City Opera Plans Need Not Be Grand


Critical Eye Music

Several Ideas That Have Been Floated For A Revival Focus On Creating A More Intimate Venue

July 05, 2009|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,

No, I haven't stopped thinking about Baltimore's opera future. And, thanks to some others in the area similarly focused, I've got a lot more to think about.

Last week, Giorgio Lalov and Jenny Kelly announced the debut season of their Baltimore Opera Theatre at the Hippodrome - Rossini's The Barber of Seville in November and Verdi's Rigoletto in March.

This will not be the all-local company Lalov and Kelly initially announced. These inaugural presentations, using an orchestra and chorus from Europe augmented with area musicians, suggest a version of the couple's longtime touring company, Teatro Lirico d'Europa. Whether Baltimore Opera Theatre becomes a fully homegrown entity will depend on funding, Kelly says.

Meanwhile, the Lyric Opera House, where the Baltimore Opera Company made its home for decades until its regrettable death earlier this season, has signaled that it will actively work toward producing opera and hired former Baltimore Opera artistic administrator Jim Harp to help with the effort.

But the 2,500-seat Lyric is supposed to undergo major renovation soon, affecting the plans of any prospective users.

So, the thought for today is: What if we've been focusing on the wrong space and the wrong type and size company?

Enter Opera Baltimore, an organization formed by "artists and arts professionals" (as the Web site says), including Laura Lee Everett, a former Baltimore Opera employee who is assistant director of Maryland Opera Studio at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"Our goal is to be the next company producing full-scale opera in Baltimore," Everett says, "with a focus on American artists and featuring American repertoire - at least one American opera a year. We will do standards, too, in new and different ways."

The group's steering committee includes credible folks, among them John Bowen, general director of Opera Vivente in Baltimore. A business plan is in the works, with a goal of raising an initial $2 million, and possible venues are being scouted out.

"Opera Baltimore is talking to 1st Mariner Arena, which apparently is more re-configurable than any of us expected," Bowen says. The prospect of using a portion of the arena certainly adds a new element to the speculation about where the next new wave of opera in this city will hit.

Bowen's primary focus, of course, is the future of his own, chamber-size company. Opera Vivente, based for more than a decade in a church hall in Mount Vernon, has done remarkable work on a budget of less than $200,000. It could use a larger space.

"To go from 200 seats to 1,200 would be suicide," Bowen says. "A 350- to 600-seat theater would be ideal."

That's not easy to find downtown, except on a campus, but a school theater would be available only during the summer.

One tantalizing prospect: the old Parkway Theatre on North Avenue, which the city has talked about renovating, resulting in a hall with about 600 seats, an orchestra pit and backstage fly space for scenery. This would be several years away, alas.

Outside downtown are other campus-based theaters, which would again mean summer months, when Baltimore does not seem to be in a mood for weighty music. (Witness the annual Gilbert and Sullivan operetta from the long-running Young Victorian Theatre Company and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's increasing reliance on pop and rock concerts off-season.)

But summer can be very active for opera elsewhere, such as Missouri, where Opera Theatre of St. Louis has thrived for decades in late spring/early summer, attracting international attention for its imaginative staging of a diverse repertoire, performed in a theater of just under 1,000 seats.

Jan and Ellen Richter, longtime fans and supporters of Opera Theatre of St. Louis, have lived for several years in Annapolis. They've been contemplating Baltimore's opera situation from what might be thought of as a show-me perspective.

"A revived grand opera [company] in Baltimore, given likely resources and trends, will almost certainly not be able to aspire to greatness or even national notice," says Jan Richter. If the city could not sustain Baltimore Opera, with its $6 million budget, he argues, how could a new company hope to do so any time soon?

Richter and his wife suggest a St. Louis-style alternate that sounds like a significantly expanded version of Opera Vivente (they both have served on that company's board) - a modest-size company with a budget of about $2 million and a venue of 500 to 1,200 seats, offering varied repertoire inventively staged.

"To the extent we have an agenda, it would be: Please, Baltimore, don't overlook the possibility of a chamber opera as your primary company," Ellen Richter says. "Don't feel you have lost something. This can be wonderful, exciting and beautiful."

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