Baltimore is star of `Opera'

November 29, 2007|By Aaron Chester | Aaron Chester,Sun reporter

After 15 years of creating theater and sharing it with people across the country, the time came for composer Jackie Dempsey and artist Steve O'Hearn to do the inverse.

About a year and a half ago, the Pittsburgh-based Squonk Opera artistic directors decided to let the people they perform for and the places they go to shape the next show.

(Put your hometown's name here): The Opera Series was born and the Squonk Opera's seventh installment, Baltimore: The Opera, comes to Theatre Project tonight through Dec. 9. This marks the 10th anniversary of their last appearance at Theatre Project.

"Like us, the mass media homogenizes the subject matter," O'Hearn said. "New York and L.A. are publicized but the rest of us are lost. People are interesting everywhere. Art is all around us, and everyone has stories."

Baltimore: The Opera is a music-meets-multimedia ode to Charm City, featuring Squonk's music and visuals, local dancers (from Morton Street Dance Company, Rayn Fall Dance Studio and Wayne Jackson Studios), interviews with people throughout the area and the artwork of Orems Elementary School students.

The challenge, according to O'Hearn, was giving up artistic control. "We love Baltimore, but it's not our city," he said. "The only people that talk are [those in] the interviews."

For each city in the series, after extensive research, Dempsey traveled with two people and video-recorded 25 to 30 interviews with residents over the course of a week, along with footage of city culture. Each video is shortened to two minutes and is projected onto a screen made to look invisible throughout the show.

Baltimore interviewees include storytellers and arabbers, actor Robert Lee Hardy, Creative Alliance program director Megan Hamilton, Brenda Wilson of Maryland Public Television and Maryland Institute College of Art students. Most notably featured is one of the last interviews with jazz vocalist Ruby Glover before she died.

Both artistic directors were surprised that while people acknowledged Baltimore as a "gritty, violent city," their devotion to it is very strong. Contradicting the sense of "violence and urban decay," O'Hearn said, is a friendliness and love for the city. "It is one of those cities that is both charming, as in Charm City, and scary," he said.

Dempsey agreed, remembering many people who talked a lot about the crime and drug problem, but said that they could never leave. People love "the grit and the art scene," she said, and they like that it is "a very real place."

As aware and affected as locals are by crime, she said, their love for the city is shockingly "unfazed." "Of all of the cities, Baltimore is a place where people are the most passionate," Dempsey said. "But they are very realistic."

Previous shows in the series spotlighted Pittsburgh, College Park, Columbia and Albany, N.Y. Music is a constant for all of the shows. In composing the live music that dips into jazz, pop, classical and blues with a variety of instruments, Dempsey said it would have been phony to try to produce city-authentic music.

"It felt forced or wrong," she said. "It's there to create the mood or atmosphere, not to be so narrative."

Baltimore: The Opera is not very operatic in the traditional sense, according to Dempsey. The term is used very loosely, as Baltimore combines music, set pieces and costumes in such a way that takes operatic elements and spins them. Moreover, she said, "It just sounds funny to say Baltimore: The Opera."

Because there is no narrative outside of the interviews, Dempsey said the show is very open in terms of its message.

O'Hearn sees each show as "a documentary of place" that emphasizes the "tribalism of people." A devotion to place that seems to be very positive on the urban level, he said, causes many problems nationally and internationally.

The show brings people together, Dempsey said, as people unify in expressing their pride for where they live.

Baltimore cannot be taken at face value, she said. From the art, to the architecture, to the diverse communities, the city is more than what is portrayed on the HBO show The Wire.

Overall, she agrees with O'Hearn on the theme of the Opera series.

"It is important for people to realize their neighbor isn't really very different from the way they are," she said. "People are different but basically we are all the same."

"Baltimore: The Opera" is at the Theatre Project tonight-Dec. 9. The show is at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $10-$20. Theatre Project is at 45 W. Preston St. Call 410-752-8558 or go to

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