The Cornish Colony Reborn
Inspired by the past, Opera North’s new venture at Blow-Me-Down Farm hopes to breathe new artistic life into the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site.
In the summer of 1905, Augustus Saint-Gaudens was slowly dying of intestinal cancer. For the past 20 years, the premier sculptor in the United States had spent part of almost every year in Cornish, New Hampshire, and he had recently decided to settle there year-round and close his other studios. His estate centered on a then-100-year-old converted country inn. Aspet, he had dubbed it, after his father’s hometown in France. Thanks to Saint-Gaudens, Cornish had become a magnet for some of the most celebrated artists of turn-of-the-century America.
Saint-Gaudens’ home stood over a great lawn that swept downhill to the west, affording an unobstructed view across the Connecticut River to Vermont’s Mount Ascutney. On a June afternoon, not long before sunset, a large group of the famous sculptor’s neighbors gathered at the bottom of the green, where they hoped to boost the sunken spirits of their friend, who, in addition to being ill, had lost the larger of his two Cornish studios to fire the preceding fall.
But the occasion was about more than just Saint-Gaudens. In a sense, they were celebrating a flourishing communion of the arts that had followed him here. This marriage of artists and place was known as the Cornish Colony, and among the “colonists” gathered that evening were some of the most talented creative minds in the country, including Maxfield Parrish, Kenyon Cox and the popular novelist Winston Churchill. A large cast of amateur actors was in costume, and a small orchestra of professionals, under the baton of Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor and composer Arthur Whiting, hid in the woods.
Everything was set for the unfolding of a masque, an ephemeral stage play that would go down in the annals of American art. Masques were a popular Renaissance entertainment that underwent a revival around this time, when a late-Romantic taste for quasi-medieval simplicity had yet to fade from fashion in America. The art form had its origins in Italy and, before that, was loosely inspired by the theatre of classical Greece, where music, art and poetry came together into something like what 19th-century Europeans called “a total work of art.” Music historians link Renaissance masques to the origins of opera at the end of the 16th century.
Masques in the Renaissance (several examples occur parenthetically in the plays of Shakespeare) were often given by surprise to celebrate some important personage, and in their heyday they were among the highest art forms, calling upon the talents of the best poets, artist and musicians society had to offer. If ever there was a place in the New World where sufficient talent and the right kind of sensibility to casually put on a masque could be found, Cornish in 1905 was the place.
“A Masque of ‘Ours’: The Gods and the Golden Bowl” was a short affair, but complete with curtained stage, incidental music, a few special effects, an altar and performers in Greek garb. The plot was simple, and sickeningly sycophantic by today’s standards. Jupiter, king of the gods, gathers all the gods together to announce his retirement and desire for a worthy successor. Unable to choose one himself, he calls upon Minerva to decide for him. To do so, Minerva consults a prophetic golden bowl on the altar. Looking into the steaming bowl, she finds her answer and, accordingly, carries the bowl into the audience, placing it in the hands of a touched Saint-Gaudens — the new lord of the pantheon. The action was planned so that the sun would spill its last rays over the shoulder of Ascutney at the moment of the masque’s climax, filling the valley of the Connecticut with its golden light.
Behind the scene of the Saint-Gaudens masque, down the hill and through the trees, was a stream that flowed swiftly toward the Connecticut. By one account, its burbling could be heard among the notes of the orchestra that evening. The stream quickly joins a larger one with a curious name, Blow-Me-Down Brook, first noted by a party of surveyors under the leadership of Col. Joseph Blanchard in the 1750s. No one has ever been able to explain satisfactorily how it got its name. A few hundred yards farther west, where the brook exits the woods to laze through the flood plain of the big river, there was a luxuriant farm whose name was borrowed from the water that coursed through it.
It was at Blow-Me-Down Farm that a New York lawyer and art lover named Charles Beaman made his summer residence. Beaman, whose wife’s family were large landholders from the Vermont side of the river, bought up hundreds of acres of disused farmland in Cornish and Plainfield and encouraged New York artist friends, beginning with Saint-Gaudens in 1885, to come and drink at the fountain. A year later, painter Thomas Wilmer Dewing and his wife Maria Oakey Dewing, a writer and painter, moved to the neighborhood, and in the decade that followed there were enough of the city artists around for locals to start talking about Little New York. But Blow-Me-Down Farm was the hub, with spokes radiating into the hills of Windsor, Cornish and Plainfield. The Colony’s fervid period ended at about the time of the World War I, although its first iteration can be said to have persisted in some form until the death of Maxfield Parrish in 1966.
