Lyric Opera Baltimore ready to raise its voice

New company emerges from ashes of one that folded in '09

October 22, 2011|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

Three years ago, a Druid priestess and her Roman lover walked willingly and melodically into a blazing pyre as the curtain fell on a performance of Bellini's "Norma" at the Lyric Opera House. Those epic characters were not the only ones being consumed.

The Baltimore Opera Company, which gave that masterpiece an effective staging, soon went up in smoke, too, the victim of debt and disillusionment. A Chapter 11 filing in December 2008 was followed in early 2009 by a decision to liquidate.

It was a dispiriting end to an institution that had been a major part of the city's cultural life for decades. Prospects for another company on a similar scale being formed any time soon seemed remote, given how the Great Recession was just beginning to tighten its stranglehold.

But Lyric Opera Baltimore, which has many personal and spiritual roots in the defunct company, will debut next month in the same venue where the "Norma" swan song was sung.

The opening production, Verdi's "La Traviata," is the first of three productions scheduled for the inaugural season. This will provide a showcase for the $13 million of much-needed renovations just completed in the facility, rechristened last year in honor of the patrons who capped the renovation funding: the Patricia & Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric.

"Shortly after Baltimore Opera declared bankruptcy, the trustees of the Lyric called me in," said Jim Harp, who had long served as artistic administrator, education coordinator and director of the chorus for the former company. "They wanted to continue the tradition of grand opera here, and they have worked ceaselessly to do that."

Harp was hired as artistic director of the new opera company, which was envisioned from the start as a full-fledged part of the Lyric, rather than a tenant, as Baltimore Opera had been. A separate Lyric Opera Foundation board, containing a handful of former Baltimore Opera board members, was established alongside the Lyric Foundation's board.

Ed Brody, chairman of the Lyric Foundation's board of trustees and a former chairman of the Baltimore Opera board, was at the forefront of those seeking to create a new entity at the historic theater.

"Million-dollar bond issues had been approved for the Lyric, and one provision was that the Lyric sign a 10-year lease with Baltimore Opera Company," Brody said. "Even though there was no legal obligation after the company went bankrupt, I felt a moral responsibility to bring grand opera back. I felt it was the right thing to do."

Added Sandy Richmond, president and executive director of the Modell/Lyric: "It was not the patrons' fault what happened, but other factors."

Chief among those factors was money. The old company frequently spent beyond its means, and when the economy began to fail, there was no cushion to absorb fresh losses, no reserves to pay off past creditors. Splintering among the board of directors added to the pressure.

Whether liquidation was unavoidable may still be debated in some circles, but the decision to shut down turned out to have something of a silver lining. In a remarkably short time, an opera-producing organization has risen from the ashes of the previous one.

Lyric Opera Baltimore has several connections to the old company. The deja vu includes the chorus, which contains about 90 percent of the Baltimore Opera's choristers. Some of the most popular guest artists from Baltimore Opera's last seasons will be back, notably soprano Elizabeth Futral and her husband, conductor Steven White, for the opening "La Traviata."

Playing in the pit for "La Traviata" and, in March, for Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" will be the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which played for Baltimore Opera productions until a couple of decades ago.

"It used to be a big part of our season," said BSO violinist Greg Mulligan. "I learned a lot of repertoire playing in the pit. And people in the orchestra are really excited about doing this again. It's wonderful to have that fantastic repertoire added to our season."

The Concert Artists of Baltimore will be in the pit for the third production of the inaugural season, Gounod's "Faust," in April. Several of that ensemble's musicians were regulars in the Baltimore Opera orchestra, providing another link to the past.

But the differences between Baltimore Opera and Lyric Opera Baltimore are considerable.

In the former company's final season, the annual budget was about $7 million for four productions, four performances each. The new company: annual budget of $1.5 million; three productions, two performances each.

"We want to have the highest artistic quality but at reduced costs," Richmond said.

American artists will be the emphasis at the new company, rather than international ones. This, too, should help the bottom line.

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