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Proposal for an Opera Theatre of Saint Louis-type of company in Baltimore

After writing about Baltimore's operatic future in early May, I received a thought-provoking, extraordinarily detailed analysis from a couple of opera lovers in Annapolis, Jan and Ellen Richter. My column in the July 5 Sun refers to the ideas the Richters raised for building here something along the lines of the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. It's pretty easy to get caught up in their enthusiasm, and I can already envision such a company blossoming here, either downtown in an intimate place like Centerstage, or in Towson at Goucher College (an environment not unlike the campus where OTSL performs.) 

I thought it would be of interest to anyone following the Baltimore scene to have access to more of the Richters' comments, which they gave me permission to present here. There's a lot of stuff here, but I think you'll find it well worth reading. Feel free to post your reactions, or your own visions of Baltimore's operatic future.

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... We believe that the next step in this discussion is to examine the financial and artistic prospects of a Baltimore Opera Company (BOC) follow-on company, and also to broaden the discussion to ask what kind of opera could succeed in Baltimore. We would like to lay out here some personal thoughts on these topics.

We believe that current trends indicate that any BOC follow-on will only succeed, if at all, at a lower artistic and financial level. Baltimore is a mid-sized metropolitan area (20th largest in the U.S.) that has shown the proven ability to devote up to $6 million per year to the former BOC. The BOC at the end of its life was in a three way competition for the grand opera audience in Baltimore along with the Metropolitan Opera High-Definition broadcasts and the nearby Washington National Opera (WNO).

While the Met broadcasts are not live opera, the casts are hard to equal and the price is very appealing ...

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The WNO is located less than 40 miles from Baltimore's Washington Monument, and the productions are major league. The cost is, however, generally higher than for the old BOC. According to Guidestar (Form 990), the budget for 7 productions at WNO is about $35 million. Thus, on a very rough basis, the old BOC had $1.5 million available for each of 4 productions, while WNO has about $5 million available for each of 7 productions.

Given the break in operatic activity, it is not likely that the Baltimore opera community will support a new company at anywhere near $6 million in the first season of operations. That old BOC budget will probably not be achieved again for at least 5 to 10 years, as the new company proves that its productions are "must see" events. Meanwhile, the Met keeps expanding the number of broadcasts and WNO seems to be expanding a budget that is already far greater than Baltimore can hope to raise. These trends figured in the demise of the former BOC and will slow the growth of a new "grand" company, since it will compete with the Met and WNO. Once money flows to the Met broadcasts and WNO, it may never return to a new grand company.

The result is that a BOC follow-on company will, with near certainty, have to ...

operate for some time, and possibly for the long run, at a much lower financial and artistic level than the old BOC ... Baltimore had the resources to compete in grand opera in 1950 at the BOC founding, but it no longer has the population or money to compete with Washington and the other great, grand operas of America ...

When BOC was founded, Baltimore was competitive in resources for funding grand opera. Today, the metro area no longer has the resources typical of those cities which support great, grand opera companies ...

The BOC budget was 4th to 8th largest among American opera companies in the early 1950s. So the reality is that the Baltimore metropolitan area population rank has fallen from 12th in 1950 to 20th now, and the BOC budget rank shortly after its founding was 4th to 8th largest but fell to 24th largest near the end of its life. By way of comparison, the 12th largest metro area now is Phoenix with 4,281,899 (1.6 times larger than Baltimore). The 8th largest opera company budget is Houston with $22,094,055 (3.6 times larger than BOC's budget). The 4th largest opera company budget is Chicago with $56,714,466 (9.3 times larger than BOC's budget). Baltimore is no longer in the population and budget class to compete in grand opera as successfully as the BOC did early in its life.

Given the financial and population resources of Baltimore, what kind of opera can succeed here? The goal should be to create a nationally important 21st century opera company ...

Surveying other companies in a similar budget class ... reveals that it is possible to have internationally important opera on a roughly $6 - $8 million annual budget. The two companies that jump out are Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (OTSL) and Glimmerglass Opera. Two other significant companies that operate on even lower budgets (ca. $2 - $3 million) are Chicago Opera Theatre and Des Moines Metro Opera. These are all small- stage companies performing in intimate houses (fewer than 1,000 seats) and featuring young, emerging American singers.

The most direct comparison is to OTSL, the principal opera company of St. Louis. Since moving to Annapolis from St. Louis in 1999, we have continually observed the similarity between the cities of St. Louis and Baltimore. They are comparable in population and wealth, and we think, have a similar psychology. St. Louis stands in the shadow of Chicago as Baltimore does of Washington. In 1975, Baltimore had a nationally significant opera company and St. Louis had none. In 2009, Baltimore has no professional opera company with even a $250,000 budget. St. Louis has an adventuresome, small-stage opera company with a ca. $8 million annual budget that attracts audiences and critics internationally and is among America's fiscally strongest opera companies ...

