By Carl Etnier
The two African-American string musicians who constitute Black Violin had played with their band on multiple continents, at Super Bowls, and at U.S. presidential inauguration events. Yet at 7 o’clock one Thursday morning last October, their bus pulled up behind the Barre Opera House.
Black Violin is just one of the outstanding performers booked each year in the Barre Opera House, the relatively small theater in a granite building on Main Street. The theater was built in 1899 but closed and was neglected for almost four decades before it reopened in 1982. Now it hosts 40 to 50 shows per year, from international stars to homegrown talent and summer theater camps for local kids.
Dan Casey, director of the opera house for the past 14 years, said in an interview in his office that locals demand “bigger, better-known acts, and that can be challenging in a 650-seat theater.” He said the “real trick to it is perseverance—and negotiating.” He gave the example of last year’s performance by a well-known country singer. “I had offers out to Rosanne Cash for four or five years before we were able to land her,” he said.
Casey described cultivating relationships with people at various agencies representing top talent. “I have a list of about 200 acts that I’m interested in bringing in here, and I’m always watching where they go. For the larger acts, it’s a lot easier to book them if you do the agent’s job for them and see, for instance, if there’s a hole in their schedule, or the routing matches up well with us.”
Sometimes, the word has gotten out to performers about the experience of performing at the opera house, and they contact Casey. Jazz guitarist and composer Pat Metheny has won 20 Grammy Awards, and his agent contacted Casey about performing there. Similarly, Casey said that after the award-winning Irish band Lankum played a Barre gig last year, “I got two or three calls from other groups in Britain and Ireland who were interested in coming.”
Casey also thinks what goes on behind the scenes can affect the audience’s experience. “We treat our artists really well. We feed them well. We put them up in nice places. Not only is that a good way to do things, the performance will often reflect a positive relationship.”
While stories abound in the industry about hard-to-please performers and agents, Casey demurred on describing drama behind the scenes. Van Halen famously required a bowl of M&Ms, with all the brown candies removed—not because the musicians disliked brown M&Ms, but as a way of checking to make sure the venue host had read the contract carefully. Casey said he pores over the performers’ contracts months ahead of time and crosses out anything he is not prepared to provide. He laughed, “If there’s hundred-dollar bottles of vodka or caviar, no one’s gotten that yet.”
The opera house showcases its premier musical performances across genres in what it calls the Celebration Series. This past season’s series included not only the hip hop/classical fusion of Black Violin, but also the banjos of Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn, an Irish band for St. Patrick’s eve, and Tusk, a Fleetwood Mac tribute band.
It can be a challenge to attract local music fans with such wide-ranging taste. Casey says he hopes that consistently bringing in top performers will encourage audience members to take chances on performers or genres they’re not familiar with. His wife told him a story of a conversation she overheard while in the audience for a show that Casey said “made my day.” A couple in the row behind her were talking, and the woman asked if the man knew that night’s performer. He replied, “No, but I know I’m going to have a good night, because the opera house has brought this act in.”
At other shows, the performers are personally known to audience members, as friends, neighbors, or family members. For example, over the past dozen Decembers, Moving Light Dance Company has performed “Green Mountain Nutcracker,” with Tchaikovsky’s music accompanying a Vermont-customized choreography, complete with loggers and the Maple Sugar Fairy. Casey said a total of four local dance companies perform in the space, as well as the Barre-Tones singing group and storytellers in the Central Vermont Council on Aging’s “Aging Out Loud” series. For five weeks in the summer, the opera house hosts theater camps.
And sometimes the top-billed acts bring locals up on stage with them, or hold matinee performances for school kids. Black Violin did both. They sold out both their morning matinee and evening performances, and they brought the Green Mountain Youth Symphony on stage with them.
When an evening performance concludes, around 9:30 or 10 pm, Casey said performers like Black Violin often greet audience members in the theater lobby. The crew packs up their equipment, and performers and crew get back on their bus. They head to a local hotel—or take an overnight ride to their next venue.
And the next day, Dan Casey sits down with his list of 200 acts, checking to see whether any of them are performing near Vermont and have a gap in their schedule.