Three years ago, a Druid priestess and her Roman lover walked willingly and melodically into a blazing pyre as the curtain fell on a performance of Bellini's "Norma" at the Lyric Opera House. Those epic characters were not the only ones being consumed.
The Baltimore Opera Company, which gave that masterpiece an effective staging, soon went up in smoke, too, the victim of debt and disillusionment. A Chapter 11 filing in December 2008 was followed in early 2009 by a decision to liquidate.
It was a dispiriting end to an institution that had been a major part of the city's cultural life for decades. Prospects for another company on a similar scale being formed any time soon seemed remote, given how the Great Recession was just beginning to tighten its stranglehold.
But Lyric Opera Baltimore, which has many personal and spiritual roots in the defunct company, will debut next month in the same venue where the "Norma" swan song was sung.
The opening production, Verdi's "La Traviata," is the first of three productions scheduled for the inaugural season. This will provide a showcase for the $13 million of much-needed renovations just completed in the facility, rechristened last year in honor of the patrons who capped the renovation funding: the Patricia & Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric.
"Shortly after Baltimore Opera declared bankruptcy, the trustees of the Lyric called me in," said Jim Harp, who had long served as artistic administrator, education coordinator and director of the chorus for the former company. "They wanted to continue the tradition of grand opera here, and they have worked ceaselessly to do that."
Harp was hired as artistic director of the new opera company, which was envisioned from the start as a full-fledged part of the Lyric, rather than a tenant, as Baltimore Opera had been. A separate Lyric Opera Foundation board, containing a handful of former Baltimore Opera board members, was established alongside the Lyric Foundation's board.
Ed Brody, chairman of the Lyric Foundation's board of trustees and a former chairman of the Baltimore Opera board, was at the forefront of those seeking to create a new entity at the historic theater.
"Million-dollar bond issues had been approved for the Lyric, and one provision was that the Lyric sign a 10-year lease with Baltimore Opera Company," Brody said. "Even though there was no legal obligation after the company went bankrupt, I felt a moral responsibility to bring grand opera back. I felt it was the right thing to do."
Added Sandy Richmond, president and executive director of the Modell/Lyric: "It was not the patrons' fault what happened, but other factors."
Chief among those factors was money. The old company frequently spent beyond its means, and when the economy began to fail, there was no cushion to absorb fresh losses, no reserves to pay off past creditors. Splintering among the board of directors added to the pressure.
Whether liquidation was unavoidable may still be debated in some circles, but the decision to shut down turned out to have something of a silver lining. In a remarkably short time, an opera-producing organization has risen from the ashes of the previous one.
Lyric Opera Baltimore has several connections to the old company. The deja vu includes the chorus, which contains about 90 percent of the Baltimore Opera's choristers. Some of the most popular guest artists from Baltimore Opera's last seasons will be back, notably soprano Elizabeth Futral and her husband, conductor Steven White, for the opening "La Traviata."
Playing in the pit for "La Traviata" and, in March, for Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" will be the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which played for Baltimore Opera productions until a couple of decades ago.
"It used to be a big part of our season," said BSO violinist Greg Mulligan. "I learned a lot of repertoire playing in the pit. And people in the orchestra are really excited about doing this again. It's wonderful to have that fantastic repertoire added to our season."
The Concert Artists of Baltimore will be in the pit for the third production of the inaugural season, Gounod's "Faust," in April. Several of that ensemble's musicians were regulars in the Baltimore Opera orchestra, providing another link to the past.
But the differences between Baltimore Opera and Lyric Opera Baltimore are considerable.
In the former company's final season, the annual budget was about $7 million for four productions, four performances each. The new company: annual budget of $1.5 million; three productions, two performances each.
"We want to have the highest artistic quality but at reduced costs," Richmond said.
American artists will be the emphasis at the new company, rather than international ones. This, too, should help the bottom line.
Thanks to the renovations at the Lyric, which include an additional 20 feet of height, larger sets are now possible. Scenery often had to be cut down to fit the Lyric's stage house, adding to production expenses.
"The biggest difference with Baltimore Opera will be visual," Harp said. "We are definitely bringing in productions that will be opulent, with grander, bigger sets, but not as expensive. And there will be quicker scene changes. We will not be having a 45-minute wait for a scene change during 'Madama Butterfly,' like we did in the early '90s."