We think that circumstances in Baltimore are encouraging for the creation of a small-stage opera company based on young American singers that could live within the old BOC budget and do nationally and possibly internationally important work. The issue for Baltimore is great versus grand. Many prominent participants in the opera business attend OTSL and by their presence and critiques make clear that it is a great opera that any city could be proud of. A revived grand opera in Baltimore, given likely resources and trends will almost certainly not be able to aspire to greatness or even national notice.

The key is that St. Louis does not compete directly with the largest budget companies in the U.S. (Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, San Francisco) in repertoire, singers, or performance style. With its intimate theater of 987 seats, OTSL is ideal for young voices and lets the drama almost leap off the stage ...  The small house has enabled OTSL to originate 21 world and 22 US premieres in 34 seasons ...

In contrast, the old BOC and various proposed large-stage follow-on companies need to generally do relatively conservative "top 40" operas to fill the 2,500 seat Lyric theater. There are a limited number of singers who have the required large voices for the Lyric and few of the best will be affordable for any revived Baltimore grand company. The only company that will be able to financially succeed in Baltimore producing grand opera will in all probability be a pale artistic shadow of the old BOC.

So a company utilizing the current abundance of accomplished young American singers based in a suitable 500 - 1,200 seat theater and performing a mix of popular favorites and new and unusual works could thrive here and serve the local opera audience well. This could be a summer festival (St. Louis and Glimmerglass) or a regular season company (Chicago Opera Theater). Ideas could be drawn from all of these companies to create a unique Baltimore institution that looks forward to the future of opera. This type of company could make a real impression on an initial $2 - $3 million budget and would have an excellent chance of growing to the $6 million class.

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In short, we believe that Baltimore will be much better off with a small-stage opera company that aspires to be great but not grand and has a real chance of high achievement, as opposed to a large-stage company that will with near certainly be always constrained by the size and resources of the city to be grand, but not great.

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Finding an appropriate theater in Baltimore is clearly a challenge in creating new small-stage company. First, let's look at the fine, but less than ideal, St. Louis theater. It has 987 seats all on one level (no balconies), and the acoustics are optimized for spoken voice. It was built about 1965 to house what became the Repertory Theater of St. Louis, which still occupies it between September and April. This is where the May-June season originated—because the theater was available. The pit was enlarged for the first season to about 35 players and has since been expanded to 55. The pit opening is small and part of the orchestra sound is swallowed up. Fortunately, the excellent St. Louis Symphony is the pit orchestra and overcomes the circumstances. There is a thrust stage with no curtain. The theater, located in suburban St. Louis, is owned by Webster University, which uses it for some academic activities during the winter months in addition to usage by the Repertory Theater. Nevertheless, great opera has found a home here for 34 seasons.

The Glimmerglass Opera house is our favorite in this size class. It has balconies for very short viewing distances, a larger pit and good acoustics (to our ears). This is another adventuresome opera company that operates on roughly the same budget as the old BOC and attracts national and international attention.

We are not so familiar with the resources of Baltimore as to be able to suggest an appropriate theater, and finding a suitable venue will likely be a challenge. We both thought that the larger house at Center Stage might have possibilities for a summer opera. It reminds us of the OTSL theater. The auditorium at Goucher College struck us as having the same general "feel" and park-like setting as at OTSL. Perhaps a college or junior college theater could be used for a summer opera. Someone with imagination and a solid knowledge of stage and orchestra requirements needs to scour the area for possibilities.

In full disclosure, please note: While Jan is currently a board member of Opera Vivente and Ellen has been, the purpose of these musings is to advocate adventuresome, small stage opera for Baltimore, not any specific company. We have also been subscribers and supporters of OTSL since 1978 and are currently members of the OTSL National Patrons Council. We are also looking forward to our 7th Glimmerglass season.

We would love to see the excitement and originality that characterizes OTSL and Glimmerglass appearing regularly on a stage in Baltimore. We further believe that such a company could relatively quickly (less than 10 years) become one of the crown jewels of the Baltimore cultural scene.

Sincerely yours,

Jan Paul Richter

Ellen von Seggern Richter

PHOTOS BY KEN HOWARD OF OPERA THEATRE OF SAINT LOUIS GROUNDS AND THEATER, COURTESY OF OTSL

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