When the crowd in the 16th-century fortress roared for a third encore, the musicians of Le Festival Lyrique de Belle-Ile-en-Mer repeated the excerpt from Lehar’s The Merry Widow they’d just done for the second encore. None of the spectators who’d flocked to hear the festival’s last performance of Bartok’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle and a medley of duets seemed to mind the repeat, calling instead for more.

But the musicians–all topflight artists who appear regularly at the Met, the Lyric, the Paris Opera, and La Scala–formed a line and, arm in arm, toasted the audience with raised champagne glasses. Chicagoan Richard Cowan, who was clutching a champagne bottle, announced in fluent French, “The Festival Lyrique de Belle-Ile-en-Mer is over until next year.” Then the musicians, moved by the warmth and effusiveness of the audience, stepped off the stage and started shaking hands.

Cowan, a baritone and composer who’s won some of opera’s highest awards, first went to Belle-Ile-en-Mer, a small island off the southwest coast of Brittany, as a tourist five years ago. Monet stayed there in 1886, and Cowan recognized the island’s rocky coast from a painting at the Art Institute. Other illustrious visitors to the “beautiful island in the sea” include Sarah Bernhardt, Colette, Gustave Flaubert, Alexandre Dumas, and Andre Gide.

Cowan was so taken with the island and its 80-foot cliffs that he returned the next summer. He says he was then in the middle of a “musical crisis,” disturbed that elitism had hijacked opera and ensured that it no longer appealed to popular audiences. “Some very important people at some very important theaters have told me that they really felt that their job was to preserve a museum,” he says. “There’s none of the kind of excitement that you would have generated 150 years ago.”

Cowan, who has frequently sung at the Lyric, describes performing there as “singing across the Chicago River to the audience. There was not really a contact with them.” He adds that U.S. theaters often hold up to 4,200 people, which may help explain why audiences often don’t seem particularly interested in the opera they’ve gone to see. “The stories of Rigoletto and La boheme are really awful stories,” he says. “In La boheme there is a beautiful young woman who is 20 or 22, who makes artificial flowers, and who is dying of the equivalent of AIDS.” Rather than focusing on that story, he says, “we wonder, who’s singing in the tenor role tonight? Who’s singing the soprano role? Who’s the maestro? And then we go to Tower Records and there’re 50 different recordings of it.”

People on the island who knew Cowan was an opera singer suggested that he organize a summer opera festival, and he soon decided that would be a perfect way to bring music back to the people it was written for and to “reinvigorate the myth and the musical roots of what a piece originally was, by stripping away the outer accoutrements to find what the center of it is all about.”

He contacted some of the many musicians he knew from his years of singing–he’d graduated from Indiana University in 1981 and had sung with different companies around the country–and gathered together a small group of top artists who wanted to perform their art without the usual glitz and were willing to be paid relatively little for the privilege.

Unwilling to take too many risks the first year–though he did put up $10,000 of his own money to pay for plane and train tickets for the six singers and the pianist–Cowan decided to stage excerpts from The Barber of Seville, Don Pasquale, and La boheme. For his venue he chose the fortress La Citadelle, which sits on a hill overlooking the island’s main port, Le Palais. The oldest sections of the fortress were built in the late 16th century to defend the island against the pirates who regularly pillaged it and the armies that used it to replenish their water supplies before attacking France. The first time Cowan saw the four-story, looming granite walls of La Citadelle he was so awed he couldn’t go inside.

Cowan contacted Anna Larquetoux, who with her husband, Andre, had bought La Citadelle from the French government 40 years earlier. Slightly suspicious of Cowan’s abilities, she invited him to the fortress, opened a piano, and asked him to sing. Cowan sang a few bars from Puccini’s Tosca, and she promptly agreed to let him use the fortress’s large, timbered hall.

A woman Cowan met at a dinner before the first performance told him he could expect 30 spectators and that he would “foolishly lose his money.” Cowan, who’d decided to offer only general-admission tickets for less than $20, grew nervous as opening night approached. But 600 people–islanders and vacationers–showed up. “That first night was so exciting,” he says. “There were almost fistfights in the halls because people wanted the best seats. This was getting back to the roots–people wanted to be close and see it and hear it.” The next day 400 people left the beaches and showed up for an afternoon performance. Cowan did not lose his money.

The next year Cowan again chose to do excerpts because he didn’t think he and the other musicians were ready to present entire operas. “If you do a complete opera,” he says, “people are expecting a set and an orchestra.” So they staged the first half of The Tales of Hoffmann and the second half of Carmen, adding a chorus made up of members of the three local amateur choral ensembles.

