After peeling off snow-flecked coats and greeting old friends with hugs, about 40 members of the former Baltimore Opera Chorus settle into chairs arranged around a semicircular room on the second floor of a downtown church. A warm buzz of conversation suddenly stops, replaced by wild whoops as the singers spot their longtime director, Jim Harp.
He proceeds slowly into the space, his cupped hands stretched out in front of him, bearing, like a sacred icon, a little gold-painted bell, the kind once used at hotel front desks. With the cheers of the choristers getting louder, Harp finishes the mock ceremony by gently placing the bell on a weathered upright piano in the center of the room.
This is the same bell that Harp used for years at rehearsals as a device to call the singers to order. When he gives it a hearty slap this time, the resultant ping doesn't just signal the start of rehearsal, but something of an exorcism, banishing, at least for a while, a lot of dark memories.
"The bell is very symbolic," Harp says. "When the Baltimore Opera Company folded, I said the bell would never ring again."
That was late in 2008, when the company filed for bankruptcy. A few months into 2009, it went into liquidation, after nearly 60 years as a force in the city's cultural life. Next Sunday, the choral component will be resurrected on the stage of the Lyric Opera House, singing in a production of Bizet's "Carmen" from Opera New Jersey (in its home-state performances, that company's own chorus will be featured).
The Lyric, which was Baltimore Opera's landlord for decades, is committed to putting operatic activity back in that venue, one way or another. Although importing a "Carmen" isn't the same thing as restoring the old company, just having the veteran choristers rehearsing together at St. Mark's Lutheran Church seems like a big step.
"I'm a little verklempt here," Harp says, looking out at the familiar faces for the first time in 15 months. "It's wonderful to see how God is full of surprises. And this is a miracle right now."
With that, he sits at the piano, calls out a page number of Bizet's score and has the choristers recite the lines to get the French words and rhythmic flow into their heads. Then he's ready for them to sing the music. As he plays the accompaniment, he shouts out instructions and reactions.
"Ladies, I don't want any vibrato."
"Men, that's anemic-sounding. It's a little too interior-designer."
"It must be rhythmic. If I hear any sing-song, I'll throw castanets at you."
"No 'Up with People.' "
"That's good. It's hot, it's sexy, it's Lady Gaga."
The results don't sound like a first rehearsal. Adjustments to the dynamics or French pronunciation are quickly made. "Obviously, some of you have sung this before, haven't you?" Harp says, to general laughter, after a robust fortissimo passage.
"It's exactly where we left off," says mezzo Kirsten Haimila during a break.
That's the way it feels to Harp, who, after the demise of the Baltimore Opera, was hired as the Lyric's director of opera and educational activities.
"It is glorious working with everybody again," he says. "The esprit is remarkable, the sound is wonderful. But I knew that going in. These were the stalwarts of the company who gave us so many wonderful performances."
Harp is confident that these singers will be providing such services again; "Carmen" is not viewed as a one-time reunion.
Although the Lyric will undergo long-awaited renovations to its backstage space for about a year, starting this spring, plans call for the theater to present "one fully staged opera, generated in Baltimore, during the renovation phase," Harp says. "After the renovation, we are hoping to do three full productions as the 'Lyric Opera of Baltimore.' One of them would be completely self-produced. Two would be collaborations with other companies, but using local chorus and orchestral musicians."
Harp cautions that it's premature to declare a new grand opera enterprise officially up and running. "Whether it will formally be a new company or the Lyric presenting [productions from elsewhere] remains to be seen. But it's unthinkable that Baltimore would not have an opera company. People want it. And we will do it in a way that is fiscally responsible and very creative."
While the Lyric's management raises the money needed to create a regular opera season there again, the chorus seems content to have 25 hours of paid rehearsal and one performance, adding its collective voice to the popular strains of "Carmen."
"When the Baltimore Opera fell apart, that was hard," says soprano Ginny Forni, a 25-year veteran of the ensemble. "You really do form a bond with these people. It's fun to be around your comrades again."
Camaraderie is not the only benefit, of course. These are professionals, and the demise of the Baltimore Opera hit them where it hurts.