February is usually the darkest month at Gateway Playhouse. With holiday shows closing after New Year’s Day and the summer season not starting until May, not much happens on the Bellport theater’s campus — not even rehearsals — except for acting classes. And even the acting school takes a break for the week of Presidents Day.

But starting Friday, the dark stage brightens with the first of what may be an annual event at Gateway — the Winter Festival of new works in musical theater, opera and spoken word. Michael Douglas Jones, an international opera singer whose bass commands attention even over the telephone, is founder and director of Companion Star, a “living laboratory of the creative process” as he calls it, based in Patchogue. Jones and company will present two world premieres and a country-to-classical concert by Companion Star students.


The festival opener Friday night features the premiere of “The Raven” by percussionist-composer Donald Knaack, based on Edgar Allan Poe’s epic poem. Described by Jones as a spoken-word opera accompanied by Knaack’s one-man found-object band and an electronic track, the 12-minute performance is introduced by author Amy Patricia Meade, a Poe expert. Following “The Raven,” ad hoc percussion instruments — sticks, pans, hubcaps, empty liquor bottles and lengths of PVC piping — will be distributed to the audience for a “junk jam” led by Knaack. The classically trained musician, now known as The Junkman, worked with Twyla Tharp and John Cage, among others, before switching to music played on re-purposed material.

Saturday night’s performance is another premiere, “Pages From the Diary of an Ex-slave,” a one-woman story of triumph written and performed by Jo-Ann Wilson, director of Inspired, a Long Island arts program for people with emotional and mental challenges. Wilson’s solo recitation is accompanied by eight singers and a band of four.

Sunday’s matinee showcases Companion Star student singers and musicians performing, Jones says, “the gamut of genres we listen to today.”

The festival, says Gateway executive director Paul Allan, is a “win-win for both of us. They get to perform at a major venue near their home base and we get to put on shows that would never make it into our regular season. And we fill seats that would be empty this time of year.”

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Most of Companion Star’s success so far has been not only out of town but out of the country. Jones, a Hawaii native who debuted in the 1991 New York City Opera production of “Madame Butterfly,” moved to Patchogue in 1989. He started Companion Star, he says, as “a collaborative where people could express their artistic voice.” The company’s “Under the Milk Wood,” an opera based on the Dylan Thomas poem, premiered in Wales in 2014 and won several international opera awards. Jones also premiered operas in Sweden and Canada, working internationally because, he says, “that’s where there’s funding.”

With the Winter Festival, he says, “Maybe we’ll be discovered here.”