Commentary:

The tentative state of opera in Baltimore

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Lyric Opera Baltimore's 2014-2015 season is already over. What does that say about the city's operatic health?

After the better part of six decades, the Baltimore Opera Company slipped into bankruptcy in 2009, done in by a combination of dwindling financial resources, questionable management, an unharmonious board and the onslaught of the Great Recession. Donors and ticket holders were left in the lurch.

Against the odds, a new company called Lyric Opera Baltimore emerged two years later, this time a part of the Lyric Opera House (since renamed the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric) rather than a tenant.

A major new company was not born in an instant. It couldn't be. But even allowing for some questionable choices of singers and directors, Lyric Opera Baltimore established credibility. Whether it can achieve longevity is another matter.

After its inaugural 2011-2012 season of three productions, the company cut back to two and then just one for 2014-2015. If you missed "Madama Butterfly" in November, you missed Lyric Opera's current season.

The start of a new year provides a good opportunity to take stock of Baltimore's operatic life and prospects. On the one hand, there's this encouragement from Modell Performing Arts Center president Sandy Richmond:

"The Modell Lyric has presented grand opera for over 100 years, and I see that continuing for the foreseeable future," Richmond says. "We have outlined productions for the 2015-2016 season and beyond."

On the other hand, there's this from Marc Scorca, president and CEO of Opera America, the New York-based national service organization with 120 professional companies from 42 states in its membership:

"My concern about one opera per year is that such occasional activity is not exciting to donors, and you need their enthusiastic support," Scorca says. "The art form is intrinsically expensive. The effort to cut down production costs has been going on for about 400 years. Those who want opera in their city are charged with figuring out how to pay for it."

James Harp, who was the artistic director of the old Baltimore Opera, indicated from the outset that fiscal caution would be the order of the day for Lyric Opera, which he administers as director of opera and education at the Modell Lyric.

"I would like to do three or four operas per season, but we are just being very careful," Harp says. "We had only money to do one this year."

Lyric Opera's contractions have occurred while the economy has been improving and the national outlook for opera, according to Scorca, has brightened.

"No doubt, there was a huge downturn in 2008-09," he says. "No one knows that more profoundly than Baltimore. But my sense is the crisis has bottomed out. Our annual study shows a turning of the tide. There are more surpluses than deficits in opera companies now. The art form has never been more alive, varied and inventive."

Scorca does note a trend of declining subscription sales around the country, but he also points to an increase in new operas and new venues being tried out by young and long-established companies alike, along with new opera ensembles being formed by artists.

The bright spots on the national picture make Baltimore's case look all the more dispiriting. While Lyric Opera has been reducing its footprint, other forms of operatic life here have been evaporating.

In the days after the Baltimore Opera Company's demise, at least five low-budget organizations were producing opera in town: American Opera Theater, Baltimore Concert Opera, Chesapeake Chamber Opera, the Figaro Project and Opera Vivente. Of those, only Baltimore Concert Opera is still active.

Is it something in the water?

At the conservatory level, Peabody Institute's opera company continues to do very respectable work. The Modell Lyric, which has presented a production from the school for the past three seasons, will do so again in March (Mozart's "The Abduction from the Seraglio").

But a city like this deserves a full-size, professional, artistically respectable enterprise. The patrons who once thought it was worth supporting Baltimore Opera need to think it's worth supporting Lyric Opera. They need to — if I may borrow a terribly overused word in this town — believe. And they need more to believe in.

Renovations at the Modell Lyric over recent years have provided a better venue, but there's room for further enhancement. Repositioning the seats on the sides of the balcony to provide easier sight lines would surely be a welcome step for the 2,500-seat house.

Strengthening the organization could help, too. That may take a new business approach or adding new talent to the administrative mix. To be sure, finding the right blueprint for the company's growth will not be a breeze.

"People always want a model, but there is no model," Scorca says. "Issues of venue, audience, these vary from city to city."

Harp has often mentioned co-productions as a possible solution, bringing in casts and sets from other regional companies. Scorca cautions that you only "save a small amount of money moving from City A to City B."

