Longing For Opera Grandeur

Critical Eye Opera

May 10, 2009|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,tim.smith@baltsun.com

On Thursday, documents, mementos, furniture and other items from the Baltimore Opera Company will be sold to the highest bidders in the first of three auctions slated this month. It's the humiliating finale for the city's operatic flagship, which sought to reorganize under bankruptcy laws in December and shifted to a liquidation in March.

Still, opera performances won't vanish from the city.

On June 2, operatic voices will be heard again in the Lyric when the theater presents Washington National Opera in a concert version - no sets, costumes, lighting - of Puccini's Turandot. No word yet on whether WNO will return next season; the reaction to the June performance will help determine that.

Whatever WNO does, the Baltimore Opera Theater, launched by seasoned impresario Giorgio Lalov, plans to make its debut next season with two staged productions at the Hippodrome and two operas in concert form at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. The repertoire, at last check, will include Rossini's The Barber of Seville, Verdi's Rigoletto and Puccini's La Boheme.

Baltimore Concert Opera, which bowed two months ago at the Engineers Club, will open next season there with Gounod's Faust, unstaged and accompanied by piano. General director Brendan Cooke is contemplating bigger projects after that.

John Bowen's Opera Vivente will present its 12th season of fully staged works at Emmanuel Episcopal Church - Mozart's The Magic Flute, Rossini's Cinderella, Debussy's Pelleas and Mellisande.

At the Theatre Project, Tim Nelson's American Opera Theater plans a new work fashioned out of Kurt Weill compositions and a reprise of the company's staging of Le Cabaret de Carmen. A dramatization of Handel's oratorio Jephtha with the Handel Choir of Baltimore is on the schedule, too.

As usual, there will also be various staged productions by the Peabody Opera Theatre, featuring conservatory students, so Baltimore will remain busy operatically, even without the big company that held on for nearly six decades before collapsing.

But this is a good time to try putting things into perspective.

The lamented Baltimore Opera was, for want of a better term, a grand opera company, producing works on a sizable scale. With its budget of roughly $6 million, it was nationally recognized as a major company. The overall quality of the singers, conductors and directors was on a high level, too.

Those of us who crave grand opera want a company of that stature to fill the void left by the Baltimore Opera's bankruptcy.

It is no slight to Opera Vivente or American Opera Theater to note that they simply cannot fulfill that expectation, not with their modest budgets and intimate performance spaces. They serve other functions, provide other attractions and pleasures - like Vivente's engaging production of Britten's Albert Herring that just wrapped up that company's '08-'09 season.

Baltimore Concert Opera, too, cannot lay claim to the mantle of the fallen Baltimore Opera. Even if the new company realizes its dream of moving to the Lyric, going from piano accompaniment to full orchestra and engaging big-name artists, this will still be concert opera, a supplemental product, not the lights-supertitles-action of a major company.

Then there's Baltimore Opera Theater.

Lalov is best known for his Teatro Lirico d'Europa opera touring troupe, which generates varying opinions about its quality. He promises to build here an organization on par with the Baltimore Opera Company, at a third of the cost. That's a tall order, but Lalov hardly lacks for determination or self-confidence.

Major opera companies don't tend to be created overnight, especially in the midst of a horrid recession. And if they are to thrive, they need communitywide support, and a well-connected, enthusiastic board of directors willing to donate the big bucks.

So far, Lalov and his wife, Jenny Kelly, seem to be acting primarily on their own. Their vibrant personalities may carry them far, as has been the case with the opera and ballet touring enterprises they run, but a truly major company can't just be a personal venture.

The couple is quick to take offense, responding to criticism with such words as "slander" and "assassination." Opera is dramatic enough on its own; it doesn't need managers adding more.

They may reveal the skills to build bridges and bonds in the community, and develop an ably staffed team to produce work of admirable caliber. But it is neither unreasonable nor insulting to be a little skeptical at this point.

In addition to a healthy operating budget and endowment fund, any new company aspiring to the big leagues requires a distinctive, imaginative artistic vision and quality on all levels of the operation, onstage and back. There is no point in settling for anything mediocre.

My concern is that Baltimore could end up witnessing more locally generated good intentions than genuine high-caliber opera.

Meanwhile, there's the intriguing prospect of Washington National Opera.

The June concert will obviously not show the company to full advantage. But if the Lyric is renovated in 2010 as planned, leading to vastly improved staging capacity, it would be feasible and, I think, appealing for WNO to bring in several full productions.

Some people here act as if WNO would bring swine flu with it, that an outsider from D.C. would be a cruel slight to Baltimore. But WNO's presence would hardly prevent locally bred operatic projects from continuing to enliven the scene.

I just want this city to have a true grand opera company, one carefully run, fully funded, totally professional. I think it should use the Lyric, a place christened by the voice of no less than Nellie Melba. But the only real requirement is that we get an organization capable of sustaining first-class artistic quality.

Reasonable people can disagree on which of the many options will lead most effectively to that goal, but the goal itself must be immutable.

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