In 2010, ownership of Blow-Me-Down Farm, after years of changing hands, was transferred to the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, which has long been the only Colony property open for regular visitation by the public (and will probably soon be redesignated a National Historic Park, if a pair of uncontroversial bills now in Congress are enacted). The Beaman farm represents an added puzzle piece that will help the Park Service to better tell the story of how the Cornish Colony came to be.
It was in consideration of this history that the Park Service subsequently set its sights on the goal of making Blow-Me-Down into a “National Park for the Arts” and opened its ears for suggestions as to what such a park might look like. Lebanon-based Opera North recognized an opportunity, put together a proposal, and in 2016 received a tentative go-ahead to use Blow-Me-Down Farm as a venue for opera, musical theatre and other performances. As of 2018, the opera company has secured a 30-year lease on what remains of the Beaman buildings, as well as seed money from the Northern Border Regional Commission to launch an initial phase of building restorations. Saint-Gaudens will be the first arts park in the region.
Last summer I had an opportunity to attend Opera North’s production of Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann” in Lebanon. As someone whose livelihood depends on keeping abreast of what’s happening in New Hampshire, I had of course heard of Opera North, but I had never paid it much attention. This was probably because for many years I had lived outside Milan with my Italian wife who is a bona fide opera appassionata. I’ve surely been to more operas at La Scala than almost anyone else in my humble tax bracket. In short, although I was far from a connoisseur myself, I had managed to become a snob, assuming that the only music New Hampshire could do really well was raucous contra-dance stuff.
“Have you ever been to an Opera North Production?” a woman turned to me and asked, when I had sat down.
“No, I haven’t,” I said.“I saw ‘The Barber of Seville’ yesterday,” she said. “Now I’m back. It was better than good. It was great.”
The woman didn’t seem like a philistine, and her wording — the “better than good” qualifying the merely formulaic “great” — opened my mind to the possibility that I might be in for something more than I was expecting.
As it turned out, every aspect of the production over which the company had any control was deftly executed. The sets and the choreography neither pretended to anything grander than they should have, nor trembled under the grandness of the music. The singers were technically and expressively solid, inspiring real delight as well, and the orchestra commanded its score (which could not be said of a classical music production I had recently attended elsewhere in the state, where the strings players scratched feebly at their instruments and the singers exhibited an equally unsteady hold over their vocal cords). A few of the more energetic arias, such as “Allons! Courage et confiance,” were too big for the confines of the Opera House. They seemed to want to push out the walls and drive up the ceiling — or, perhaps, to blow down the house altogether. “Blow-Me-Down, Blow-Me-Down,” I thought to myself, putting new meaning to the words. I closed my eyes, imagined away the theater and floated off on the notes.
Pageantry finds a natural home in the valley between Cornish and Windsor. Last summer, warm sunlight once again spilled over the shoulder of Ascutney onto a scene not so different from that of the Saint-Gaudens masque — perhaps only a little more inclusive than the Edwardian fête of 100 and more years ago. Opera North was in town, with a jumble of circus performers, and show tunes and opera arias filled a big top as acrobats twirled through the air and bounded across the stage. [Learn more Opera North’s Blow-Me-Down Farm performances.] This peculiar fusion may be the secret to breathing new life into an old tradition of artistic collaboration in Cornish. Four sold-out shows of rapt and delighted faces were a promising start.
Opera North itself may have seemed a stretch when it began in the 1980s under the guidance of unflagging Artistic Director Louis Burkot, professor of music at Dartmouth College (whose original mandate was to bring culture into the wilderness). The idea of bringing an expensive, logistically complex, metropolitan art form to rural New Hampshire and expecting to find a public 35 years ago was bold. But, judging by its popularity with locals and summer visitors, it has worked. The key to the company’s success has probably been its positioning of itself as a pastoral enterprise: Like most opera festivals, Opera North is essentially a summer project; it’s not meant to be compared with the weighty fall-to-spring seasons put on by big-city operas or symphonies.