It seems to me that Lyric Opera and its parent, Model Lyric, could use a big-time development department and the launch of an all-out fundraising campaign. This would require a hefty kick-start, some enlightened donor willing to toss a few million into the pot. Is it possible that no such person exists in the area?

It also seems to me that, however sensible the company's fiscal restraint, it should be coupled with some daring on the artistic front, a willingness to take chances, to stir things up.

Lyric Opera has been so squarely focused on familiar repertoire that it has already run out of some things. Consider Puccini. His sure-fire box works are typically only "La Boheme," presented in 2012; "Tosca," staged in 2013; and this season's "Butterfly." Lyric Opera can't bring them all back right away.

The emphasis on the tried and true has limited Lyric Opera's profile considerably. And even if you see the choice of Verdi's "Nabucco" last season as a little more daring, that work was staged by the old Baltimore Opera as recently as 2006. It didn't need to return to the Lyric so soon, not with so many stronger operas by Verdi and many other composers to consider.

The company's repertoire so far, all but one of them sung in Italian, hardly suggests a broad palette. Maybe this is one reason the company has struggled to catch fire.

I fear that the most we will get next season is another routine selection — Bizet's "Carmen," say, or Rossini's "The Barber of Seville." The only thing worse would be getting both of them.

You cannot please all opera lovers all the time. No company ever has or ever will. But there's still room for diversity, especially when you consider how rarely some standard works have been performed here. (And if production costs prove prohibitive, consider doing operas in concert form; with a starry cast and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, it could still have a strong draw.)

Beethoven's "Fidelio" was last staged locally in 1996, for example, and Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov" back in 1967. Neither would scare the masses; both would be ripe for inventive stagings that draw out ever-relevant political issues at their core.

Yes, "Boris" is a mega-scale piece that would tax the company's resources. So what about a leaner, also richly rewarding Russian work — Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin" or "Queen of Spades" (never staged here)?

If the company just can't get away from Italian, there are the operas of Handel, increasingly popular elsewhere and unheard at the Lyric. It can even keep Puccini. Just step outside the box and grab "La Rondine," or, even better, the complete "Il Trittico," which had its one and only production by the Baltimore Opera in 1958.

On the French front, Massenet's "Werther" or, for a real leap, Debussy's sublime "Pelleas et Melisande" (that would likely be a first for Baltimore).

Wagner is essential. Why not go for broke and tackle the revolutionary, transcendent "Tristan und Isolde"? No local company has ever staged it.

And while Lyric Opera has made the hiring of American singers a worthy priority, the presentation of American operas would be far more commendable. Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" is overdue, for a start. The company could also stretch and try an opera house-worthy piece by Sondheim.

Two extraordinary composers on the Peabody faculty have received commissions from the Minnesota Opera. Kevin Puts' "The Manchurian Candidate" will be premiered in March; his well-received "Silent Night" was unveiled by the company in 2011. And Joel Puckett's opera based on the 1919 Black Sox scandal is due there in the 2018-19 season.

Lyric Opera isn't in a position to commission works, but couldn't it at least present follow-up productions of works by composers with such strong Baltimore ties as Puts and Puckett?

Showing an appreciation for new opera is one of the best ways a company can honor the old.

Finally, isn't it way past time for Baltimore to experience an opera by its celebrated native son, Philip Glass? Sure, the old guard wouldn't turn up, but a whole new crowd would eagerly snap up the seats if there were ever a production of the brilliant "Satyagraha" at the Modell Lyric.

"Opera companies are being challenged to find an aesthetic niche that excites a traditional audience and a new audience," Scorca says. "The healthiest opera companies today are those thinking about varying their product. There are so many lenses through which to see opera."

My concern is that Lyric Opera Baltimore has been using only one lens with a rather dated and narrow range. That's not to question the passion there. No one has worked harder than Harp to get the company off the ground and keep it running. "Jim's a one-man band. I so admire his unflagging devotion," Scorca says.

But the company needs to develop a wider vision; explore new artistic ideas and horizons; and, in tandem with whatever strength the Modell Lyric management and board of directors can muster, tackle much bigger fundraising enterprises than ever before.

I know none of this would be easy. But something bold has to be done if Baltimore is to enjoy a genuine and lasting operatic renaissance.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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