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Aquilon Music Festival returns with Ukrainian music, opera about immigration

The festival, which starts Thursday, includes musical chestnuts as well as concerts benefiting Ukrainian relief and “Ourland,” a modern, dystopian opera.

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Valentyn Lysenko will perform on the bandura, or Ukrainian harp, during the Aquilon Music Festival.
Valentyn Lysenko will perform on the bandura, or Ukrainian harp, during the Aquilon Music Festival.

More than 70 music students from around the country and the world hunkered down Sunday on the campus of Linfield University in McMinnville to prepare for the Aquilon Music Festival, which stages three weeks of opera and song in local venues.

The founder, Anton Belov, faces a unique set of expectations and circumstances, having knocked out two successful events before COVID shut down the entire affair in 2020. A few small events were held last summer at local wineries, “but nothing to write home about,” he said.

How does it feel to be back after a two-year hiatus?

“Mildly terrifying,” he said, laughing. “But it’s exciting! I mean, to finally see the students coming, to see my faculty again.” He paused. “But it’s nerve-wracking. For most people, it’s the first time performing on stage since the pandemic.”

Beginning Thursday evening, those stages — two in cities and three at rural wineries — will offer a mix of sampler concerts presenting scenes and music from famous operas (what Belov calls “chestnuts of the repertoire”), music by Ukrainian composers, and finally, a new opera that was poised for a 2020 debut but was shelved by COVID-19.

The Ukrainian music to be featured in concerts at Andante Vineyard and Lady Hill Winery is, of course, a direct response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Both are fundraisers for the nonprofit Leleka Foundation, whose focus is getting medical supplies to Ukraine.

Belov already has staged a couple of benefit concerts for Ukraine with the help of friends because the issue for him is personal. Born in Moscow into a family with Ukrainian Jewish roots that go back generations, Belov this year has watched footage of terrified civilians fleeing Russian tanks threatening Kharkiv, the city his mother fled as a 7-year-old with only a few hours’ notice before Nazis invaded in October 1941.

Aquilon Music Festival founder Anton Belov performs with pianist Wenwen Du during the 2018 festival’s faculty recital. Belov, whose family has Ukrainian roots, will perform at this year’s festival in two benefit concerts featuring Ukrainian music. “I want the American public to know that Ukrainian music is worth listening to,” he says. “It’s beautiful, beautiful music.”
Aquilon Music Festival founder Anton Belov performs with pianist Wenwen Du during the 2018 festival’s faculty recital. Belov, whose family has Ukrainian roots, will perform at this year’s festival in two benefit concerts featuring Ukrainian music. “I want the American public to know that Ukrainian music is worth listening to,” he says. “It’s beautiful, beautiful music.” Photo courtesy: Aquilon Music Festival

Beyond the humanitarian disaster raging now, Belov sees a cultural problem as well. Given that some benefit concerts for Ukraine have featured music from the western European repertoire, Belov takes pains to note that Ukraine also has a rich musical culture. If you’re going to rally behind Ukraine, he said, then listen to their music.

Along with Aquilon’s student performers, the Ukrainian concerts will feature Eric Alterman on cello, Matthew Fuller on violin, Asya Gulua and Crystal Zimmerman on piano, Valentyn Lysenko on bandura, with mezzo-soprano Charlene Chi and Belov, who sings baritone.

“I want the American public to know that Ukrainian music is worth listening to,” he said. “It’s beautiful, beautiful music. This is an issue of cultural hegemony that we need to address.”

Then there’s Ourland, the only full-length opera Aquilon will mount this year. The creative team has a high opera-world pedigree: The libretto is by Daniel Helfgot, the music is by Paul Davies, and Barbara Day Turner is on board as conductor. But it is a new opera, which means it is unfamiliar to both the performers and audiences.

“We’ve done The Marriage of Figaro, great,” Belov said, ticking off Aquilon’s first two years. “We did The Magic Flute, great.” Those are operas young performers chase so they can get iconic roles on their resumes. But come July 15 and 16, Aquilon will cap this year’s festival with a short opera about the “life and death consequences of bigotry, suspicion, resentment, and hate of the foreigner.”

“It’s a huge risk for a little company like us,” Belov said. “When we did our Mozart productions, we had so many people who wanted to come, people begging for tickets two weeks in advance. Now, for a modern opera? People don’t know what it is, so it’s difficult to promote.”

This is Helfgot’s second major libretto and an opportunity to collaborate with Davies, who wrote the music and libretto for the three-act opera Carlota, a production of which Helfgot directed. That work is set during a turbulent moment in Mexico’s history. Helfgot was inspired to write Ourland about four years ago when the Trump administration was stoking fears about immigrants coming over the Mexican-U.S. border.

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In 2019, the Aquilon Music Festival’s operatic performance was Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” This year’s opera is less light-hearted: “Ourland” is a dystopian tale about fear of immigrants. Offering a modern opera, is “a huge risk for a little company like us,” says festival founder Anton Belov.
In 2019, the Aquilon Music Festival’s operatic performance was Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” This year’s opera is less light-hearted: “Ourland” is a dystopian tale about fear of immigrants. Offering a modern opera, is “a huge risk for a little company like us,” says festival founder Anton Belov. Photo courtesy: Aquilon Music Festival

“I would think it’s even more relevant now,” said Helfgot, whose credits include more than 200 productions of more than 100 operas, operettas, and zarzuelas. “I don’t take full responsibility for it, I’m sorry to say. It’s almost as if history is writing my libretto.”

Helfgot and his cast of seven, along with a few smaller roles and an off-stage chorus, began rehearsal last week in Newberg High School’s auditorium. The 500-seat space is only 45 seats smaller than the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Bowmer Theatre and is, according to Belov, acoustically perfect.

“It’s gorgeous,” he said, calling up photos of the auditorium on his phone, as if it’s necessary to provide visual proof that a public high school in Newberg is worthy of an opera written by two world-class artists. “The acoustics are absolutely fabulous. I opened my mouth, and it was like, this is one of the best places I ever sang in.”

Ourland is an opera in 12 scenes set in a dystopian society that tackles immigration politics head-on. Helfgot estimates the English-language opera will run about an hour and 15 minutes with no intermission, and it is “not suitable for children,” according to the show notes. When I asked him about the challenges of mounting a new work as opposed to a famous opera known and loved by all, he was reflective.

“Well, you know, even The Barber of Seville was not well received when it premiered, and today it is probably one of the most popular operas. Even Carmen was a fiasco. So when you write something like this, you expose yourself to whatever the audience wants to say. And that’s part of the discourse. If I touch one individual sitting in the last row in the darkness of the theater, you know, mission accomplished.”

Tickets for Aquilon Music Festival concerts range from $15-35 and may be purchased online. For a complete schedule and more information, visit here.

David Bates is an award-winning Oregon journalist with more than 20 years as a newspaper editor and reporter in the Willamette Valley, covering virtually every topic imaginable and with a strong background in arts/culture journalism. He has lived in Yamhill County since 1996 and is currently a freelance writer whose clients have included the McMinnville News-RegisterOregon Wine Press, and Indulge, a food-oriented publication. He has a B.S. degree in journalism from the University of Oregon and a long history of involvement in the theater arts, acting and on occasion directing for Gallery Players of Oregon and other theaters in Oregon.

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