CHAUTAUQUA - Tonight, for the first time in 2012, the stage of the Chautauqua Amphitheater will come alive with the first performance of the current season.
Throughout the next nine weeks, the Chautauqua Grounds will be packed with professional performances in a vast variety of genres, lectures from some of the most knowledgeable speakers in our nation - and our world - today, and beautifully showcased performances by highly accomplished students of virtually all the performing arts. I love sharing in the growth and development of young artists, don't you?
Each year, my spring is filled with phone calls and emails from readers who can only afford to attend a given number of performances, and who want my recommendations.
The Chautauqua Theater Company offers local audiences a chance to see both traditional hit performances and brand new productions which have been known to go on to professional staging in New York City.
I inevitably tell these nice folks that what thrills and delights me might not be what thrills and delights them, but a critic exists to express his opinions, so it would be unwise of me to be unwilling to share my thoughts. I hope I can introduce you to some new possibilities, and help to increase your enjoyment of the coming season.
Remember, Chautauqua is to local arts lovers what the Super Bowl and the World Series are to local sports lovers. We're entitled to our enthusiasms as much as anyone.
Last week, we wrote a column about how to visit the Shaw and Stratford festivals, relatively nearby, in Canada. Since then, demand for tickets has been so great that Stratford has added an additional two performances of Shakespeare's play ''Cymbeline.''
If you have a printed program, you can add the possibility of seeing the production on Sept. 8 or 29, in addition to all the ones listed. See the festival's website at www.stratfordfestival.ca, for more information.
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We recently announced that Shea's Performing Arts Center has taken over programming for the theater at 710 Main St., in Buffalo, which until recently was Studio Arena Theatre.
Two productions in that space have been announced for September of this year:
On Sept. 8, you could attend ''Seth's Broadway Chatterbox,'' a program about Broadway, by Sirius Radio personality Seth Rudetsky. On Sept. 21 and twice on Sept. 22, you could attend a one-man, personal memoir, performed by award-winning talent John Lithgow.
For more information about either production, visit Shea's web site at www.sheas.org/710Main.
Today at the 710 Main St. site, MusicalFare will be performing a 24-hour festival of music and theater. Drop by, if you have the chance, for as long as you can spare.
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MusicalFare, the skilled and gifted company which performs on the campus of Daemen College, in the Buffalo suburb of Amherst, will be performing regularly a historical drama about Western New York's history, through Sept. 9 at Canalside. I'm told that is the stretch of the Buffalo waterfront which is located at the foot of Main Street, where the Erie Canal once began, taking food and manufacturing from the entire Great Lakes basin across to the Hudson River, New York City and the world.
Also, through June 28, the company will be performing in their own facility, the Tribal Rock Musical ''Hair.'' If that information starts you humming ''Age of Aquarius,'' or one of the other standards from the show, you'll want to get up to Amherst to take in the performance.
I'm told the production involves some adult language and situations, but it does not include the famous nude scene, which made the show such a cultural pioneer 40 years ago.
Performances are Wednesdays through Saturdays, with tickets priced at $38. For complete information, go to their website at www.musicalfare.com, or phone them at 839-8540.
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Reserve by July 2, for a guided trolley tour of the site of the 1901 Pan American Exhibition in Buffalo. The actual tour will be July 7.
The tour lasts from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and it includes the graves of many of the active founders of the famed World Exposition, in Forest Lawn Cemetery, as well as the buildings from the event which are still standing and the site at which president William McKinley was assassinated, making his vice president, Theodore Roosevelt, the President of the U.S.
The tour also includes lunch at the Pan American Grill and Brewery, and a tour of the famed Lafayette Hotel, in which so much of Buffalo's history took place. Finally, visit ''The Spirit Still Lives,'' an interactive exhibit which relates the history of the famed exposition.
Space on the tour is limited. For further information, call the Buffalo Historical Society at 873-9644, ext. 301 or visit their website at www.buffalohistory.org.
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Squeaky Wheel, the organization founded to aid and advance the study of filmmaking in Western New York, is offering an internship for the coming summer for an energetic and self-actualizing individual who would like to learn how an arts organization works, and who can help them to conduct their many programs, classes and other events for fans of film and filmmaking.
If you're interested, email a resume and a letter which expresses why you want to do this internship to firstname.lastname@example.org. It looks as though it will involve a lot of hard work, but it could be a foot in the door for the right person with the right goals.
There are families who have been coming to Chautauqua, every summer for five, six or even more generations. As a result, they can develop a sense of ''Why don't you know where to park, or where to attend that performance or whatever? Everyone knows that.''
