PITTSFIELD -- The City of Pittsfield's Upstreet Cultural District will kick off its third annual 10X10 Upstreet Arts Festival today -- with an array of art, theatre, dance, film, music and more, through Feb. 23.
The Whitney Center for the Arts will debut its new series "Opera Notte @the Whit" with "10 Popular Arias," as part of the upcoming 10x10 Upstreet Arts Festival, on Thursday, Feb. 13 -- and the show will return on Friday, Feb. 21.
Ghazi Kazmi, executive director of the Whit, said an aria defines a key moment in an opera's plot, such as when someone commits suicide -- or falls in love.
The idea of holding casual opera nights came to him from Caffé Taci in New York City, where on Friday and Saturday, professional singers come and sing, he said.
"Caffé Taci means sh-h-h-h," he explained. "The owner, who actually was a maestro, an opera conductor, would go around and tell people -- sh-h-h-h. He still does that, and people can do that to each other. It's OK to make noises while eating or when ordering food, but don't talk over the singers. I loved it, it was so fun.
"Some people have this conception that opera has to be very serious, you have to spend a lot of money to see it and you need to know what it is," he said. "You don't, because the way they presented it, you were eating, you didn't have anything going on and you're listening to beautiful voices. It was always packed. We don't have a big enough space to have full productions of opera, we don't have the budget or the resources, but I knew that it was easy to bring live opera back here in a very casual format."
Kazmi loves opera, but said he doesn't know much about it. He said his favorite opera is "Nabucco" by Giuseppe Verdi.
"I love the sound and I love the whole atmosphere of it," he said. "The voices are just amazing. My sister once asked me, ‘How can you like something when you don't even know what they're saying?' I said it's the same thing if you're listening to a piano; you don't know -- it's a sound. And that's the best way I can describe not knowing what they're saying."
The five singers in "10 Popular Arias," all professional singers, are from the Pittsfield area.
"When we opened the center, our idea was to give locals a chance first," Kazmi said. "You almost have to because of rehearsals. When I was first looking for talent, everyone told me to go to Hartford or other places. I thought, ‘How can it be that the Berkshires doesn't have talent right here?' I wanted to start opera nights months ago, but I just couldn't find the right talent, the right team, the right director and we found one [Ron Ramsey, who recently returned to Pittsfield ] and I'm very, very excited."
Casting the arias began with Amber Naramore, an Eastman Music School graduate, who had returned to Pittsfield following a six-year stint teaching aboard. Kazmi said.
"I knew I had someone I could trust. I told her my idea, she said ‘OK, let's do it.' ... Then I could find a team, build around her, because she could guide me."
Laughter will be in order on Friday and Saturday, Feb. 21 and 22, when two different lineups of four local and regional comedians, followed by a national touring comic, perform each night.
Adrienne Iapalucci will headline the Saturday night show. Featured on CBS' "Late Show with David Letterman," she was a semi-finalist on season 7 of NBC's "Last Comic Standing" and performed for 1,400 people at New York City's Town Hall Theater, as part of the New York Comedy Festival.
"I've worked with her a number of times," said Tom Lewis, who is creating and producing the comedy shows for the 10x10 Festival. "She's been to the Berkshires before with another production I did. I do comedy myself, and I was lucky to meet her a few years ago. Since then, she's just really exploded. People really loved her when we did the show a year and a half ago, and they've been asking when she's coming back."
Lewis said that Iapalucci's comedy is dark but very, very funny.
Ballet companies, break dancers who are under 12 years old, hip-hop and modern dance -- the area's fist county-wide showcase of community dance groups when it presents "Dance Ten: Celebrating Community Dance Schools & Ensembles" on Sunday, Feb. 23.
"I had seen lots of the local dance companies over the years, some of them I had booked for Third Thursday, some I had seen elsewhere," said Megan Whilden, the director of cultural development for the City of Pittsfield. There has never been, as far as I know, an event that brought them all together to show the amazing array of talent here in the Berkshires among our community dance groups."
Whilden developed Dance Ten with the help of her Miss Hall's School intern, Rossey Zhong, a student from China, who is working on her senior project.
Terpsichore School of Dance, All-Berkshire Dance Team, DysFUNKCrew, Cantarella School of Dance, Youth Alive, Olga Dunn Dance Company and the Olga Dunn School of Dance, Albany Berkshire Ballet, Studio One and the Funk Box Studio.
"We get world-class dancers and performers come to the Berkshires from around the world, but we also have terrific home-grown talent, and I wanted to encourage and celebrate it," Whilden said.