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How to give opera a fighting chance in Baltimore

Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Will opera ever be a big deal in Baltimore again? Tim Smith's two cents on why it should be, how it could be.

Last May, a visually stylish, strongly cast production of Gounod's "Romeo et Juliette" filled the stage of the Lyric Opera House. If only seats in the theater had been filled, too.

The paltry attendance for that Lyric Opera Baltimore presentation made me wonder if Baltimore can't, or won't, support a professional company that offers a season of full-scale productions. The fact that no Lyric Opera productions have been announced for 2016-2017 made me wonder more.

"After 'Romeo et Juliette,' the board put together a committee to see how we can move forward," says James Harp, artistic director of Lyric Opera Baltimore. "The committee decided that yes, indeed, opera should be a part of the Lyric. The issue is finding a way to pay for it. We are moving forward with fundraising."

While that fundraising effort proceeds — concerts and other events may be a part of the effort — the return of staged operas will have to wait.

When Lyric Opera audaciously emerged in 2011 from the ashes of the money-starved Baltimore Opera Company, liquidated a few years earlier after almost six decades, fiscal responsibility was the mantra. Before putting on a season, sufficient funding had to be in place.

So, on the plus side, Lyric Opera kept its head above water. On the down side, it meant a steadily dwindling enterprise.

Structured as a component of the Lyric's administration (Baltimore Opera Company had been a tenant), Lyric Opera started off promisingly with a three-production season featuring such notable artists as soprano Elizabeth Futral and tenor Bryan Hymel.

Frequency of operas decreased thereafter, down to only one in the 2014-2015 season. Sixteen months passed before the company returned with a respectable staging of "The Barber of Seville" last March, the Gounod opera subsequently.

Lyric Opera deserves enormous credit for launching five years ago — in the wake of the Great Recession, no less — and sticking with it. But all of the passion for the art form inside the company has not translated into plentiful subscribers or deep-pocketed donors.

Is it possible that all the people who attended the old Baltimore Opera Company productions have turned away from the art form? Did internal factions and squabbles on that former company's board of directors leave so many casualties that no moneyed, dedicated folks are left (or willing to try again)?

In hindsight, maybe more should have been done to address those who lost money when Baltimore Opera Company folded in the middle of its 2008-2009 season. Imagine the good will if, say, funding had been found to underwrite free tickets to people who had bought seats for those canceled operas.

But that's all arias under the bridge. What about a future for Lyric Opera Baltimore?

If another season does materialize, it should come with modifications to the theater itself. For starters, make the space look more intimate and full. I'd seal off the rear balcony — literally, if doable without harming acoustics; or simply by not selling seats there. As ticket demand grows, the rear balcony could be reopened.

I would still use the side balconies, but only after finding a way to adjust the angle of the seating. As it is now, people on one side directly face people on the other, instead of the stage. Surely some foundation or philanthropist could be enticed to foot the bill for a project that would bring such relief to audiences (at least their shoulders and necks).

During the hiatus before productions return, I'd concentrate more than ever on collaborating with other companies. Lyric Opera has done this already to an admirable extent, but more options could be explored.

Some of the most consistent and engaging productions I've seen in recent years have been those of Virginia Opera, which performs in smaller houses than the Lyric. Maybe a long-term association between the Lyric and Virginia companies would lead to more scenery being designed to expand or contract depending on the stage.

Speaking of Virginia Opera, that company's repertoire choices are savvy and adventurous, certainly more interesting than the standard fare Lyric Opera has focused on so far. I saw audiences in Fairfax cheer such wonderful works as Philip Glass' "Orphee" and Richard Strauss' "Ariadne aux Naxos," both delivered by Virginia Opera with solid casts and theatrical flair. Would the reaction in Baltimore be that much different?

Consider, too, what spunky Opera Delaware is doing — last season, the East Coast premiere of the long forgotten "Amleto" by Franco Faccio, paired with another Shakespeare-inspired work, Verdi's "Falstaff"; this season, Rossini's popular "Cenerentola" and much rarer "Semiramide." Maybe there's a collaborative avenue possible with that group, too. Opera Delaware already has a relationship with Baltimore Concert Opera (the founder of the latter is now general director of the former).

I've got to believe Baltimore audiences would respond well if there was an effective way to present a richer operatic diet here. I understand conservative programming when you don't have oodles of money, but Lyric Opera Baltimore will have to expand its horizons. Greatest hits can take you only so far.

One way to become more flexible, and possibly face an easier time financially than putting on large productions at the Lyric, would be to grow the company at a smaller venue — a theater of 1,000 seats or fewer (there aren't a lot of great options around here, but it's not hopeless).

As you build an audience in a smaller house, you could do much more with repertoire and production styles. The downsizing would, of course, also mean an easier time collaborating with the likes of Virginia Opera.

Focusing on a downsized operation would not have to mean abandoning the Lyric totally. How about an annual collaboration or two with Baltimore Concert Opera? That group does cool stuff at the Engineers Club, but can only offer piano accompaniment. It would be great to have the scene move to the Lyric and feature a full orchestra once in a while.

If you don't think this could ever have appeal, just check out Washington Concert Opera at Lisner Auditorium.

One more thing about concert opera: I'd like to see the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra explore the format on a regular basis, as other major orchestras have done with remarkable success. This could be especially valuable if tied together somehow with the efforts of Lyric Opera Baltimore and Baltimore Concert Opera. It's all about bringing more attention to the art form.

Let me toss out another idea for Lyric Opera, this one admittedly wild and crazy. The beloved soprano Rosa Ponselle became the face and the force of the Baltimore Opera Company back in the day. How about recruiting a notable singer of our time to provide a similar lift for Lyric Opera?

I nominate stellar mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, who has a wealth of experience and connections, not to mention a tie to Baltimore (she teaches at the Peabody Conservatory). That she also offers a lot of glamour wouldn't hurt. If you could entice her to associate with the company — honorary board chair, perhaps — she just might be the magnet needed for new donors and for new audiences.

Speaking of attracting audiences, Lyric Opera would do well to reflect its own community more. There should be a greater effort than ever before to engage artists of color — singers, conductors, directors, designers — when the company resumes productions. Those artists are out there. They deserve to be seen and heard here.

Opera will never be hugely popular, will always be hugely expensive. But it's a noble art form, combining as it does so many different art forms, and it should be an essential component of this city's cultural life. I hope Lyric Opera Baltimore will succeed in raising money and awareness in the months ahead, will find fresh blood and explore fresh ideas along the way.

If we end up with a vibrant, sustainable, daring, community-embracing company, the wait will be well worth it.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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