Opus 40 opens its busy season of performances, walks & workshops

Opus 40 (photo by Dion Ogust)

If you haven’t yet visited Opus 40, sculptor Harvey Fite’s 6 ½-acre earthwork in High Woods, near the Saugerties/Woodstock border, you’ve missed one of the most extraordinary attractions in the Hudson Valley/Catskills region. This mesmerizing maze of stone, water and sky demands hands-on, feet-on exploration, and also hosts a variety of interesting cultural programming during the warmer months of each year.

Fite, one of the founders of the Fine Arts Department at Bard College, spent time restoring Mayan ruins at Copán in Honduras while studying Mesoamerican indigenous sculpture, and in the process learned how to do dry-key stone masonry, a technique that uses gravity to create stable stone structures without mortar. In 1938 he purchased an abandoned quarry as a source for bluestone to sculpt, and began to position some of his larger pieces in that outdoor setting. Moving stone slabs around to showcase his statuary, he gradually discovered that the quarry itself was the sculpture that was to become his life’s work.

Calling it Opus 40 on the assumption that it would take him 40 years to complete, Fite perished in a tractor accident while maintaining the site, 37 years into the wall-building process. Ironically, he was using gas-powered machinery only to control vegetation from overtaking his creation. His masonry work was done with traditional hand tools, many examples of which are on display in the Quarryman’s Museum that you can visit on the Opus 40 site.

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Fite’s monumental legacy is a wonderland of paths and ramps and steps, plazas and fountains and pools, spiraling upward in the center to a nine-ton monolith and melding at its rear edges back into the earth, still recognizably a working quarry. At its deepest points – pathways carved 16 feet below the surface of the surrounding ground – you will find respite from the heat on the sultriest summer day. Sit still enough beside one of its placid pools, made to reflect the sculptures perched on its rim, and a dragonfly might alight on you. It’s a thoroughly magical place.

From May 10 to October 31, Opus 40 is open to visitors from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays. Admission costs $10 for adults, $7 for seniors and $3 for children aged 7 and up. Leave your pets at home, but do bring a picnic. There are lovely lawns on the house side of the earthwork, and 55 acres of forest and meadow surrounding it, laced with nature trails.

The easiest way to make your first acquaintance with Opus 40 is to attend Community Day, which this year falls on Saturday, May 18 from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Admission that day is free, and live music and food will be provided.

If you can’t wait that long to jump right in and support the arts in one of their most splendid natural manifestations, there’s a fundraising event happening offsite to start the season. Beginning at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, May 5, the great wine educator Kevin Zraly – he of the Windows on the World Complete Wine Course – will be presiding over a Wine-Tasting and Reception at the Diamond Mills Hotel, located at 25 South Partition Street in Saugerties. A half-hour opening reception featuring tastings of two wines will be followed by Zraly’s trademark One-Hour Wine Expert class, a seated tasting of six different varietals from around the world: three whites (Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay) and three reds (Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon). A reception and book-signing with hors d’oeuvres on the beautiful terrace overlooking Esopus Creek falls rounds out the evening, where you’ll be able to schmooze with the staff and board of Opus 40 on hand, including the not-for-profit’s new executive director, Caroline Crumpacker. Tickets cost $60 in advance, $75 at the door; call (845) 247-0700 or e-mail brianne@diamondmillshotel.com for more information.

At 3 p.m. on Saturday, May 11, Gil Gutierrez returns to the Barbara Fite Room in the beautiful stone house adjoining the quarry with his trio, including Bob Stern on violin and Dave Rodriguez on bass. A wine reception with the artists will follow. Tickets cost $40 in advance, $50 at the door if not sold out.

On Sunday, May 19 and Saturday, June 15, Kyle Bardwell will conduct Bird Walks that explore the diverse habitat of the woods, quarries and pastures behind the sculpture park. Bring your binoculars. Tickets for a guided walk plus breakfast cost $30, $50 for both.

​ After that, the spotlight shifts to Opus 40’s role as an unparalleled outdoor performance space. The international experimental theater Dzieci returns on June 22 and 23, presenting “the greatest (and only) East Molvanian circus in the world,” a Cirkus Luna! performance and workshop at 1 p.m. on Saturday and its visceral, innovative approach to Shakespeare’s Scottish play, Makbet, at 6 p.m. on Sunday. Both Dzieci Theater shows and the workshop involve lots of moving on and around the sculpture. Tickets cost $20 for Cirkus Luna! including the workshop afterwards, $30 in advance at $40 at the door for Makbet.

Opus 40 hosts the annual Psychic Fair on Sunday, July 14. On Saturday, July 27 at 2 p.m., the Centenary Stage Company will perform the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. Tickets cost $35 in advance, $50 at the door. A Dance Party and Barbecue wind up the outdoor performance season on Saturday, August 31.

Saturday Art Walk Workshops go on throughout the summer at Opus 40, each running for five hours – 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. – and beginning with a light breakfast at the Quarryman’s Museum Gallery. A walk on and around the sculpture is a part of each class, followed by a picnic lunch at the end. Faheem Haider will conduct a Drawing Workshop on June 15, Laura Hinton a Poetry Workshop on July 13; and China Jorrin a Photography Workshop on August 17. Workshop fees are $60 each, $100 for two, $120 for all three.

New works by both Haider and Jorrin will be shown in the museum’s Fite Gallery this season, along with the deliciously creepy photography of Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick. Exhibition opening dates and artist talks will be announced on the Opus 40 website soon: www.opus40.org/events2019. That’s also where you can find links to order tickets to any of this season’s events, or call (845) 681-9352. Opus 40 is located at 50 Fite Road, just off Glasco Turnpike in Saugerties.