The third year, 2000, the festival presented the first half of The Elixir of Love and pieces of La traviata. Cowan was unhappy about the large cuts, even though he’d made them himself. “Where do you cut something like Traviata?” he says. He decided that the next season they would present an entire work.

Also in 2000, Cowan, who already had a home in Chicago, bought Chateau Fouquet, a 17th-century ruin that had at various times been used as a hospital, a garrison, and a prison. A previous owner had removed the doors and windows to take advantage of a tax exemption on ruins, and the roof had later blown off in a storm. Cowan used the chateau for a concert, and halfway through it started to rain. People huddled briefly under a tree until the sun came out, then the concert went on.

For the fourth festival, held this past summer, Cowan got government and corporate grants that helped him expand the programming. “We always operate on the verge of bankruptcy,” he says, quickly adding, “but some of the people who have summer homes on the island have been generous also.”

Early on in the season Cowan and a handful of other organizers he’d enlisted offered a “concert cocktail” inside a newly renovated stretch of the fortifications around La Citadelle–a four-part program of short works staged in four different spots inside the huge stone ramparts built during the reign of Louis XIV.

Cowan introduced the program by calling it le concert qui bouge, meaning both “the concert that moves” and “the concert that shakes things up.” After the first segment, the audience was led through a maze of vaulted stone tunnels and empty moats into a dungeon and military arsenal, where the musicians did spellbinding excerpts from Mozart, Bartok, and Monteverdi. Then champagne was hauled out for the spectators to enjoy on the green knolls overlooking the old docks in Le Palais.

A later program featured the New York City-based String of Pearls, a vocal jazz trio that includes Susan Halloran, Jeanne O’Connor, and Holli Ross. “I’d rather hear a great jazz or pop singer any day–more than a bad opera singer,” Cowan says.

Part of the festival consisted of sacred works, including a requiem by Saint-Saens, sung by members of the local choral ensembles in a 20th-century church in Locmaria, a small village in a southern part of the island once avoided because of sorcerers and witches–people forced to walk through the area held their thumbs tightly inside their fists to ward off spells. Forty people rehearsed for a month under the direction of Paris Opera singer Gilles Andre, and Cowan says the concerts were genuinely impressive.

But the highlights of the season were two operas, The Marriage of Figaro and Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, both sung in their entirety. The festival also could now afford to have a string quartet, a flute, and a clarinet in addition to the piano. The Marriage of Figaro was performed first. Eduardo Chama, an Argentinean who’s well-known for his interpretations of Mozart roles, agreed to sing the title role if Cowan gave him free artistic rein and let him do all of the staging. Cowan was happy to oblige. Roberto Accurso, an Italian who has sung with the best opera companies in Italy, was back for the fourth year, singing the role of Count Almavira; Reveka Mavrovitis, a Californian who sings regularly with the Met, was back a third time, singing Cherubino. Two students Cowan had been mentoring also sang roles, and two interns used laptops to project subtitles onto the walls of La Citadelle.

It was a big success, and people didn’t seem to mind occasionally having to crane their necks to see the subtitles. One musician who upon arriving demanded his contract even though Cowan was out of town later said he wished he could have played longer and couldn’t wait to come back. “We’re not here to screw anybody around,” Cowan said. “We’re here to play music and have a good time.”

Reducing the orchestra for Bartok’s opera was the biggest artistic risk of the festival. “Twentieth-century composers relied more on the color of the orchestra,” says Cowan. Chicago pianist Stephen Hargreaves shrank the score to fit the seven instruments, giving many of the bass notes to the piano, which he played with his left hand while he conducted.

Cowan, who designed the minimalist set, sang Bluebeard, and Andrea Trebnick, who has sung at the Met, sang Judith. After a quick introduction of the libretto, Cowan took off his cream-colored sport coat and traded it for a dark blue one he’d hung on a chair–which drew a few laughs. The bare stage and the simple rectangle of colored light projected on the white stone wall every time Judith opened a door underscored the psychological battle of the opera, whose true spectacle is not onstage but in our imagination.

Cowan has scheduled more events for the festival each season, and he says ticket sales have gone up at least 15 percent each year. The festival now even has its own Web site (www.belle-ile.net). He’s pleased that so far it’s been a success. “I get to invite my friends and say, ‘There’s this little idyllic, magical island in France. Come over here and we’ll make music of a very high quality.'” He adds, “It really has a feeling of people working together, wanting to do it. Money is not really the issue. The issue is making great music in this beautiful place. We’re pioneers.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/ Martin Perdoux, Lloyd DeGrane.