Five years ago this month, the Baltimore Opera Company presented its last production. Back then, few people inside or out of the company realized that the vivid singing in Bellini's "Norma" would be a farewell to what had been a mainstay of the city's cultural life for more than six decades.
Bankruptcy was declared early in December 2008; company officials decided on liquidation three months later.
"Not to be melodramatic, but we all had a feeling of desolation," said James Harp, who was artistic administrator of Baltimore Opera. "To many of us, it all seemed incomprehensible and unbelievable. And it happened so very, very quickly."
Something else happened with remarkable speed — the formation of Lyric Opera Baltimore, on the very spot where the old company breathed its last. The new organization was launched only two years after that "Norma" swan song. It’s an entity of the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric Opera House, rather than a renter, as the previous company was.
"It’s nothing short of miraculous, and I use that word deliberately," Harp said.
This weekend, Lyric Opera opens its third season with Puccini's "Tosca" and a touch of nostalgia.
"The set we are renting is coming home," said Harp, who is artistic director of Lyric Opera and also stage director for "Tosca." "It originated at Baltimore Opera, but was sold [at the liquidation] to Fort Worth Opera."
In addition to bringing a liquidated asset back to Baltimore for another bow (the last time local audiences saw it on the stage of the Lyric Opera House was in 2007), Lyric Opera had planned to present stellar bass-baritone Eric Owens in the role of Scarpia, the super-evil villain.
Owens had to bow out due to illness last week, but Raymond Aceto, an experienced Scarpia, rushed in to save the day. He will join soprano Jill Gardner as Tosca, the diva who sets Scarpia's hormones into overdrive, and Dinyar Vania as Tosca's boyfriend, the painter and revolutionary Cavaradossi.
Puccini's powerhouse score will be conducted by Steven White and played by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
In addition to "Tosca," Lyric Opera's 2013-2014 lineup will offer a staging of Verdi's "Nabucco" in May. A concert of French opera highlights will be held in April. Peabody Opera Theatre's production of Poulenc's "Dialogues of the Carmelites" will be co-presented by the Modell/Lyric in November.
"The Lyric has been a place for people in Baltimore to see opera productions for over a hundred years," said Modell/Lyric president and executive director Sandy Richmond. "The Metropolitan Opera came here for many years on tour. We had Baltimore Opera here and now we have self-produced opera. Opera is part of our brand and also part of our mission."
That's an expensive part, given the costs of putting operas onto a stage — the budget for each Lyric Opera production is between $500,000 and $600,000, Richmond said.
Fundraising has picked up since the early years of the Great Recession, but there is mixed news at the box office. Although there has not been much growth in subscriptions, single ticket sales are stronger than at this point last year.
"We have seen growth in the numbers of young people attending, which is important," Richmond said.
That may account for a trend at Lyric Opera.
"Ten years ago, Sunday opera matinees would sell out, while Friday nights were slow," Richmond said. "Now Sunday matinees are slow and Friday nights sell very well."