The Patricia and Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at the… (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
When Ron Griffin received a solicitation for Lyric Opera Baltimore a few weeks ago, he had some questions. The organization sounded a lot like the Baltimore Opera Company, which folded midseason in 2009 because of financial problems, leaving Griffin and many others holding worthless tickets.
"It was an abrupt end, and it wasn't handled well," said Griffin, a property manager. He and his partner were subscribers and patrons of the old company for more than a dozen years. "I asked what kinds of changes had been made. I just wanted to make sure things aren't being set up in a way that the same thing could happen again."
Memories of Baltimore Opera's demise might fade soon, if all goes well for Lyric Opera Baltimore, which has gradually emerged, partly from the ashes of the former company, and has just announced a three-production season for 2011-2012.
The defunct Baltimore Opera was a tenant at the historic Lyric Opera House, recently renamed the Patricia and Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric. The new entity is part of the center itself, with a board of directors formed by the Lyric Foundation.
There has been some carryover. A few board members of the old company are on the new board. A couple of staffers remain as well, including James Harp, former artistic administrator and education coordinator of the Baltimore Opera, who is now director of opera and education for the Modell/Lyric.
"When we lost the opera company, it was a trauma for the artistic community here," Harp said. "But I'm finding most people are not mentioning that anymore when I go out to talk about the new company. People are willing to overlook what happened. They just want grand opera back at the Lyric."
It is due to arrive in November, after the first significant backstage renovations to the 1894 opera house are completed. Those renovations will mean that larger sets can be put onstage.
The fly tower is being expanded from 62 feet to 80 feet high, from 32 feet to 38 feet deep. The old hemp and sandbag system for raising and lowering scenic elements will be replaced with an up-to-date mechanical counterweight system. New lighting, sound system and stage curtains will be also be installed.
Lyric Opera Baltimore's season will open with a production of Verdi's "La Traviata," featuring lavish scenery rented from the Lyric Opera of Chicago that would have been impossible to fit in the theater before.
"Baltimore Opera often had to bring sets into a warehouse, reduce the size of them and then load them into the Lyric," said Sandy Richmond, president and executive director of the Modell/Lyric. "The sets would then be taken back to the warehouse and put back together. We will reduce costs by virtue of the new stage house."
Keeping production costs down is a major focus of the new company.
"The former Baltimore Opera Company did some wonderful work," Harp said, "but with that business model, the costs would be exorbitant now. We have reduced overhead in terms of theater rental, office and rehearsal space. We're doing two performances of each opera, instead of four, and we're doing only three productions instead of four."
Besides "La Traviata," the lineup includes Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro," with scenery from L'Opera de Montreal, and Gounod's "Faust," a co-production with Arizona Opera. Harp estimated the budget for the inaugural season at about $1.5 million.
"Singers are accepting fees less than they used to get here," Harp said. "Lyric Opera of Chicago is giving us a very generous reduction on their rental rate, as is Opera Montreal. People want to help us bring grand opera back to Baltimore."
Some local institutions are joining in that effort. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will be in the pit for "Traviata" and "Figaro" — the first time the BSO has played for the opera in the Lyric since 1989. Concert Artists of Baltimore will provide the orchestra for "Faust."
"Having the BSO adds to the credibility side of this," Richmond said. "It's wonderful to have a world-class orchestra involved. And Concert Artists is also a great group."
The BSO provided the orchestra for opera performances in Baltimore as early as 1927 and had a long association with the organization that became the Baltimore Opera Company.
"Our involvement dwindled primarily due to scheduling," BSO president and CEO Paul Meecham said. "But we can manage with Lyric Opera's schedule. And we're happy to collaborate. Since we last played the opera in 1989, we see the symphony's role within the community being less exclusive and more inclusive."
In November, the Peabody Institute will collaborate with Lyric Opera Baltimore to present a fully staged production of Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress" featuring students onstage and in the pit. This will be offered separately from the inaugural subscription season.