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Q & A with Robert Ainsley, new Artistic and General Director of the Glimmerglass Festival

Credit...Arielle Doneson

Robert Ainsley talks of butterflies and La Boheme

Rob Ainsley acknowledges that he has big shoes to fill.

Over the past decade, his predecessor, Glimmerglass General Director Francesca Zambello, transformed the Central New York music site from a niche opera lovers’ destination to a diverse and varied festival offering musicals, lectures, and children’s productions as well as operas.

But Ainsley’s experience has prepared him to get Glimmerglass back to pre-pandemic footing. An alum of the Young Artist Development Program at the Metropolitan Opera, he co-founded another festival, prepared choruses at the English National Opera, taught, and taken on leadership roles across the United States. In Washington, D.C. Ainsley looks to the future, seeking out and grooming young American singers, composers, and librettists for international careers.

Now, as the new Artistic and General Director of the Glimmerglass Festival, he wears fanaticism for the arts on his sleeve.

Brenda Tremblay

WXXI’s Brenda Tremblay sat down with him at the festival site in Cooperstown.

You studied piano at the Mannes College of Music at Cambridge. How did you get into opera?

I quickly realized that unless you've been playing piano since you were two, you don't end up on a concert stage playing concertos. So I approached the director of opera at Mannes, Joseph Colaneri, marched up to him and said, "Is there anything I can do for you?" and he said, "Well, why don't you play La Boheme?" He taught me every note of the orchestral score over the course of about three months.

Then you auditioned at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, right?

Yes. I walked in with no expectations, sweating in my suit after I'd gone on the cross town bus. When I walked out of that interview, I knew I was going to get the job. So he (Joseph Colaneri) is an amazing man, and we're really lucky to have him here.

What's your favorite moment in La Boheme?

The end of Act I is love at first sight and so beautifully presented. You get two people who've just met each other who stumble and try and find a way to tell each other a little bit about themselves. It's kind of awkward, but then suddenly, the floodgates open. We hear that incredible duet "O soave faciulla." It's passion on a page.

How has the pandemic been a "crisitunity" at Glimmerglass?

I don't know if any company that weathered the pandemic as well as Glimmerglass did on the grass in 2021 with an incredible outdoor stage. Last summer is already iconic and in everyone's memory as one of our most successful seasons.

Robert Ainsley, the new artistic and general director of the Glimmerglass Festival.
Credit...Arielle Doneson
Robert Ainsley, the new artistic and general director of the Glimmerglass Festival.

What happened when you came to the festival on Otsego Lake this summer?

I arrived on a Monday night and set up house over on the east of the lake. I went backstage with Francesca after the curtain call of Carmen, and there was a big strapping six foot three bass sobbing his heart out because he'd just gone on and had a huge success covering Zuniga. He was surrounded by twenty-five of his best friends in the world that he met a month ago. Experiences like that you can only find at a festival like this. They’re outside the everyday, outside the mundane.

What is your vision for the future?

I can't say that I'm not a little bit nervous. I have a few butterflies. I think anyone would. But they're good butterflies.

I'm a huge admirer of Francesca's. I think that's one of the reasons I got the job. I really admire what she's been able to build here. She's a leader in the industry in so many different ways -- a trailblazer for women in leadership roles, in equity, and diversity and inclusion, hugely important things.

I want the artists to be involved creatively in what goes on our stages from the ground up, including composers and librettists. Art has always been the engine for cultural change in society because it puts a mirror on ourselves, so it's crucial to me that everyone's stories are told here and that everyone is represented, because that's the only way we will connect and learn about each other.

What scares you about what's in store for you as the new director of Glimmerglass?

Well, at the moment, the thing that scares me is how little internet I can find in these parts.

But I will fix that.

Robert Ainsley with WXXI's Brenda Tremblay, July 2022
Brenda Tremblay
Robert Ainsley with WXXI's Brenda Tremblay, July 2022