The news wasn’t unexpected. The Baltimore Opera Company had already filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy at the end of 2008, and it seemed unlikely that the organization was going to right its ship when the recession was creating financial troubles for opera companies across the nation. Still, when the BOC announced on March 12, 2009, that it was shutting down for good, a pall settled upon Baltimore’s classical music community. It felt like a funeral, not just for one organization, but also for opera as an art form in Maryland. And that seemed like an injustice.
The state had such a rich history with the music. The BOC had been around for 58 years, and even before that, legends such as Jenny Lind and Enrico Caruso had enjoyed triumphs in Baltimore. Such noted singers as Rosa Ponselle and James Morris had grown up in Maryland and helped along the BOC. It seemed unlikely, though, that the BOC could be replaced, any more than the Baltimore Bullets had been replaced after they disappeared.
Yet here we are, two years later, and Baltimore is bursting with opera activity. There are eight different companies mounting regular productions, which range from fully staged grand opera and chamber opera to unstaged concerts of opera music, but none of them quite does what the BOC did. There is a promise, however, that the Lyric Opera Baltimore will be bringing professional grand opera back to the Lyric Opera House in November.
How did this happen? How did a dead-and-buried opera scene leap from the grave and display more vigor and agility than it had in years? How did these smaller companies escape the financial trap that doomed the BOC and defy the predictions that opera had grown so stodgy that it would die off as its elderly, wealthy audience did? How do you explain that people in Baltimore are not just cautiously optimistic but actually excited about opera again?
That enthusiasm was contagious at Mt. Vernon’s Emmanuel Episcopal Church last March when Opera Vivente staged Impressions of Pelléas, a condensed adaptation of Claude Debussy’s Pelléas and Mélisande. In a climactic scene that can be viewed on YouTube, Melisande (played by Lisa Eden) is roughly accosted by her jealous husband, Golaud (Nathan Wentworth). Jealous husbands are a dime a dozen in operas, but this one was different, because he seemed more focused on the situation at hand rather than impressing a music critic or casting director out in the seats. Wentworth not only glowered intently at his wife as he sang, but he was also really acting, giving little flickers of the ego-damaged hurt behind his anger.
The notion of an opera character behaving like a real-life spouse and not like a singing statue or an overblown soap-opera caricature was remarkable. It helped that the dialogue was sung in English; it helped that the church was small enough that Wentworth’s quieter asides and eyebrow gestures could register with the audience. It was a welcome reminder that the oft-repeated claim that opera is a fusion of music and theater doesn’t have to be empty rhetoric; it can sometimes be true. It was a reminder that opera’s current crisis is as much artistic as it is financial, and its resurgence is rooted there as well.
The expectations of opera audiences are changing. “The pendulum has been swinging away from the emphasis on the music at the expense of the acting,” notes Roger Brunyate, the head of opera at Peabody. “It’s telling a story—whether it’s ancient Egypt or medieval Italy—it has to connect to reality as we live it.”
“The stereotype of the largish prima donna with horns on her head won’t work anymore,” agrees James Harp, the former chorus master and artistic administrator for the BOC and the new artistic director for Lyric Opera Baltimore. “It’s largely a thing of the past.”
“Audiences want more realism,” argues Beth Stewart, founder of Chesapeake Chamber Opera. “They don’t want to see a hefty 50-year-old woman as Mimi in La Bohème; they want to see a young, wan woman with life draining out of her. Audiences are used to seeing performers who correspond to the character as written in theater, film, and television; they expect the same thing at the opera.”
There are several approaches to making opera more realistic. One way is to hire the most innovative directors and the most versatile performers and give them ample rehearsal time to inhabit their characters. That’s what the Metropolitan Opera in New York has done, but Baltimore will never have that kind of money.
So we move to Plan B: Stripped-down productions like Impressions of Pelléas that rely on naturalistic acting and good singing in intimate spaces without the splashy set and the massed battalions of vocalists and instrumentalists. “The advantage of being a small company in Baltimore is we can concentrate on creating a different kind of reality instead of worrying about the opera buffs who want a lot of spectacle,” says Tim Nelson, the founder of American Opera Theater.
No less than four local companies have chosen this path. Peabody Chamber Opera and the American Opera Theater both perform at the 150-seat Theatre Project, usually the home to experimental theater. Opera Vivente performs in the 180-seat Emmanuel Church, while Chesapeake Chamber Opera performs in Bolton Hill’s 250-seat Memorial Episcopal Church. “When you perform in small spaces where the audience may be 15 feet away,” Stewart points out, “larger-than-life gestures no longer work; you have to go for a more realistic gesture or expression.”
“The more intimate the production,” says Brunyate, “the more we feel we can know these other people, as opposed as seeing them as distant figures on the stage.”
Caitlin Vincent graduated from Peabody in 2009, and like all opera grads, she faced the dilemma of what to do with herself until her voice matured. Unlike jazz and pop music, where young singers are favored, opera rarely utilizes singers until they are in their early 30s and strong enough to project in a big hall. So the late 20s are a limbo period when singers usually take private lessons, wait on tables, and join apprenticeship programs where they can be understudies and chorus members.