The company’s mission of breeding young talent fits with this model. “We have a resident artist program, where we have a core company of people who audition all around the country,” General Director Evans Haile told me on a visit to Cornish last November. “We will have six or seven hundred people audition for 15 slots. Then we also have our stars who come in for the major roles. Our creative teams are made up of major Broadway designers and major Broadway directors who come and work with us.” The orchestra draws on talent from throughout New England.
One thing Opera North has lacked is a sense of belonging to a specific place. During the past two summers, it has put on a number of highly successful trial shows, of roughly 400 spectators each, at Blow-Me-Down. Exactly what shape the long-term future will take is not clear. What is clear is that this idyllic spot is wonderfully suited to the company’s encompassing vision of the performing arts. The vision, Haile wants to be clear, is not to exclude other venues.
“In many ways this becomes our sandbox,” Haile says. He explains that last summer’s collaboration among circus artists, singers and orchestra in a mash-up of performance and music drew in a lot of people who were probably daunted by opera or would have expected to find it boring. He also observes that the Upper Valley has a population of cultured people who love being outdoors. What musical theatre and opera at Blow-Me-Down Farm offer this demographic is a double dose of satisfaction. For those to whom it might never have occurred to go and see an opera, just being in a magical outdoor setting with other people having a good time might wake a dormant interest.
“I have always loved how the arts connect with each other and by connecting with each other how the arts support each other,” Haile says. He emphasizes that, just as the Cornish Colony was about more than Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the collaboration between the Park Service and Opera North is about more than Opera North. The company’s scene shop, Opera North Scenic, where sets have been created for the past three years, is one example of how the arts can strengthen each other and carve out a visible space in the surrounding community. The company decided to open the shop in an old mill building in Windsor, Vermont, Haile explains, “because we believe that the arts are an important part of the economic vibrancy of the area.” The original plan was to build sets for just Opera North productions, but it soon became apparent there was a market for other projects. Their sets now end up in a range of local performances and even in productions as far away as Maine and New York City.
What Blow-Me-Down Farm gives Opera North is room to develop, in scale and quality, and room to explore. This coming summer, two separate programs are planned for the Blow-Me-Down stage. Back by popular demand will be another collaboration with the circus, this time a presentation of great American music called “Hoedown at Blow-Me-Down,” featuring works of Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Copland. Then comes a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance,” a good starting place for anyone new to the opera. In August, back at the Opera House in Lebanon, which Haile assures me is still very much part of the company’s smörgåsbord, more devoted opera lovers will find Verdi’s “Macbeth.” Finally, the program will expand into the fall, as it did this past year, with what Haile calls a “socially-relevant” production, “Glory Denied,” an opera of the Vietnam War.
A hundred and thirty-five years ago, Charles Beaman provided the fuel for an artistic explosion, and in Saint-Gaudens he found a spark. The beauty that Beaman and Saint-Gaudens saw is still here, as is the core of Beaman’s infrastructure. Could Opera North be the new torchbearer, bringing its own hybrid brand of creativity to this reach of the Upper Valley and encouraging a concentric wave of artistic activity?
When I talked to Evans Haile at the Lebanon Opera House last summer, he ventured that Blow-Me-Down Farm might someday rival Tanglewood or the Santa Fe Opera. “They also began with tents,” he said. Had I never been to Cornish, I would have scoffed. Festival enthusiasts think of these venues as preternaturally felicitous places, possessing some inimitable quality that enables nature and art to converge in ways they simply cannot elsewhere.
But a visit to Blow-Me-Down on a sunny day is enough to lay to rest any doubt about the place’s physical requisites. Ascutney still looms over a languorous bend in the river, which slides under the singularly picturesque Cornish-Windsor covered bridge a few hundred yards downstream. Meadow and field sprawl across the intervale until they reach a grassy slope that rises to a lawn, elevated enough to give a commanding view of the valley’s sweep. Across the lawn are scattered the buildings of the farm.
As for the Muse, well, she’s haunted Cornish since long before Tanglewood was a thought, or New Mexico a state. So why not?