Bravo! Grand opera returns to Baltimore

Our view: A Charm City tradition returns with the debut of Lyric Opera Baltimore

February 17, 2011

It's been called the world's most extravagant art, and for good reason: The combination of lavish sets, virtuoso orchestral playing and world-class vocal talent that go into a grand opera production has never come cheap. It takes money to make opera magic, and the lack of it was the main reason for the abrupt demise of the old Baltimore Opera Company in late 2009, after years of struggling to make ends meet despite a string of artistic successes. In its final season, spiraling production costs and other expenses had reached the point where the board had no choice but to declare bankruptcy and liquidate the company's assets at auction.

Yet less than two years later, Baltimore is poised for a revival of the proud tradition that delighted area music lovers for more than 60 years. With the debut of Lyric Opera Baltimore, a brand new grand opera company is arising, Phoenix-like, from the ashes of the old. With a little help from its friends, this most extravagant art is triumphantly returning to Baltimore. The stage of the company's resident home at the historic Lyric Opera House, recently renamed the Patricia and Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric, has been enlarged to accommodate sets rented from other troupes, which should save on production costs. Meanwhile, members of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Concert Artists of Baltimore ensemble will be in the pit for the first three productions to provide first-rate accompaniment for the singers.

That's got to be great news for the scores of gifted choristers, orchestra players, incidental actors and other theatrical personnel who were suddenly left unemployed when the final curtain fell on the old BOC. Many of them depended on their roles with the company for a good chunk of their livelihoods, but it was also much more than that: Working with the company there was part of their identity as artists and what sustained them as members of the Baltimore community. Any great city needs to support its creative class if it is to remain a vibrant place in which to live and work. Losing such people would be a tragedy.

Of course, it goes without saying that a new company is also music to the ears of the thousands of area opera lovers who were devastated by the loss of one of the region's cultural crown jewels. For decades, Baltimore was one of the few cities its size to boast a resident grand opera company that could compete with the country's best. It regularly presented many of the world's greatest performers, from historic superstars like Rosa Ponselle, Carlo Bergonzi and Jussi Björling, to modern-day legends such as Chris Merritt, James Morris and Renata Scotto. It's a rich tradition that deserves to continue.

Given the high expectations for the newly organized Lyric Opera Baltimore, the company's first priority must be learning to live within its means. Former BOC chorus director James Harp, a 20-year veteran of Baltimore's lively music scene, will become the new artistic director, while Lyric Foundation executive director Victor Richmond will handle the administrative side under the guidance of a new 12-member board.

That arrangement represents a break with the old BOC's practice of placing artistic and administrative decision-making power in the hands of a single director, who was responsible for both raising the money and spending it. Separating the two functions should provide needed checks and balances in the opera's day-to-day operations and help avoid repeating some of the missteps, both fiscal and artistic, that brought the previous company to grief. Though the old company could produce some electrifying performances, the quality of its productions was uneven, even though ticket prices remained comparable to those of New York and Chicago. If Lyric Opera Baltimore is to build a loyal subscription base, it must consistently give people the level of quality they're paying for.

The season that begins this fall prudently will be limited to just two performances each of the three productions planned, and it will unfold on a shoestring budget of about $1.5 million. Starting small makes sense for a new company attempting to get on its feet in an economy that remains uncertain, and it expects to gradually add more performances as conditions improve. On the artistic side, we have great confidence in Mr. Harp's ability to bring quality productions to the city that will expand the company's audience and attract new patrons for its programs, especially those that nurture aspiring young singers and engage area schoolchildren. Building new audiences for a new generation of superb vocal performers should be just the ticket for creating a bright future for opera in Baltimore.

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