Culture central: Ash Lawn operas spice up summer
Ash Lawn-Highland, the estate of James Monroe, has a long history of encouraging cultural development. In 1793, Thomas Jefferson coaxed Monroe to purchase the land adjoining Monticello to form "a society to our taste" in rural Albemarle County.
Nearly two centuries later, the property was bequeathed to the College of William and Mary, Monroe's alma mater, with instructions to operate it as a historic shrine for the education of the public. Today Ash Lawn-Highland hosts 100,000 American and foreign visitors each year.
Now in its 25th season, the Ash-Lawn Opera Festival has become the backbone of the property's educational and artistic offerings. Expanded from three evenings of lectures and one-act operas in 1978 to nine weeks of full-length operas and musical theater productions, lectures, Music at Twilight (classical, folk, and contemporary music), and Summer Saturdays (family entertainment), the Festival continues to grow in popularity and stature within the opera world. It ranks as one of the world's "top 20" warm-weather outdoor opera festivals, according to Money Magazine.
Elizabethean and Restoration drama devotee Emmett Boaz was an early patron of Ash Lawn’s summer music offerings. “I went up there the first three seasons because they were doing the Beggar’s Opera, and that’s exactly to my taste,” he says, adding, “The only thing wrong with the performance is somebody needs to gag those peacocks.”
The 2003 Summer Season includes two well-known pieces as centerpieces, Mozart's The Magic Flute and the American classic, South Pacific, by Rodgers and Hammerstein. The former features a wicked queen, a ponderous priest, a courageous hero, his beautiful beloved, and the most comical couple in all of opera– the birdseller Papageno and his Papagena, disguised as an ugly crone.
These memorable characters added to the mix of unforgettable melodies have the makings of a perfect musical outing for a summer evening.
South Pacific is one of the best-known and best-loved American musicals. Set on a dreamy Polynesian island during World War II, the stories of the forbidden love of two couples inspired Rodgers and Hammerstein to pen some of their most memorable tunes: "Some Enchanted Evening," "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair," "Bali Ha'i," and "Happy Talk."
Add to these two productions a weekly series of concerts– the "Music at Twilight" performances– and the children's shows on Saturday mornings, and you'll see that the Ash Lawn Opera Festival provides plenty of opportunities for summer entertainment. Even more delicious: You can arrive early with your picnic basket and have dinner on the lovely grounds of the estate before the evening shows begin; the gates open at 6pm.
Throughout its history, the cultural mission envisioned by Monroe has remained unchanged: to enhance the region’s and nation’s vitality and quality of life. The Ash Lawn Opera Festival is doing its part. Take a trip over to Ash Lawn-Highland this summer; the peacocks that grace the grounds will welcome you, and so will the folks who make the Festival a continuing reason why summer in Charlottesville can be such a pleasure.
Visit the Festival website for a calendar of specific performance dates and times: ashlawnopera.org. Ash Lawn-Highland is located at 1941 James Monroe Parkway, near Monticello. Tickets for the shows run $5-24. 293-4500.