Punk Papageno in Wine Country

Aquilon Music Festival reinvents Mozart’s eternal opera

July’s three-week Aquilon Music Festival in Willamette Valley wine country debuted in summer 2018, and this year, concert-goers might have a better time pronouncing its French name. 

“AK–will-on,” explains Chelsea Janzen, who will sing Pamina in the festival’s centerpiece opera, The Magic Flute. She adds, tongue in cheek, that Baroque scholar Ian Pomeranz, an Aquilon young-artists’ workshop teacher, “would have a much more refined pinkie-up French pronunciation.”

Punk Papageno set design by Laurel Peterson for Aquilon Music Festival 2019.
Punk Papageno costume design by Laurel Peterson for Aquilon Music Festival 2019.

It was, until recently, an unfamiliar word to the Oregon arts scene. “Aquilon” roughly translates as “god of the northern wind,” and has a sensory connection to Alexander Pushkin’s 19th-century poem, “My Sister’s Vineyard.” The verse finishes with “as soon as the Aquilon blows, it brings with it” [rough translation] “the aromas of spices and exotic perfumes”—a heady thought. The name generates further power with its Northwest association and its connection to Aquilon director Anton Belov, 44, a Russian-born opera baritone who can stir up enthusiasm for just about anything musical.

“What we do is a miracle,” Belov said earlier this summer at Dundee’s bustling Red Hills Market, flashing phone photos of the outrageously colorful in-progress set of The Magic Flute that he and his teen-aged son, Andrew, had been working on the previous night. This time around, the festival’s opera will feature a limited orchestra and a full-blown set; last year it was more “guerilla opera,” he jokes, meaning bare-bones with small orchestra and minimal set. 

Chelsea Janzen at Black Walnut 6/20/2019
Soprano Chelsea Janzen in Dundee’s Black Walnut Vineyard, June 2019. Photo by Anton Belov.

About 700 people attended the festival in 2018 at wineries and at Linfield College, about an hour’s drive from Portland in McMinnville. This year, Belov hopes for 1,000 concertgoers as he watches music and culture gain momentum in wine country. “I want to go four weeks next year,” and he will—if he can get funding.

Aquilon students

Megan Uhrinak, 26, a festival singer who doubles as a visual designer and pitches in to help Aquilon efforts in any way she can, was a former student of Belov’s at Linfield College, where he is an associate music professor. She says that Belov and opera changed her life. She grew up in McMinnville, studied biology until she switched her studies to music, and fell hard for opera after working with Belov. “I found that I loved the way it felt to sing in this style, which is both athletic and full of emotion.” She has performed major roles in Portland State University productions, including the part of sourpuss Arminda in this spring’s well-received La Finta. She played the Countess in Aquilon’s Le Nozze de Figaro last summer.

Sandra Sharis and Megan Uhrinak in Le Nozze at Aquilon Music Festival 2018. Photo by John Pak.
Sandra Sharis and Megan Uhrinak in Le Nozze at Aquilon Music Festival 2018. Photo by John Pak.

Like Uhrinak, many of Aquilon’s workshoppers are PSU opera students or grads; some come from overseas or other parts of the United States (most young artists programs are on the East Coast). This year’s 39 opera students, ranging from ages 19 to 30, are on their way to professional careers—but they need a few credits on their resume, and Aquilon helps. Most students pay $2,000 for the summer workshop (there are some scholarships), and perform in festival events. Because of the higher enrollment the 39-student enrollment makes the program robust compared to similar young artist workshops

Aquilon is modeled loosely on the young performers’ Atlantic Music Festival at Colby College in Maine, where Belov taught for eight summers, three of which Uhrinak attended.

And why not in wine country?

When Belov was hired at Linfield College in 2011, he thought, why not opera here in wine country? And we can make it even better than East Coast programs, he figured. 

As a non-profit 501(c)(3) and not part of Linfield College—though the college offers use of facilities—Belov has drawn internationally prominent faculty, including 11-season Metropolitan Opera baritone Richard Zeller and conductor Barbara Day Turner, founder of the San Jose Chamber Orchestra and an advocate of new work, including commissioning work by Hyo-Shin Na and Pablo Furman. Students work with faculty during master classes and warm up with choreographer Alexis Silver in the morning, learning such Baroque dances as minuets and gigues.   

Students at Aquilon Music Festival 2018. Photo by John Pak.
Students at Aquilon Music Festival 2018. Photo by John Pak.

Such performances as the four-night run of The Magic Flute July 17-20 and a July 5 faculty recital will be at Linfield College, but the dozen or so other events are scattered throughout wineries in the Willamette Valley. Most participating wineries are able to host 60 to 100 people, while Linfield College’s Marshall Theatre seats 125.

Expect a feast of western opera, with familiar and little known pieces. Students and faculty will sing in such programs as “Summer in the Fjord: Songs of Norway and Scandinavia” 7:30 pm July 3 in Linfield College’s Delkin Recital Hall; “Banquet of Bacchus” at 5 pm July 7 at Youngberg Hill winery in McMinnville; “Paris to New York” at 6 pm July 13 at Stoller Family Estate; and “An Opera Picnic” at 2 pm July 14 at Carlton Cellars. A complete schedule is on the web site at aquilonmusicfestival.com.

None of the events costs more than $25, except the opera, which offers $25-$35 seats. In the spirit of wine country revelry, expect wine at all events and beer at some. McMinnville’s Heater Allen’s famous Pilsner will be available at The Magic Flute.

With low ticket prices, “the goal is to reach everyone,” says Belov, who adds that ticket sales cover about half of festival expenses (and Belov is hoping not to work for free as he did in 2018). “Psychologically people love a deal. Once we get them in their seats, we can ask for more money.”

More refined and updated opera

Though Aquilon performed two operas last year, including the little known comic opera La Chute de Phaeton, Belov has planned a more mainstream festival this season with W.A. Mozart’s beloved and much performed 1791 masterpiece, The Magic Flute. But it won’t be a traditional Flute. “We are completely reinterpreting.”

Racism (black-face in the role of Monostatos) and sexism (note the roles of male-oppressed Pamina and mean-spirited superficial queen) are dated and unsavory. You will see these roles changed. “In this #MeToo era,” Belov says, “those narratives don’t work.”

“We want a modern view of the classic,” said Janzen, who grew up in Oregon farm country and longed to sing opera and hear it live. Janzen found a way to the art, galloping on her horse across her family’s strawberry fields, singing arias from Met broadcasts. “We want to push hard to become 21st-century artists and still stay true to the spirit of the story.”

She is thrilled that others who know little about opera can be exposed to lots of it during the festival. “Have you ever heard the Queen of the Night aria sung in your face?”

If not, there’s a lot to look forward to.

Magic Flute set design by Robert Vaughn for Aquilon Music Festival 2019.
Magic Flute set design by Robert Vaughn for Aquilon Music Festival 2019.

The production’s whimsical costumes by Linfield College graduate Lauren Petersen and sets by fellow grad Robert Vaughn are eye-popping and colorful. Vaughn’s work has been recognized at the Kennedy Center/American College Theater Festival. The production is double-cast: two Papagenos, dressed in punk outfits, sung by German speakers Klemen Adamlje and Christian Andreas Adolph. Performed in German with English subtitles. For events, tickets, schedule and further information, see aquilonmusicfestival.org. 

Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes about the arts. She is a published poet and photographer and teaches creative and journalistic writing to Portland-area students. Her website is angelaallenwrites.com.

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