In fact, it can discourage some of our readers to attend events at the Institution, because they don't, in fact, know those things. If you're a regular and already know the basics, skip on down the column.
Chautauqua is a community which is surrounded by a wall. It's not always true, but in general, you pay to get in, and once you're in, you can go to almost everything that is being presented without additional cost. That isn't true for operas and theater performances, although if you buy a ticket to one of those, you can get into the Institution before those performances, and stay a while after they end.
In any event, when you buy a ticket to anything, hold carefully on to that ticket, because you will need to show it again, in order to leave. If you attend a lecture, a performance or whatever in the Amphitheater, you will probably also be expected to show your ticket again to get into there. Also remember, on Sundays, there is no gate fee to enter Chautauqua, although when they give you the free ticket to enter, hang onto that until you're back outside, as well.
In general, you drive to Chautauqua and go to the 30-minute, small parking lot, directly behind the Main Gate. That is the large red brick building which stretches along Route 394, between Stow and Mayville. Step inside the gate building and purchase or pick up your tickets to whatever you're planning to attend. Then, get back into your car and drive across Route 394, with the help of the traffic light at the gate. On the other side, you will be in a driveway which leads to the main parking lot.
Pay the parking fee - generally it's a daily charge, unless you're planning to stay for a week or longer. The charge is $7.75 per day, up to $180 for the entire nine-week season. Find a vacant parking place in the huge, grassy lot. If you end up far from Route 394, you can probably catch a free ride down to the highway on one of the many trams which circulate through the lot. If you need handicapped parking, you can arrange that inside the gate building while you're picking up your tickets.
Cross Route 394 at the traffic light, pass through the gate building, and show your pass at the actual gate, which is just inside. When you enter that gate, look immediately to your right, and you will see a large bus stop, where you can catch for free, either a bus or a tram to almost anywhere on the grounds where you wish to go. Don't just get aboard one of them; ask where that particular vehicle will go. On the other hand, if you walk comfortably, I strongly recommend walking to your destination. There is little auto traffic, and the streets are leafy and pleasant and are surrounded by colorful architecture.
Morning lectures, Sunday church services, symphony concerts, ballet performances, one of the season's two opera productions and popular entertainers are all to be found in the Amphitheater. Walk straight away from the gate until you come to the central green, which is called Bestor Plaza. Cross the green, turn right on the other side, and you'll go straight to the Amp.
Theatrical performances are given in the Bratton Family Theater. To get there, walk away from the gate until you come to the green. This time, stay on the near edge of the plaza, turn left, and follow Pratt Avenue, until you come to the theater on your left.
The remaining opera production will be in Norton Hall. It is located directly beside the Bratton Theater, and it's painted a rather gaudy pink color. It's hard to miss.
For the Chautauqua cinema, continue on Pratt past Norton Hall, and you'll see the cinema on your left, up a few stairs.
That should get you started. If you need anything else, ask somebody.
Nearly every weekday morning at 10:40 a.m., there are high-quality lectures in the Amphitheater. Many are political, journalistic or other areas of interest not pertinent to an arts column. My recommendations in this area would be in the first week of the season.
Look for Norman Lear, creator of the classic television comedy ''All in the Family,'' and a large number of other such hits on Monday.
Catch cartoonist and playwright Jules Feiffer on Tuesday morning.
Check whether her hills are still alive with the sound of music when Dame Julie Andrews and her daughter, Emma Hamilton talk about the children's books they have authored on Friday.
The Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra performs almost every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday of the season, beginning July 2.
The trend, in recent years, has been to hire extremely talented soloists and guest conductors, but few - if any - celebrity names. The orchestra is currently without a regular music director.
My recommendation would begin with any of the dance programs. They are usually excellent, and are scattered through the season, beginning Thursday, although that first performance will be with recorded music, because it happens before the CSO's season begins.
If you like Broadway music, consider attending the July 3 concert, which features Western New York native and Broadway star Michelle Ragusa.
Lovers of thrilling piano music will want to attend July 26 and/or 28, when brilliant soloist Alexander Gavrylyuk will be at the keyboard.
Those who are familiar with the National Public Radio series ''From the Top,'' which features performances by students - often rather young students - who perform brilliantly, will want to attend a taping of the series on July 20.
There are a number of performances featuring the opera apprentices and studio artists from the Chautauqua Opera Company, or the music students from Marlena Malas's excellent program. They're scattered throughout the season and are likely to be outstanding.
