A More Congenial Spot: Camelot

Kevin Brustuen

“Don’t let it be forgot 
That once upon a spot,
For one brief, shining moment 
That was known as Camelot.”

These immortal words, penned by Alan Lerner and Moss Hart for the Broadway performance of the musical Camelot, were John F. Kennedy’s favorite lines from one of his favorite plays, thus ensuring forever the connection between King Arthur’s Knights of the Roundtable and the administration of President John F. Kennedy. Since JFK’s death, Camelot has symbolized the idealism of the young Kennedy’s term in office, an almost mythological time in which the charismatic leader issued such bold and courageous statements as “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” creating the same sense of idealism, heroism and self-sacrifice expressed in Camelot.

In 1959, Alan Lerner and Moss Hart decided they could make a great stage play by adapting T.H. White’s novel, The Once and Future King, published in 1958, into a musical. After procuring the services of Frederick Loewe to write the music (reuniting the famous Lerner and Loewe team), Lerner and Hart commenced writing Camelot. The show opened in Toronto in 1960, followed by a successful Broadway run of 853 performances, winning 4 Tony Awards, followed by foreign productions and a film version starring Richard Harris, Vanessa Redgrave, Franco Nero, and David Hemmings. This February, Bozeman audiences will have the opportunity to see a revival by Intermountain Opera of this famous musical at The Ellen Theatre

Intermountain Opera was founded in 1978 when a professor of music at MSU, Verity Bostick, convinced a New York opera producer, Anthony Stivanello, to donate operatic sets and costumes to help her achieve her desire to found Montana’s first opera company. The first performance, held in 1979, was Verdi’s La Traviata. In the following years, Intermountain Opera has produced 60 operas, always using nationally renowned guest artists for the lead roles. In recent years, they have added musicals to complement their opera productions. 

For over twenty years, Intermountain Opera has offered outreach to area schools, finding it important to educate school-age students about Opera. Bozeman area schools can have professional opera singers come to the classrooms and interact with the students, giving them a chance to experience opera in a way they never would have otherwise.

Following the successes of recent musicals, including A Little Night Music, Man of LaMancha, and My Fair Lady, this year Intermountain Opera chose the musical Camelot. While Intermountain Opera usually does their opera performances at the Willson Auditorium, Camelot marks the first time they are doing a performance at The Ellen. 

Camelot is about a visionary king who dares to imagine a utopia in which the best knights of the world gather in one kingdom that is upheld by civil laws. It’s a story about a magical world in which the heroes are ruled by a wise and powerful leader whose advisors are people of courage, bravery, and a desire to do nothing out of hubris, but only right the wrongs, slay the “evil dragons,” and continue building a more perfect world: 

“In short, there’s simply not 
A more congenial spot
For happily-ever-aftering
Than here in Camelot.” 

Thus sings King Arthur. Unfortunately, this world does not exist, and Camelot reveals the feet of clay we all suffer from, as illegitimacy, unfaithfulness, and envy intrude into this idyllic world. In the end, the storyteller escapes, left to tell future generations about the wonders of this age and how there once was a time in which such a world could have existed, thus leading to the hope of another attempt at creating this world. The real miracle of Camelot is the ability of humans to imagine such a world. Simply to imagine that a world like this could possibly exist, somewhere, sometime, creating in us a longing for and a desire to rebuild our own Camelot in which we, too, could live is an essential promise of this play.

The director of Intermountain Opera’s production of Camelot, Josh Shaw, comes from Los Angeles, where he works with the Pacific Opera Project, which endeavors to incorporate opera into the everyday culture of our modern world, making it affordable, interesting, and understandable to all ages, a desire Shaw brings with him to Bozeman, matching Intermountain Opera’s own ambitions. In addition to Shaw, guest artists filling the roles of King Arthur, Queen Guenevere, and Sir Lancelot are, respectively, Kyle Pfortmiller, Jennifer DeDominici and Branch Fields; all come highly rated, with credits from Broadway, the Metropolitan Opera, and many other well-known opera houses across the country. Aurelia Andrews, recognized as a highly sought-after vocal pianist, will be the music director. The set designer is Mike Fink, from the University of Montana. The principles are augmented with 17 local actors and singers filling the remaining roles. The orchestra pit is composed of 11 Bozeman-area musicians.

Jackie Vick, Executive Director of Intermountain Opera, points out how The Ellen Theatre was designed and built with the idea of performing musicals on its stage. Camelot hearkens back to a mythological place, a by-gone era of gilded courage and bravery, civility, and simply an easier and better age, similar to our own common perceptions about the time when The Ellen was built. Camelot and The Ellen speak to our nostalgia, our need to have hope. We find hope by looking to our past, fondly recalling events and histories that are as we would like to remember them, but not as they really were. The Ellen moves us in that direction in and of itself by its design, by its age and aging splendor, and by its history, for it was built in 1919 for the purpose of staging elaborate musical productions. The nostalgia created by Camelot and the Ellen Theatre remind us of the Kennedys and the ‘simple’ days of the 1960s, an age when we still believed in heroes who could swoop in and make things right, seeking and serving justice, and especially touching that part of our inner beings that want to believe in hope—hope for solutions to our worries and the troubles of our times.

Intermountain Opera encourages everyone to come and see their productions. Student ticket prices are 50% off; people who have never attended an Intermountain Opera production can get 25% off their ticket prices. On January 26, Intermountain Opera will present a free program at the public library about Camelot, giving people a behind-the-scenes look at the production. Contact Intermountain Opera for more details. 

For more information about Camelot, including a downloadable study guide, and to purchase tickets, please go to the website for Intermountain Opera at https://www.intermountainopera.org/new-page/ or contact the opera directly at (406) 587-2889. Follow Intermountain Opera on Instagram: @bozemanopera, and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/intermountainoperabozeman.  

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