But none of that provides the experience of singing a lead role before a live audience, and that’s what Vincent wanted to facilitate. So she formed The Figaro Project, which presents cabaret performances of opera arias without sets or costumes at Germano’s Trattoria in Little Italy “It’s an intimate setting,” Vincent says, “so you’re not going to have the melodramatic stuff. It teaches you to connect with people four feet away from you.”
After the BOC folded, Brendan Cooke, another Peabody product, launched Baltimore Concert Opera. Cooke, a longtime member of the BOC Chorus who also sang several small roles with the company, helped fill the void by presenting opera scenes in concert. Cooke pulled together his old colleagues from the BOC Chorus, hired some soloists, and put on shows at the Engineer’s Club in Mt. Vernon.
“We refer to these concerts as the gateway drug to opera,” he says. “It’s too easy to find reasons to not like something if you’ve never seen it. If we can get people to see it in person, maybe they can overcome the prejudice and misconceptions about the art form.”
“We have to make opera more accessible so it’s not so intimidating,” adds Vincent. “You have to make people realize that they don’t have to spend $100 to go to the opera and enjoy themselves. That’s why most of these small companies keep their ticket prices affordable. Yet people still wonder, ‘Why should I bother? It’s just fat women singing in a foreign language.’ But it’s not. For example, The Marriage of Figaro, the opera we named the company after, is basically a chick flick. It’s a comedy of errors, all these people trying to sleep with one another. It may be 300 years old, but it’s very funny.”
So far these small groups have been making a go of it. They all report breaking even—if not on every show, at least over the course of a season. They do this more by keeping their costs low than by raising a lot of money. These troupes rely on ticket sales for 50-75 percent of their budget, while the BOC got only 30 percent of its income from admissions. As a result, no one’s making a full-time living from these chamber groups. Nelson, for example, is a freelance opera director in Europe and North America, while Stewart works as a research coordinator in the Pediatric Pulmonary division at The Johns Hopkins Hospital. [In late November, Nelson announced that American Opera Theater was canceling its December shows due to “an unfortunate set of circumstances.” Beyond that, the company still has performances scheduled for February and April.]
In the BOC’s absence, interest in grand opera hasn’t entirely disappeared. Harp’s group, Lyric Opera Baltimore, has scheduled its first production for November 2011. By that time, the theater—recently renamed the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric—will have finished its $12.5 million renovation, which will allow for large, full-scale shows such as its opening production of La Traviata.
To make it financially viable, the new company will follow a different model than the old BOC. It will, for example, rent sets from Opera Chicago and its stage direction and lighting design from the Pittsburgh Opera. Harp will choose a conductor and assemble the orchestra and chorus from local talent. “Mix and match, that’s how we’ll go forward,” Harp explains. “That approach not only saves money but also gives us more ideas to choose from. Artistic autonomy is giving way to shared artistic vision throughout the industry, and that will sustain this art form we love so much.”
The Baltimore Opera Theatre has been presenting fully staged opera productions at the Hippodrome Theatre since 2009. The group is a spin-off from Teatro Lirico D’Europa, an opera company founded in 1988 by Bulgarian singer George Lalov and French impresario Yves Josse. Jenny Kelly, a Baltimore native, was a soloist with the troupe for many years and eventually married Lalov in 1993. The couple moved to Maryland and shifted their focus from Europe to North America.
“We knew we could bring full-scale productions to Baltimore,” says Kelly, president of the new troupe, “because we were already bringing the same productions to venues from New Jersey to California. We are definitely presenting opera in a traditional Italian manner. We don’t do any productions that are updated; we use the costumes and sets that the composer had in mind when he created the work.”
The question is, can such productions be fiscally solvent and appealing to younger audiences? And, when grand opera returns to the Lyric, what will happen to the smaller companies that have flourished in the interim? Even groups like Opera Vivente, the American Opera Theater, and Peabody Opera, which were well established before the BOC went bankrupt, have benefitted from the wide-open scene over the past two years.
“My sense is that these small companies are bringing in a different audience,” ventures Jonathan Palevsky, the program director at WBJC-FM. “When I go to the Emmanuel Church to see Opera Vivente, I don’t find the same crowd I saw at the Lyric. But when James Harp brings productions to the Lyric, I think he’ll draw the whole crowd. It’s important to some people to have grand opera in Baltimore. Some people are more into the ‘grand’ than the ‘opera.’ And there’s nothing wrong with that; if you’re spending $200 on a ticket, you should get dressed up and have a big evening.”
After all, continues Palevsky, there are distinctions between the two approaches and each one has its strength—when done well. “The difference between grand opera and chamber opera is the difference between symphony and chamber music,” he says. “If you have the right four guys playing Schumann, you can’t beat it. But you have to be careful in your programming; you have to stay within your means. If you’re going to do grand opera, it should be really grand, and if you’re doing chamber opera, it should be an intimate piece and a production that takes advantage of an intimate space. In either case, the production should never feel cheap, as if you only have $1.95, so you’re wearing your mother’s shoes, and they’re too big for you.”
“I think there is a place for all of us,” says Harp. “There are so many different ways of doing opera—in concert, in chamber settings, on a grand scale, in English, and in the original languages. I like to believe we are all building an audience in Baltimore. Every time Opera Vivente or Chesapeake Chamber Opera recruits a new opera fan, it’s to my benefit. I’m very proud of all of them.”