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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

'Masterworks Through A 21st Century Lens': Opera Singer, Director Josh Collier

A man in a hawaiian shirt against a red background.
Elodie Reed
Josh Collier is a 32-year-old opera singer who started Barn Opera in Brandon to make opera more accessible in the 21st century.

Josh Collier first came to Vermont to sing with Opera Company of Middlebury in 2014. He and his wife liked the state so much they moved to Brandon two years ago, and since then, the 32-year-old has made it his mission to bring world class opera to the community with his wildly popular Barn Opera series. 

Check out our otherYoung At Artstories, about Vermont artists under 40, here.

Collier meets me with a big smile in the bright red barn he performs in. It's hot outside and he's wearing jeans, a Hawaiian shirt and flip flops.

After just a few minutes, I realize Collier's the kind of guy you want at a party. He’s high energy, with an infectious laugh and a playful vibe that’s hard not to like.

A red barn through grass and daisies.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
Barn Opera has been up and running since 2017 in a Brandon building that was once Warren Kimble's art gallery.

Which is how he'd like people to view his passion — opera.

A baby grand piano sits in the corner of the performance space. Collier sits down at it, plays a couple chords and clears his throat. He looks over at me and with another big smile tells me he’ll sing something I probably know.

I don’t know it. But then I don’t know much about opera. When Collier lets loose, however, I’m transfixed.">On mobile? Watch the video by clicking here.

He finishes, nods and explains that was just a snippet from the end of Nessun Dorma, a song he's asked to sing a lot. It’s part of Puccini’s opera Turandot and a top ten hit when it comes to arias for tenors, like Collier.

Watching him belt out such a clear powerful sound after just a few seconds of warmups is impressive.

“Opera’s work,” he said. “It's work. It's athletic, and it's a full body experience, which is what I like about it.”

But even more than its sheer physicality, Collier said he loves the emotional punch opera can pack.

“I can say ‘I love you’ — I can scream ‘I love you,'" he went on. "But if I'm saying ‘I love you’ in front of a hundred piece orchestra on a top note, something with full vulnerability, the passion and the communication is so much more multifaceted than just spoken voice."

Listen below as Josh Collier sings tenor for "O Sauve Fanciulla" from Puccini's "La Boheme" at the Boston Civic Symphony's Jordan Hall in 2018.

As a kid, Collier loved musical theater and said he dreamed of singing on Broadway. He moved around a lot growing up. He was born in Georgia but spent much of his childhood in Hawaii, where he went to high school.

That’s when he began taking voice lessons from a retired British opera singer who Collier said was like a drill instructor.  

“It was definitely opera boot camp,” Collier said, shaking his head. “And I walked in, and he said, 'You don't have it. You don't have the discipline, you don't have the voice, you don't have anything.'”

“And in hindsight, it was the best thing that could have happened for me,” Collier said. “Because when someone tells me 'No,' I say, 'Watch me.'”

A poster with four images and the text "A Season Of Love."
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
A flyer from the current Barn Opera season.

After high school, Collier attended the North Carolina School for the Arts and went on to get his master's degree in opera and vocal performance at the New England Conservatory in Boston.

In the ten or so years since, he’s performed all over the country as well as in Europe.

The work has been fabulous, he said. But the father of two admits all the traveling took a toll, especially after his first child was born in 2016.

“I was gone nine months that year, and that's when Hilary and I — my wife — looked at each other and said, 'Something's gotta give,'" Collier said. “So I put a dot in the center of Manhattan, and I drew a circle around however far four-and-a-half hours would be to get to Manhattan if I needed to get there for an audition or for whatever. And my house in Brandon popped up on Zillow. It was complete happenstance.”

A piano.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
The baby grand piano in the Brandon barn where Josh Collier puts on Barn Opera performances.

Collier had sung with Opera Company of Middlebury, and he and his wife loved Vermont. But he said they weren’t prepared for the outpouring of community support they received, such as the party an opera lover threw for them in Brandon shortly after they arrived.

“And it actually happened here, in this building,” he said.

