The Opera House Arts/Deer Isle Jazz Festival story

As pert of my coordinator responsibilities with Arts Midwest for the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Live grant program, one of the more pleasant and revealing aspects is conducting the occasional site visit to funded activities. On the weekend of August 4-5 Opera House Arts, located in Stonington, Maine, presented its 12th annual Deer Isle Jazz Festival. The Opera House is located on Deer Isle in the town of Stonington (pop. 1500+), which is located on the coastal tip of central Maine. You get to Deer Isle, on Penobscot Bay, by flying into Bangor, Maine and driving 60+ miles down winding, multiple turns State Route 15 (follow the yellow line). On arrival, parking on the main street right across from one of the fishing docks on the bay, the renovated dark green Opera House beamed like a welcoming beacon, replete with a NEA Jazz Masters banner on its side. Inside is an acoustically-inviting 250-seat venue, with rows of vintage wooden theater seating, and a lively and inviting retail area in back; it should be noted here that the Opera House enables its patrons to partake of refreshments at their seats.

You can read our earlier Independent Ear dialogue with saxophonist Roy Nathanson on his experience in residence and performing on the festival by visiting our Archives. The second day of the festival featured the NEA Jazz Master pianist-composer-bandleader Kenny Barron. That Sunday afternoon featured Kenny in a public interview conducted by Deer Isle Jazz Festival curator (and 2012 JJA Awards Jazz Journalist of the Year) Larry Blumenfeld, followed by a remarkable Kenny Barron Trio performance in the evening. In between Larry’s interview and Kenny’s performance I cornered Opera House Arts founding executive director Linda Nelson for some background on this wonderful place. Ms. Nelson, a sharp, lively, quick to laugh woman proved quite insightful. The Opera House story is deeply instructive on the unique public benefits of arts funding, as well as the benefits of presenting what some consider a purely urban, big city phenomenon – namely jazz music – in a decidedly rural, small town setting. Larry had been telling me about this unique place for years, and he proved to be on the money!

Opera House Arts founding executive director LINDA NELSON

Linda Nelson: I’m the founding executive director of Opera House Arts, which we created to restore [Stonington Opera House] in 1999.

How does this whole jazz festival fit into your artistic schedule?

LN: It’s actually become a cornerstone of our schedule, which is really based on the quality of what we do here. We started it not knowing how it would be received and how jazz would play up here but it really quickly became something that the demand was there for it every year, and by working with Larry, and in collaboration with Haystack, we were really able to build a program that people have really responded to.

I think what they’ve responded to the most is… The improvisational aspect [of jazz] is really important for us in terms of how we think about creativity and performance; our whole thing about performance is what we do in everyday life and what we’re hoping to do here by having really excellent performances and getting people to participate in that and view it is to continually increase people’s everyday performance and how they are as citizens in our community, and therefore strengthen our community.

So the improvisational piece is how you create, how you collaborate with people, and how you listen to people is what jazz is so cool about, in terms of how the musicians play off of each other and listen to each other. Those are strengths we feel are really important to… people being in meetings, school boards and things like that. So that piece, the improvisational aspect of [jazz] – the different band members playing their parts, is really important to us; so that’s philosophically where that fits for us.

So you see a line running through what you present onstage and how people interact in everyday life?

LN: Yes, and that was kind of our belief in the beginning when we wanted to do the theater, that kind of broad notion of performance, and how that’s you & I talking here, its how we vote, how we do our jobs… its more obvious to folks like lawyers and preachers, teachers – people who really seem performative, but for everyone there’s an aspect of performance in what they do. We find that working with kids, and also working with adults, the more that we can strengthen some of those skills – especially listening, but also the ability to innovate and to improvise, it just makes stronger citizens.

Some might view a community like this as being a bit conservative, perhaps because of the vacationer aspect – it takes money to vacation or have a vacation home in a place like this… Clearly the program that you’ve established during the 12 years of this festival has been far from conservative.

LN: I hope so [laughs]. I think that what we’ve done well – and I like to quote Michael Kaiser on this (we have a partnership on this with the Kennedy Center) ; he has really said, especially with the recession and all, you don’t get anywhere by being conservative, you have to take risks, you have to keep making new stuff, otherwise people aren’t going to want to come to see you. So we’ve really kind of made a reputation of taking risks here… with the jazz but also with other things.

We had a concert a couple of months ago that kinda fell flat on its face. It was a brand new idea we were doing, and it just didn’t work spectacularly, but its not like people appreciated that we were trying to do something new with the schedule. It really is about that kind of risk-taking, and the community for the most part seems to appreciate.

Our Shakespeare piece this year had a live snake onstage and we started off with Cleopatra in the nude, which was set in our new venue, which is an 1870 former Baptist church. So there were all kinds of risks we were dealing with in terms of the community, and they all played beautifully. We were in dialogue with people, and I think people here feel like we respect them and even when we take risks there’s nothing disrespectful about what we do in those risks.

What’s your sense of the Opera House being awarded this NEA Jazz Masters Live grant for this Kenny Barron engagement?

LN: I’m the grant writer, as well as the executive director, so Larry and I worked on it together and I was just so honored that we could get somebody of Kenny’s caliber to come up and play in a 250 seat venue – at what we call ‘the end of the world’, because as you know its not that easy to get here – and all of the artists we’ve brought up… we had Charles Lloyd last year, we brought Jason Moran, and we’ve had a lot of great artists; they’ve been so giving and generous in their spirit, and its not easy for them, they’re traveling all the time. So we try to make it as easy as possible with the hospitality and everything… But the honor of being one of 12 [grant recipients] in the nation – we’re so small, we’re in a rural community, we don’t have a big catch pool and we don’t have a big theater – 250 people are going to see Kenny tonight, which is fantastic, but I think the word about that, and the trickling out from that, affects more than the 250 people that are here tonight, and I think that’s what’s important.

There’s a huge sense of pride in this community right now for what the Opera House does; they see the NEA banners on the side of the building, they read about us in the national press, and they’re kind of amazed that this humble 100-year old building is able to present this caliber of talent. This is a community which takes pride in what it does and we consider that we have the best and the most lobsters in this community and there’s just a lot of pride in the community, and the opera house is part of that – even when its bringing in someone they’ve never heard of before.

Bringing the arts to rural communities – and really into the heart of rural communities – instead of just to urban areas where people are kind of self-selecting, there’s audience there that knows about these guys; we do a lot of work to market these guys. It doesn’t seem like we’d have to because Kenny’s a Jazz Master, but up here where people don’t know that much about jazz… We actually used the NEA Jazz Masters thing a lot; we’ve told our audience ‘this is who Kenny Barron is, you come for the quality even if you don’t know his music, and be introduced to a whole new world of really amazing jazz.’

Its clear from last night’s audience for Roy Nathanson Sotto Voce that there’s a certain trust factor amongst your audience, that people will come because they’ve come to expect quality, even if they are not as familiar with an artist. I doubt if all of those people had heard of Roy Nathanson before last night.

LN: Exactly, that’s a very good point; more people have heard of Kenny than Roy, even though we had a good house for Roy. And again, even with the jazz sometimes we’ve stumbled. In fact last year we had the wonderful young pianist Matthew Shipp, who’s a real risk-taker. Roy is great for us because he engages with the audience so much, he’s so much about engagement and Matthew is a little bit less like that; so we got a little bit of flack… But they come back; they don’t say ‘well, you did that last year and I’m never coming back.’ They were all back for Roy.

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