Annual event in Watseka will have an all-American theme

WATSEKA — The 11th annual Sugar Creek Symphony & Song Festival this weekend in Watseka is going all-American.

The festival centerpiece will be the American opera, "Cold Sassy Tree," composed by Carlisle Floyd, who lives in Florida. This will be the Midwest premiere of the piece.

Floyd based it on the 1984 novel of the same title by Olive Ann Burns. "Cold Sassy Tree" is Floyd's 10th opera and his first comic one.

And on Sunday the festival closes with "American Tapestry: Scenes from Opera," featuring music from Floyd's "Of Mice and Men," Ricky Ian Gordon's "Grapes of Wrath" and other American operas.

Helen Todd, artistic director and co-founder of Sugar Creek, said she decided to go with American operas this summer so the musicians, singers and festival-goers experience the music in one language. It also helps unify the opera, which was all-Puccini last year.

She picked "Cold Sassy Tree" because though set in Georgia it reflects small-town life in the Midwest, or anywhere in America. "The opera has lots of religious themes, religious hymns and themes about small-town living, community and church," said Todd, who grew up in Watseka.

"I thought it was really relevant to central Illinois. As soon as the story starts it could be Watseka or Sheldon or Arthur."

Set around 1900, "Cold Sassy Tree" features accessible music and feels more like a musical than opera, Todd said. The three-act opera is sung through but with the singers sometimes speaking on pitch rather than full-voice singing.

"Then full singing will erupt out of a scene," Todd said.

A soprano, Todd stars as Love Simpson in "Cold Sassy Tree"; bass-baritone Kyle Albertson stars opposite her as Rucker Lattimore.

Albertson last year joined the roster at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and has sung at opera houses nationwide. Todd, who also has a professional career as an opera singer, attracts young singers and musicians from throughout the country to perform each summer in Sugar Creek.

About half of the orchestra members are from Champaign-Urbana. This year the Sugar Creek 35-member orchestra conductor is Joe Mechavich, who studied at the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music and the Yale University School of Music and has held a variety of positions with opera houses nationwide.

Todd recently received a 10-year service award from Opera America, a national service organization for opera, for her work with Sugar Creek Symphony & Song.

The festival this year began one week early, last Saturday, with a music fair that celebrated music of all genres. The festival continues this Saturday with a tour of historic Iroquois County churches, a wine tasting, and a presentation in the evening of "Cold Sassy Tree."

"American Tapestry" closes the festival on Sunday.

The schedule:

Saturday

— 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Bus tour of Iroquois County historic churches, with the bus leaving from Fourth and Cherry streets, Watseka.

— 4 to 6 p.m., wine tasting, Inside Out, Gilman.

— 7:30 p.m. "Cold Sassy Tree," Clifton Central High School Auditorium. Tickets range from $35 to $65, with students age 18 and younger paying $10.

Sunday

— 3 p.m. "American Tapestry: Scenes from Opera," Clifton Central auditorium. Tickets range from $35 to $65, with students age 18 and younger paying $10.

"American Tapestry" will feature singers from Sugar Creek's Danis Wilson Apprentice Program, a nationally recognized educational program for aspiring opera singers who have finished their formal education and are embarking upon professional careers.

For tickets, call 815-432-3830.

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