The building he’s talking about is a bright red barn, with big windows and an artistic pedigree. Renowned Brandon artist Warren Kimble used it for many years as his gallery. Today, it’s a private concert venue that can seat 50.

“And when I walked in here for the first time I said, ‘Holy cow, this is a beautiful place; I just want to sing in here,'" Collier said.  "And so, I thought, well, you know I have a lot of friends that would love to sing in here too, so maybe let's just do a concert opera.”

But he wanted his performances to be more laid back and user-friendly.

“I think the idea of opera as what it was in the 1950s, where, you know, we say, 'park and bark,' where the opera singers just stand on the front of the stage, these giant humans with horns on their heads and spears — and people think that's what opera is,” he said.

But, Collier added, “I want to show them something completely different."

A table with a plate, two glasses and a number seven placard.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
Barn Opera shows are held up close and personal to the audience, who sit at dining tables and enjoy a drink as they watch singers perform.

He joined the board of directors of the Compass Music and Arts Foundation, a Brandon nonprofit, and with the group's help, he launched Barn Opera in late 2017. The next year, Collier hosted seven events with artists from all over the world. This year’s schedule is similar.

Sets and costumes are minimal. The singers perform recitals or streamlined classic operas in English, Italian, French and German, with a piano and sometimes a string quartet.

Translated and updated subtitles are projected on the wall above.

A bar serves up local craft brews and wine. But there's no dress code and no red velvet curtains, which is by design, Collier said.

A man in blue sunglasses stands outside a red barn and white silo.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
Josh Collier stands outside the new Brandon barn that, after renovations, will be the new, larger home for Barn Opera in the spring of 2020.

“For me, I want to show real people doing real things," he said. "And how much more real can I get than the audience having a beer of a glass of wine in their hand enjoying something that is, you know, actively funny or powerfully tragic.”

Tickets cost about $50. By comparison, a good seat at the opera next month at the Met in New York City costs between $200 and $600.

While Collier loves the music and passion of classic operas, he said many are disturbingly racist, misogynistic and sexist.

“There are a lot of operas that are difficult in that respect, but Carmen was the one that really bothered me,” he said.

A window with grass and horses in it.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
Horses graze outside the new site for the Barn Opera in Brandon.

In Bizet’s classic, Carmen is killed by her jealous lover and Collier explained that, at the end, her killer sings a sweeping romantic solo.

“It's almost as if we're supposed to feel sorry for this guy," Collier said. "He’s this romantic hero and he says, 'You know, I’ve lost my Carmen'.”

“But no, you didn’t lose her, you killed her,” Collier continued, shaking his head. “And I struggle with glorifying a domestic homicide.”

So in his Barn Opera series, he produced a shortened version of Carmen which gave Carmen the last word.

“I actually turned the tables, and I had Carmen kill Don Jose," Collier said.

In his write up for the show, he explained, “I said, you know, as an artistic director I shouldn't say this, but I really hate this opera. And, you know, I want you to see it, because obviously the music is great. But here's a different way to look at this.”

A tire swing hangs inside a wooden barn.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
Barn Opera will move into a new, larger barn in Brandon, which is expected to be ready in spring 2020 following renovations.

And that’s the mission with Barn Opera, Collier said. “I want audiences to look at these masterworks through a 21st century lens.”

Audiences have responded enthusiastically to Collier’s efforts, and so far, he said every performance has sold out.

It’s been so successful, he’s currently in the process of buying a larger barn in Brandon that, after rennovation, will be able to seat 100 or more people. If all goes as planned, he hopes to begin using it in the spring of 2020.

Correction 11:55 a.m. 8/8/2019 An earlier version of this story mispelled the name of Josh Collier's wife Hilary.

This story is part of our series, Young At Art. Every Monday this summer we'll hear from artists under 40 about what inspires their work and how they view the future for artists in the state. Support for Young At Art comes fromQuantum Leap Capital.

One in five Vermonters is considered elderly. But what does being elderly even mean — and what do Vermonters need to know as they age? I’m looking into how aging in Vermont impacts living essentials such as jobs, health care and housing. And also how aging impacts the stuff of life: marriage, loss, dating and sex.
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