The Lyric's ancient sandbag system of counterweights for raising and lowering scenery and fixtures has been replaced with a modern one. (A display of the former, relic-worthy version is in the theater's lobby.)
"No more running to Toys 'R' Us to get more sand," Richmond said.
Throughout the backstage area, refinements have been made, with steel replacing wood, cables replacing rope. Costumed singers will no longer have to scramble down a flight of stairs, cross underneath the stage and scramble back up another flight of stairs to change positions. An enclosed crossover, jutting over the Maryland Avenue sidewalk, was built behind the stage.
"It's two different worlds, really," said George Tivvis, a stage crew member at the Lyric since 1980 and currently production manager. "This is unbelievable."
Previously, opera sets typically remained in place during the week or so of performances, limiting use of the Lyric in between those performances. The revamped Lyric is more flexible; other events can be more easily booked between opera dates.
The sets for the "Traviata" production originated with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, one of the country's leading companies. Those sets are currently in use by the Pittsburgh Opera and will be transported to Baltimore, where they can be unloaded at the Lyric in less time and at less expense than required before the renovations.
Also figuring into the budget is the fact that Lyric Opera has engaged the same stage director and lighting designer who worked on the Pittsburgh production.
"They already have everything worked out on that set," Harp said. "This does wind up costing less money."
Overhead is considerably reduced for the new opera company. Baltimore Opera had about 20 administrative staffers. Technically speaking, the new company has none. Harp and another former Baltimore Opera staffer officially work for the Lyric.
"Lyric Opera Baltimore is embedded in the Lyric," Richmond said. "There are no separate opera employees. Our goal is to maintain as efficient a staff as we can. We are working to find other ways to reduce overall costs."
There's another key factor in the finances of Lyric Opera Baltimore.
"The budget of Baltimore Opera used to be 70 percent contributed income, 30 percent earned income," Richmond said. "Our goal is to reverse that. We will need to sell 80 to 90 percent of capacity in the house to meet that goal, but we are confident that we can do that. Of course, we will still have to be consistently raising funds. If things are not working from a business perspective as the season goes along, the board will analyze the situation and act."
Richmond points to consistent signs of demand since the demise of Baltimore Opera. A few months after that company was liquidated, the Lyric presented a concert version of Puccini's "Turandot" by Washington National Opera, conducted by Placido Domingo. That performance drew a respectable turnout.
During the 2009-2010 season, the Lyric attracted crowds when it presented a recital by stellar soprano Renee Fleming and a New Jersey Opera production of Bizet's "Carmen" that featured the old Baltimore Opera chorus onstage.
"'Carmen' was on Valentine's Day right after a major snowstorm, and we had 2,000 people," Richmond said. "We knew then that we could do this, that we could have grand opera here again."
There were positive responses also to previews of the Lyric Opera, offered in the form of concerts last season while the Lyric's backstage was under renovation.
"People have been very encouraging," Harp said. "They want their opera back. I know there was some skepticism when we first announced Lyric Opera. Many people were heavily invested in the Baltimore Opera Company, and the demise was difficult for people on many levels. But I haven't encountered any skepticism in a very long time. Nowadays, it's just best wishes."
Lyric Opera is not the only operatic focus in the renovated theater. A new association with the Peabody Institute will see one production a year by that conservatory's opera department; the first will be Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress," opening Nov. 18. (Stravinsky's 20th-century masterwork provides a strong contrast to Lyric Opera's traditional, commercially safer repertoire.)
As a presenting house, the Lyric is busy throughout the season, more so than ever now that the renovations make it possible to bring in just about any-size touring shows (a production of "Spamalot" this month showed off the smooth backstage machinery).
Revenue from the mix of stage shows and concerts will help the bottom line for Lyric Opera, an integral part of the theater in a way that Baltimore Opera was not, despite its long tenancy.
"Baltimore Opera did wonderful work," Harp said. "We will do everything we can to continue that high artistic quality. It is so important to have grand opera in Baltimore, to provide performances of this great repertoire again."
Figures for ticket sales and contributions thus far were not disclosed.
"We won't tell you we've got it made," Brody said. "And, yes, we are taking something of a gamble. But we are encouraged by the response we've had so far."
If you go
"La Traviata" will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 4 and 3 p.m. Nov. 6 at the Lyric, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave. Tickets are $48.35 to $151.10. Call 410-547-7328 or go to ticketmaster.com
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