A season of opera favorites

March 30, 1995

While the Baltimore Opera Company's just completed run of Saint-Saens' "Samson et Delilah" was by all accounts a resounding success, it probably didn't win any new converts to "the extravagant art." For years the company has sought a balance between hardy perennials and less familiar classics that would allow it to grow artistically while appealing to a larger audience, particularly among young people. But recent efforts seem to have been mostly hit or miss affairs in that regard.

Perhaps recognizing that nothing sells tickets like beautiful melodies sung by doomed heroines besieged by intrigue, human sacrifice and revenge, the BOC has announced a lineup for next season that includes two of the greatest tear-jerkers ever written, Verdi's "La Traviata" and Puccini's "Tosca." The season will also present Franz Lehar's "The Merry Widow" and Bizet's "The Pearl Fishers."

All this promises delightful fare. It's a wonder the BOC hasn't offered more of it in recent years.

No one expects opera to draw the hordes of people who made "Forrest Gump" a box-office blockbuster. Opera is "high" culture; Hollywood is "popular" or "mass" culture. One can advocate a cultural pluralism in which different "cultures" serve different "taste publics" without assuming that one is better than the other. Our feeling is that everyone is entitled to the "culture" he or she wants.

Still, for those who prefer Caravadossi and Chiou-Chiou San to Michael and Madonna, one can't help wonder whether the BOC might not be more "popular" if it presented more Traviatas, Toscas and Madame Butterflys -- and fewer "Don Carloses" and "Nabuccos." Given the short Baltimore season -- only three productions a year now -- its seems a shame to squander opportunities on obscure, rarely performed works while so many box-office favorites go unheard.

Of course the company has a responsibility to advance the art, part of which involves keeping a large repertoire alive. Still, opera-goers in New York can see "Tosca," "Traviata," even "Butterfly" practically every season if they wish -- in addition to new productions of less familiar works. The BOC performed Verdi's "Rigoletto" this season, a perennial favorite. But "Samson et Delilah" and the season-ender, Puccini's "Manon Lascaut," however masterful, don't have quite that kind of appeal. Next season, by contrast, the BOC presents a string of "greatest hits." It's a wonderful opportunity for the company to be "serious" and "popular" at the same time.

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