As Michael Harrison, General Director of the Baltimore Opera Company, nears the beginning of his second full decade at the BOC's helm, he's successfully demolished the idea that opera means a predictable parade of obese sopranos and Viking helmets. "[The opera] is like the circus," he says. "You've got the music, the orchestra, the costumes, the scenery, the lighting—everything together is a huge epic thing," he emphasizes. "That's what makes it so fascinating."
Whether it's lush and lavish productions of standards like Salome, Tosca, and Madame Butterfly, or vanguard productions like an operatic rendition of Dead Man Walking, the realization of his vision of opera in the 21st century generally leaves even reluctant audience members impressed. "
The opera company was running quite well when I arrived here," says the jovial Harrison, a Georgia native who arrived in Baltimore in 1988 to take over the reigns following the untimely death of previous BOC director Jay Holbrook at age 35. "So I walked into Baltimore and came at it with the idea that we would increase attendance and continue to improve the quality of the production. And we've been trying to do that ever since."
He and his staff have succeeded ably: Since his arrival, the opera's annual budget has tripled to $6 million, a sum that guarantees the four shows mounted each season will not be done on the cheap (this month's BOC offering is Donizetti's Maria Stuarda).
Often, that means securing talent like the esteemed—and notoriously eccentric—film director Werner Herzog (a "very professional" talent, Harrison assures) to direct Wagner's Tannhäuser, or investing in a very expensive digital projection system to create virtual sets for a multimedia version of Gounod's Faust.
But some of the most imaginative spectacles cost absolutely nothing, like organizing a sing-along with the famed "Va, pensiero" chorus of Verdi's Nabucco. "We rehearsed in the lobby at intermission and the audience just followed the bouncing ball," Harrison says. "That was a very special moment for me." It all fits into the Italian saying that Harrison regards as his personal creed: Sempre avante, "always forward."