Opera rebounds in Baltimore

Opera Vivente, Chesapeake Chamber Opera, Baltimore Concert Opera and others fill cultural void

October 23, 2010|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

When the Baltimore Opera Company closed its doors early in 2009 after nearly 60 years, it represented a major loss to the city's cultural heritage, but opera was far from over. No weight-challenged lady had sung. The spotlight just shifted, that's all. And widened.

Opera Vivente, which had been chugging along since 1998 with fully staged productions, and the American Opera Theater, which had been producing works in Baltimore for a few years, picked up renewed interest. Bit by bit, other enterprises sprouted around town.

"When people see a void, they tend to take advantage of it," says Brendan Cooke, founder and artistic director of Baltimore Concert Opera. Cooke, a baritone who sang often with the Baltimore Opera Company, sought to provide work and uplift for other local singers left out in the cold.

His organization chose a budget-minded concert format — no sets or costumes, only piano accompaniment — and gave its first performance in March '09, a couple of weeks after the Baltimore Opera announced liquidation.

In short order, Chesapeake Concert Opera entered the picture, likewise presenting works without staging or orchestra. The organization, recently rechristened Chesapeake Chamber Opera, is about to open its second season, now with staged presentations.

The scene also includes Baltimore Opera Theatre, which opened its season with a fully staged production of Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" Saturday at the Hippodrome.

The impact of Peabody Opera Theatre, which stages works with student performers each year, is felt in the number of alumni from the conservatory running and/or performing with Baltimore's numerous opera ventures. One of those is the Figaro Project, a new organization that basically follows the concert opera format, with some variations.

"It's very exciting," says James Harp, the former artistic administrator and chorus master of Baltimore Opera. "Having all of these organizations shows how much Baltimore is an opera town. And it really does add to the total arts scene here."

Harp is director of opera and education at the Patricia and Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric, where the Baltimore Opera was a tenant. The Lyric's foundation is pledged to support a company of its own, Lyric Opera Baltimore.

"We will have three wonderful productions next season," Harp says. The lineup lists Verdi's "La Traviata" and, pending final confirmation, Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" and Gounod's "Faust."

"Opera in grand form is a unique experience," Harp adds, "but concert opera or chamber opera can be wonderful, too. And opera in English, which Opera Vivente does, can make it very real and relevant to people. I really do believe that all of our efforts are going to help each other."

As Cooke sees it, "We're all giving opera fans in Baltimore a lot of different options."

The unanswered question is how much long-term, substantive support there is for so many options in one metropolitan area.

"We'll see what the market will bear," says John Bowen, founder and general director of Opera Vivente, which opened its 2010-2011 season this weekend with Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" — performed in English as "Lucy of Lammermoor" — at a church hall in Mount Vernon.

The company's initial budget in 1998 was $5,000 for one production. This season, with three operas and some cabaret shows on the schedule, the budget is $265,000.

"Things are looking pretty good," Bowen says. "What has kept us alive and kept us growing is that we have a very clear artistic mission statement. We're the only English-language company in the [Baltimore-D.C.-area]. We have an intimate performance space. We perform a broad spectrum of repertoire that often gets overlooked in larger opera houses. And we feature local and visiting artists."

Another staged production of "Lucia," this one in the traditional Italian, is due later in the season from Baltimore Opera Theatre, presented at the Gordon Center in Owings Mills. The entity was created by the locally based founders of a long-running touring company called Teatro Lirico D'Europa and uses staging elements from that troupe, along with many of the performers, supplemented by locals.

"If we had more donations, we would engage more local people and try to develop a local chorus," says Jenny Kelly, who founded and runs Baltimore Opera Theatre with her husband, Giorgio Lalov. "At this time we are doing all of this on a very limited budget and are taking no pay for ourselves whatsoever. We feel very encouraged," Kelly adds. "The ticket sales response this season is much better than last season. For the future, I plan to remain very careful."

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