It's hard to go wrong with any of the concerts. Those are to my tastes.
Lovers of actual, performed operas, not just people singing various arias and choruses will find that the season is still limited to only two choices. At least, they're very good ones.
July 7, in the Amphitheater, see and hear Donizetti's classic ''Lucia di Lammermoor. Much of the music is familiar, all of it is gorgeous, and the story is typical gooey opera about a woman who is forced to marry against her will who determines to murder her new husband on their wedding night.
The other choice will be July 27 and 30, when ''Manon Lescaut'' holds the boards. The opera is by Puccini and was written immediately before his biggest hit, ''La Boheme,'' so if you love his gorgeous melodies, it's a good choice. The story, about an innocent young girl who falls in love at first sight and ends up unhappily, was cobbled together from the work of five different librettists.
Knowing Chautauqua Opera's director, Jay Lesenger, and knowing his capacity to make even unlikely stories seem reasonable and wonderfully touching on the stage, I suspect it will be good.
Mostly because I've seen and heard''Lucia'' so many times and I've only attended ''Manon Lescaut'' once, I'm going to pick it, but there are great things to be said about both choices.
Chautauqua's Theater Company has developed into a major element in the Institution's programming. Their performances are not just ''more of the same thing.''
As a result, you take a bit of a chance in attending, but the vast majority of those gambles are rewarded with first rate performances - things you may be talking about for weeks after you attend.
Right off the top, I have to recommend the annual New Play Workshops. These are partial stagings of newly written plays whose authors want to hear the words they have until then only seen in writing, to see people move through the actions they have described, and to get a sense of whether an audience will appreciate the elements of the plays they've written.
By partial stagings, I mean that there are just approximate ideas of sets and costumes, and the actors usually perform with their scripts in their hands, because after each performance, they and the playwright and the director all sit down with the audience and discuss what succeeded and what didn't work as well about the performance, so that the next evening the actors may have all kinds of new lines and stage business to perform.
So far, three plays from these workshops have progressed on to be produced off-Broadway in New York City, and I would be surprised if there aren't more which are about to make the transition.
The two workshops in this season will be July 12 to 14, and Aug. 2 to 4.
A world premiere on the Bratton Family Theater stage will take place July 20 through 29, when the company performs ''Fifty Ways,'' a play which the company has commissioned from playwright Kate Fodor who wrote two of the three plays which went on to full professional productions. I'm told that the title comes from the Paul Simon hit song about ''Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover.''
The rest of the season will be a big American classic comedy, ''Philadelphia Story,'' June 29 through July 8, and ''As You Like It,'' by a guy named Shakespeare. Both should be good.
My pick would be the new things because my soul hungers for new theater, but as I said, you'd have a hard time going wrong with any of the performances.
Most of all the season's offerings of popular acts perform during the first and last weeks of the season and on Friday evenings. Obviously, they are a matter of personal taste.
My choices would start with Straight No Chaser, which is a singing group that will perform Aug. 24. If you're not familiar with their work, take your computer to the YouTube site and type the group's name into the search engine. They give thrilling performances.
On August 10, k.d. lang and the sis boom bang will perform. No, the shift key hasn't broken on my computer. They don't use capitals.
Lang is a singer who can give you a thrill or break your heart, and I always delight in her work.
Other great possibilities include the Righteous Brothers on June 29; Peter and Paul, celebrating their 50th anniversary of performing together on July 27, despite the death of Mary; The Temptations on Aug. 3; Vince Gill on Aug. 17; or The Lettermen on Aug. 23. There are many more, as well.
In addition to all this, there are classes, workshops, public readings, lectures in addition to the morning ones described above, and a vast number of cultural opportunities. The visual arts have new display spaces and are often stunning.
We're an arts column, but I have to at least mention religious services and lectures, recreational opportunities including beaches, tennis courts, a 36-hole golf course and much more.
These are my opinions, for what they're worth. Ticket prices and parking at Chautauqua are costly by Chautauqua County standards, but are major bargains compared to New York City, Toronto, or even Buffalo or Cleveland. The top opera ticket price is $52, and prices extend down to $15. Play tickets are $30, with a $15 price tag on the new play workshops.
I don't see symphony tickets on the Institution's website, but evening gate passes are $40, which I believe is the symphony's cost. This year, tickets to see the popular performers also cost $40. If there are any premium ticket prices, I don't see that in any of the material I have gathered.
If you haven't been to Chautauqua for several years, you may be quite surprised by what they're presenting now. It's not our fathers' Chautauqua, but it could easily be ours.