Glum end for opera

Solid roster bolstered city company since 1950

March 15, 2009|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,tim.smith@baltsun.com

The news that came late last week from the Baltimore Opera Company wasn't unexpected. Ever since the organization sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in December, everyone knew that the next shoe could drop with the thud of Chapter 7 liquidation. Still, when it fell, somehow it seemed impossible.

After nearly six decades (more if you count the precursor organization), the city's grand opera company is dead, waiting for its assets to be auctioned so that creditors can be paid a portion of what they are owed. It's a pitiful end for a worthy institution.

James Morris, the eminent, Baltimore-born bass-baritone whose career was launched with this company in the 1960s, had a quick reaction when informed of the liquidation news: "Oh, [expletive]. And you can print that."

Well, actually, I can't, but it's easy to understand the reaction.

"I know I'm being selfish talking about myself," Morris continued by phone between rehearsals at New York's Metropolitan Opera, "but Baltimore Opera is such a big part of my life. I did so many roles for the first time there. My first Wotan in Die Walkure [1984] - that became a staple of my repertoire and started my whole Wagner road. I will always owe Baltimore that. I'm devastated that the company is gone. Baltimore is going to miss it."

Retired soprano Evelyn Lear, a dynamic artist who starred in the company's 1974 production of Der Rosenkavalier and, with her husband, the late, great baritone Thomas Stewart, in a 1982 Cosi fan tutte, sounded a similar note.

"It is just too sad," she said from her Rockville home. "I loved the Baltimore Opera. There was always such a warm, wonderful feeling when I sang there, and I've enjoyed attending many productions there. The last opera I saw was Butterfly. I loved it. I sobbed my eyes out."

There were tears of a different sort Thursday morning, opera board chairman Allan Jensen said, when the trustees voted to take the Chapter 7 route. For some, the question was, what took so long?

"We all knew in November that this was going to be the ultimate outcome," said Geoffrey Woodward, the company's production stage manager, who was laid off after the first bankruptcy filing in December. "They put a lot of people's lives on hold while they talked about coming back, which was just a pipe dream. They were just spinning wheels, as far as we can tell."

Jensen and general manager M. Kevin Wixted see it differently. They describe a board that wanted to try to keep a treasured company afloat. "We talked about putting money in escrow until we had enough to resume business," the board chairman said. But fundraising after the Chapter 11 filing was sluggish, and the worsening national economy didn't help.

"We talked about a gala and concert to raise money in the spring and talked about putting on a performance in the fall," Wixted said. "But an awful lot of effort would not have realized much money."

In the end, a majority of the board agreed that it made little sense to "struggle on month-to-month" and "never get ahead," as Wixted put it.

The $1.2 million debt that led to Baltimore Opera's demise was not by itself overwhelming, but with cash flow severely reduced last fall, that debt might as well have been 10 times as large. Routine daily operations became as much a challenge as putting on a new production of Aida.

It was with Aida, that iconic example of theatrical grandeur and musical splendor, that Baltimore Opera's official history began at the Maryland Casualty Auditorium on Keswick Road. The 1950 production included such gifted Baltimoreans as tenor Eddy Ruhl and conductor Leigh Martinet. Two years later, the company moved into the Lyric Opera House. Baltimore Opera was the most prominent tenant there until last November, when it presented what turned out to be its swan song - a memorable staging of Norma.

One of the legendary interpreters of the title role in that work is Rosa Ponselle, who became in her post-opera career the proud godmother of the company and would go on to guide it as artistic director for a long, eventful period.

Looking over the performance annals of the Baltimore Opera is a fascinating, now bittersweet, experience. The artist roster includes such luminaries as Birgit Nilsson, Beverly Sills, Placido Domingo, Anna Moffo, Teresa Stratas, Norman Treigle, Martina Arroyo, Carlo Bergonzi, Ghena Dimitrova and Sherrill Milnes - not to mention Lear and Morris. Add in impressive conductors, directors and designers, and the company reveals a substantial history.

Were there off nights, misguided stagings, uneven casts? Sure. As Lear said, "Every opera company has great and not-so-great performances, but Baltimore Opera did very good work."

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