts organization.
Even before one hears Collier speak — let alone sing — his cherubic countenance and beaming smile compel attention. He projects the animated magnetism one expects from an opera singer, coupled with the zeal of a brilliant scholar on a mission to enlighten the world about his favorite subject.
“If you love opera, you’re going to love what I ‘throw’ in the Barn,” Collier proclaims. “If you think you don’t love opera, then give me a chance because it’s not going to be what you’ve seen anywhere else.”
Collier is more than cognizant that many people have experienced opera only in large metropolitan venues, paying exorbitant prices for the privilege. It is that kind of elitist and outdated image that Collier is determined to dispel.
“Barn Opera is a cultural haven, a place to experience high quality performances, by diverse artists, and to provide conversation starters,” Collier said. “To be able to [explore] some problematic themes in opera through a 21st century lens, is why I think opera is still so important,” he added.
“Our intention is to provide casting and production opportunities to as many artists of every identity, nationality, and ethnicity, and enable Vermonters to experience culture outside their own,” Collier continued. “To do it in a non-traditional atmosphere, with non-traditional staging, is what makes it more accessible,” he explained.
Not only is Collier Barn Opera’s chief strategist, artistic director and enterprise leader, but he is also its most successful fundraiser — as conscientious about the organization’s finances as he is about the quality of Barn Opera’s performances.
In discussions with major donors, Collier cites the economic value Barn Opera creates in the Killington-Brandon region. For example: local restaurants that attract pre-opera patrons; innkeepers and small shops in Brandon and nearby; hosts who provide temporary housing for artists; and schools and colleges committed to expanding students’ appreciation for various art forms.
Collier himself has raised more than a half million dollars for his organization, most of that to purchase and completely refurbish the barn and accompanying property. He is equally masterful in engaging the support of expert volunteers.
One such volunteer, Tricia Welch, is now Barn Opera’s executive director, overseeing day-to-day operations.
In an email, Welch wrote, “We have worked hard over the last two years to find innovative ways to keep the music flowing and retain as many of our attendees as possible.” She added, “We have also learned how to be financially respectful in honoring our casts, and always trying to find new ways to fund our organization.”
For this past New Year’s Eve, my husband and I bought tickets to Barn Opera’s jubilant presentation of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance.” Due to various scheduling conflicts, it was only our first time there.
Our purchase included a generous buffet of Vermont comfort foods served in the barn’s beautiful foyer. Staffing the bar were the ebullient performers, including Collier. Costumed in their best pirate eveningwear, the cast merrily barked the requisite “Arrrggh!” as they served our drinks.
The 200-year-old beams and rafters inside the exquisitely refurbished but authentically rustic barn allow an unobstructed view of the stage from almost all of the venue’s lush (and very comfortable) seats. The show itself was magnificent because of the high quality of the artists’ performances — all of whom seemed to be loving every minute of the evening.
Next for Barn Opera is increasing its outreach to colleges, schools and other venues across the state. Performances at Castleton University’s Casella Theater netted Collier his current post as a voice instructor at CU, which he considers an honor as well as an invaluable opportunity to mentor the next generation.
Upcoming performances at Barn Opera include The Letters of Charlotte, tentatively scheduled for mid-February. It is described as a “…tremendously tragic love story…told through a series of letters and flashbacks…made even more powerful by passionate music.”
For that provocative promo alone, as well as the greater good Barn Opera generates throughout the region, I loudly repeat my “BRAVO!” — and urge all to see for themselves why Barn Opera is the epitome of the mandate that The Show Must Go On.
Any production there will fill your soul with such bliss and awe, that you too will stand up and cheer. No “inside voice,” uppity attitudes, or highfalutin expertise required.
For more information visit: barnopera.com
Liz DiMarco Weinmann, MBA, is principal/owner of Liz DiMarco Weinmann Consulting, L3C, in Rutland, serving charitable and educational institutions: LizDiMarcoWeinmann.com.