Instead of "bravo," the final sendoff for the Baltimore Opera Company will be an auctioneer shouting "sold."
The giant Sphinx-head that once stared down on the glittery Triumphal March in Aida, the carefully detailed cathedral where Tosca sang a love duet with her painter boyfriend, the scaffold that awaited Mary, Queen of Scots - all sit wrapped up in a warehouse. They, along with hundreds of vivid costumes, props and other remnants of the company, will soon go to the highest bidder.
It's a far-from-grand finale for one of the city's oldest cultural treasures.
The auctioning begins Thursday morning in the company's former administrative offices at the Lyric Opera House. The sale extends "from noteworthy memorabilia to the mundane, and everything in between," says former Baltimore Opera production manager Chris Van Alstyne.
A steep drop in donations, grants and ticket sales as the recession worsened last fall, combined with lingering debts from previous seasons, led the 58-year-old Baltimore Opera to file for a reorganization under bankruptcy laws in December; it switched to a liquidation in March. The total owed to creditors is about $1.2 million.
Three auctions will be held this month. Next week, by sealed bid, the sets and costumes will be sold. A public auction will be held May 28 to dispose of the company's large warehouse on East Monument Street.
Among the 300 lots in Thursday's auction are framed autographs of vintage opera stars, including Nellie Melba and Giovanni Martinelli; office furniture; smiling photos of board members; tapes of dress rehearsals; a scrapbook marked "What the Critics Said Feb '70 to April '75"; and a pile of boxed opera glasses that once were for sale in the lobby on performance nights. Against one corner are propped up a mix of audio items, including a reel-to-reel commercial recording of Aida starring Renata Tebaldi and, incongruously, four early Supremes albums in their original LP covers.
"There's nothing on the level of the Dead Sea Scrolls there," says former Baltimore Opera general manager Michael Harrison, who, like other employees, removed his personal possessions before the liquidation filing. "But there are things like a charming letter from Beverly Sills saying how happy she was to sing Manon with the company, and some things of Rosa [Ponselle, the legendary soprano who guided the company for many years]. It's very hard to see this happen to those things."
The material also includes artists' contracts and rehearsal tapes - setting off objections from some former employees, who have raised the issues of privacy and intellectual property.
"Those contracts and other documents, going back for many years, should be kept inviolate," Harrison says.
Representatives from the local musicians union also expressed concerns about the possibility of videotapes making it into the public realm. Such tapes are typically made only for archival purposes.
A ruling on Tuesday from the bankruptcy court stipulates that "the contracts and archival tapes can be sold," says Jon Levinson, vice president of Alex Cooper Auctioneers, Inc., which is handling the sales. "But you will not be able to remove the items from the premises until approved by court."
Harrison says he is "distressed about the archives being put up for auction. It would be a shame to distribute them to the four winds."
That may not happen - at least to the study tapes, video recordings made to review productions. They're being eyed by Robert Follet, head librarian of the Peabody Institute's Arthur Friedheim Library.
"Normally, we do not purchase things," Follet says, "but we were given money from a donor to bid on the study tapes. That's the most archival material in the sale."
Follet already offered a pre-auction bid, but was turned down. "My personal idea is that their value is much lower than what the bankruptcy trustees think," he says. "The tapes are really not marketable. They were filmed during dress rehearsals from the back of the hall with one camera." A home at Peabody's library would ensure that the tapes never end up on YouTube, Follet says.
Van Alstyne, who was hired by the Cooper firm to facilitate the liquidation, has heard from former colleagues who are unhappy with the prospect of once-private papers being on the block.
"The trustee's role is to raise as much money as possible for the creditors," the former production manager says. "But, as an artist, I totally understand the artists' point of view about the contracts and tapes. This is a valid concern. But anything sensitive has been taken care of."
That includes removing Social Security numbers from documents, Levinson says.
"I believe the auction will be as sensitive as it can be," the auctioneer says. "There is no good way to do it, maybe, but this is the best way it can be done.
"There will be local dealers and re-sellers at the auction. A piece of Baltimore history is here, so people are clearly curious. It's going to be an eclectic group of bidders."
Those may include individuals who have lately been talking about forming fresh operatic ventures in the city.
"The best-case scenario would be for one of the new opera groups to get all of it," Van Alstyne says of the chattels. "If I can help find a home for these things, rather than see them end up in a landfill, I will have done something good for Baltimore."
Harrison, who ran Baltimore Opera for its last two decades, never expected to see this week come.
"There were a number of plans created by the staff that we hoped would convince the board that the company could be saved, but a majority felt it could not be accomplished," he says. "Now, maybe some money will come in from the auction to pay the creditors, and that's important. I am devastated that the company has come to an end."