Baltimore Sun

American Opera Theater's next, typically provocative production may be its last

One of the more interesting stories on what might be called Baltimore's alternative opera scene has been the innovative little company that arrived earlier in the past decade with an emphasis on the baroque. Initially called Ignoti Dei Opera, the ensemble, founded by Timothy Nelson, eventually changed its name to American Opera Theater and moved well beyond the baroque as it tackled off-the-beaten-path fare and provocative interpretations of more standard works.

The 2010-11 season will apparently be the company's last.


December's production, a re-imagining of Puccini's "Madama Butterfly," was canceled. Now, the February venture, a collaboration with the Handel Choir of Baltimore and Peabody Conservatory, is being billed as a swan song.

Press releases received Tuesday from Nelson and the Theatre Project both announce that American Opera Theater is "finally hanging up its hat," but "going out with a bang"; the company's own Web site uses the word "goodbye."

However, Nelson sent me a subsequent email saying there is "some possibility of saving" a spring production of Kurt Weill's "Lost in the Stars," if money can be found. UPDATE: Heard again from Nelson, who says "the needed resources for 'Lost' were just confirmed, so we are going forward with it."


Meanwhile, next month's "bang" is a most intriguing double bill Feb. 4-13 at the Theatre Project: Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas" (the work that launched AOT eight years ago) and the local premiere of

Melissa Dunphy's "The Gonzales Cantata." The latter work, from 2009, gives a Handelian treatment to the congressional testimony of former Attorney General Alberto ("I don't recall") Gonzales. Characters include Senators Ben Cardin, Arlen Specter and Diane Feinstein (she's portrayed by a he in the cantata). Sounds like fun.

If the double bill does turn out to be AOT's finale, Nelson and company can certainly feel good about the way they shook things up over the years. I recall some very cool productions of works by Cavalli, Charpentier (the rarely encountered "David and Jonathan," played out on a stage filled with sand), Handel (the literally high-flying, circus version of "Acis and Galatea") and Weill (the intriguing "Songspiel" with the fabulous Sylvia McNair).

That AOT should be reaching the folding-up-the-tent phase is not surprising. Nelson hasn't lived in the area, or even the country, for some time; it's harder to maintain or develop a company's profile and support from afar. And Nelson is more interested in directing than the day-to-day running of a company, with the endless fundraising that entails. So, even if "Lost in the Stars" materializes later this season, the company is not likely to go on as it has. Instead, we might get periodic Nelson-directed ventures  in the future, rather than a regular season.

It's impressive how much Nelson managed to achieve, despite the financial and logistical odds. Baltimore has benefited considerably from his creative spark.