New company works to bring grand opera back to Baltimore

When Ron Griffin received a solicitation for Lyric Opera Baltimore a few weeks ago, he had some questions. The organization sounded a lot like the Baltimore Opera Company, which folded midseason in 2009 because of financial problems, leaving Griffin and many others holding worthless tickets.

"It was an abrupt end, and it wasn't handled well," said Griffin, a property manager. He and his partner were subscribers and patrons of the old company for more than a dozen years. "I asked what kinds of changes had been made. I just wanted to make sure things aren't being set up in a way that the same thing could happen again."

Memories of Baltimore Opera's demise might fade soon, if all goes well for Lyric Opera Baltimore, which has gradually emerged, partly from the ashes of the former company, and has just announced a three-production season for 2011-2012.

The defunct Baltimore Opera was a tenant at the historic Lyric Opera House, recently renamed the Patricia and Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric. The new entity is part of the center itself, with a board of directors formed by the Lyric Foundation.

There has been some carryover. A few board members of the old company are on the new board. A couple of staffers remain as well, including James Harp, former artistic administrator and education coordinator of the Baltimore Opera, who is now director of opera and education for the Modell/Lyric.

"When we lost the opera company, it was a trauma for the artistic community here," Harp said. "But I'm finding most people are not mentioning that anymore when I go out to talk about the new company. People are willing to overlook what happened. They just want grand opera back at the Lyric."

It is due to arrive in November, after the first significant backstage renovations to the 1894 opera house are completed. Those renovations will mean that larger sets can be put onstage.

The fly tower is being expanded from 62 feet to 80 feet high, from 32 feet to 38 feet deep. The old hemp and sandbag system for raising and lowering scenic elements will be replaced with an up-to-date mechanical counterweight system. New lighting, sound system and stage curtains will be also be installed.

Lyric Opera Baltimore's season will open with a production of Verdi's "La Traviata," featuring lavish scenery rented from the Lyric Opera of Chicago that would have been impossible to fit in the theater before.

"Baltimore Opera often had to bring sets into a warehouse, reduce the size of them and then load them into the Lyric," said Sandy Richmond, president and executive director of the Modell/Lyric. "The sets would then be taken back to the warehouse and put back together. We will reduce costs by virtue of the new stage house."

Keeping production costs down is a major focus of the new company.

"The former Baltimore Opera Company did some wonderful work," Harp said, "but with that business model, the costs would be exorbitant now. We have reduced overhead in terms of theater rental, office and rehearsal space. We're doing two performances of each opera, instead of four, and we're doing only three productions instead of four."

Besides "La Traviata," the lineup includes Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro," with scenery from L'Opera de Montreal, and Gounod's "Faust," a co-production with Arizona Opera. Harp estimated the budget for the inaugural season at about $1.5 million.

"Singers are accepting fees less than they used to get here," Harp said. "Lyric Opera of Chicago is giving us a very generous reduction on their rental rate, as is Opera Montreal. People want to help us bring grand opera back to Baltimore."

Some local institutions are joining in that effort. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will be in the pit for "Traviata" and "Figaro" — the first time the BSO has played for the opera in the Lyric since 1989. Concert Artists of Baltimore will provide the orchestra for "Faust."

"Having the BSO adds to the credibility side of this," Richmond said. "It's wonderful to have a world-class orchestra involved. And Concert Artists is also a great group."

The BSO provided the orchestra for opera performances in Baltimore as early as 1927 and had a long association with the organization that became the Baltimore Opera Company.

"Our involvement dwindled primarily due to scheduling," BSO president and CEO Paul Meecham said. "But we can manage with Lyric Opera's schedule. And we're happy to collaborate. Since we last played the opera in 1989, we see the symphony's role within the community being less exclusive and more inclusive."

In November, the Peabody Institute will collaborate with Lyric Opera Baltimore to present a fully staged production of Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress" featuring students onstage and in the pit. This will be offered separately from the inaugural subscription season.

Peabody director Jeffrey Sharkey called the relationship between the conservatory and the new opera company "absolutely logical. It's a great opportunity for our singers and our orchestra to perform in a large theater. We'll have to raise the money for the set for 'The Rake's Progress,' which will be a lot bigger than we're used to, but I think we can do it."

Operas at Peabody are performed in a relatively intimate, 750-seat theater; the Lyric seats about 2,500. Sharkey anticipates the relationship with Lyric Opera Baltimore will eventually include opportunities for student singers in small roles for the new company's productions; there's talk, too, of the conservatory presenting concerts for orchestra and chorus at the Lyric.

Operatic activity has continued in and around Baltimore since the death of the Baltimore Opera Company, from modest, concert-form presentations with piano accompaniment to chamber-sized productions by the long-established Opera Vivente in Mount Vernon to substantial ventures by the recently organized Baltimore Opera Theatre (presented at the Hippodrome Theatre and Gordon Center in Owings Mills).

But the Lyric's historical role as the primary venue for grand opera seems to resonate most strongly.

"We were very fortunate to have a great artistic institution as a resident company at the Lyric for almost 60 years," Richmond said. "When it folded, we felt there was still an audience for opera and we saw that interest continue when we brought Washington National Opera here for a concert version of 'Turandot' in 2009, then a concert by [soprano] Renee Fleming, and then a fully staged production of 'Carmen' last February."

Such events encouraged efforts inside the Lyric organization to launch a full-fledged opera company, one that would aim to avoid the mistakes of management and budgeting.

"We have always been financially prudent at the Lyric and we will continue to be financially prudent," Richmond said. "We have a very lean staff."

Harp said that the immediate focus is on fundraising and development to ensure a fully supported launch in the fall.

"We don't anticipate any misfortune," he said, "but we are prepared to refund any ticket money if need be. We're committed to making this work."

That sort of assurance may be enough to sway people like Griffin.

"I'm pretty sure we'll be buying tickets," he said. "Opera is a great art form, and our city is the better for having it."

Lyric Opera Baltimore's inaugural season:

•Nov. 4 and 6: "La Traviata" with Elizabeth Futral and Eric Margiore; Baltimore Symphony; Steven White, conductor; Crystal Manich, stage director.

•March 9 and 11, 2012: "The Marriage of Figaro" with Daniel Mobbs and Caitlin Lynch; Baltimore Symphony; Joseph Rescigno, conductor; Bernard Uzan, director.

•April 20 and 22, 2012: "Faust" with Stefania Dovhan and Bryan Hymel; Concert Artists of Baltimore; James Meena, conductor; Uzan. director.

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