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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

The Baltimore Concert Opera, based at the Engineers Club in Mount Vernon, turned people away for its first performance in 2009. Demand has leveled off a bit since then. "Fundraising is slower, but we can't complain," Cooke says."We're doing fairly well. Last season, our budget was $68,000; it's $98,000 this year. We have a full, paid chorus."

Attending opera without the usual visual and orchestral elements to go with the singing and acting is not to every taste. "I don't see how you could ever argue that composers wanted it that way," says Bowen. "Opera is a multimedia art form."

Cooke agrees that "sets and orchestra are huge components of opera, but without the singing, it ain't opera," he says. "I think one of the gains in concert opera is a level of intimacy with the performers. For already existing fans, it's a chance to hear the piece in a different way. For others, it might be a gateway drug into opera."

With Chesapeake Chamber Opera, founding director Beth Stewart initially envisioned only the economical concert format. "But we found our performers really wanted to do fully staged operas, so we updated our name and will add some sets and costumes," she says.

To make this more financially viable, Stewart scaled back the season from a half dozen last year to three at a Bolton Hill church, starting with Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel" next weekend. The budget for the season will be "somewhere between $10,000 and $20,000," Stewart says.

Casts will include young singers from the area and as far away as Utah — "singers you won't be able to afford in 10 years," as Chesapeake Chamber Opera's publicity puts it. The idea behind the company is to provide experience for those freshly out of school, like Stewart herself, a soprano who studied at Peabody.

Singers aren't getting rich performing for Stewart's group, or for the Figaro Project, which also showcases emerging talent and was also founded by a soprano, Caitlin Vincent. Like Stewart, she decided to stay in Baltimore after graduating from Peabody.

"It's difficult for singers transitioning into a career," Vincent says. "This is a way for us to get performance opportunities and promote opera." With a budget of about $1,500, the Figaro Project will present the premieres of three one-act operas by Peabody grad students; the group also performs on the opera cabaret series at Germano's in Little Italy.

Occasional sniping can be heard in this operatic fertile territory (Bowen, for example, likens the Chesapeake and Figaro troupes to "a bunch of students putting on a show"), and occasional confusion can be encountered in the public. There are people "wondering what's this group, what's that group, and who does what," Cooke says.

Still, it seems that each of the new ensembles has settled into a distinctive enough niche. American Opera Theater, for example, is known for exploring unusual fare and unusual ways of presenting familiar works. The group, founded by Peabody alum Tim Nelson, also has collaborated with the Handel Choir of Baltimore in creative ways.

Other groups have at least floated collaborative ideas. "There is not enough audience to cannibalize each other's base," Cooke says.

"My hope is that, instead of dividing the audience, we cross-pollinate," Stewart says. "We've had people say they're going to check out Baltimore Concert Opera and Opera Vivente because of Chesapeake Chamber Opera. But I hope we also grow new audiences."

That's a hope widely shared. "The potential fan base is unlimited," Cooke says. "We're all equally invested in breaking the stereotypes about opera. We have to let people know it isn't a club for old, rich white people." Vincent could be speaking for any of the other organizations when she says of hers: "Our goal is to make opera less intimidating."

The commitment to the operatic art can be easily felt in what all of the organizations are doing, and that may be enough to ensure longevity for them. As Stewart says: "Passion is contagious."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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Opera in Baltimore

American Opera Theater: specializes in edgy staged productions of offbeat and standard works. This season includes a pared-down "Butterfly" in December, Kurtag's "Kafka Fragments" next spring at the Theatre Project. 410-752-8558; americanoperatheater.org

Baltimore Concert Opera: presents complete and abridged works with piano accompaniment, without sets or costumes; features local and visiting artists. The season includes "La Boheme" in December, "Marriage of Figaro" in May at the Engineers Club. 443-844-3496; baltimoreconcertopera.com

Baltimore Opera Theatre: fully staged operas, employing resources of the Teatro Lirico d'Europa touring company plus some local performers. Season includes "Lucia di Lammermoor" at the Gordon Center, "La Traviata" at the Hippodrome this winter. 410-419-4344; baltimoreoperatheater.net

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