Opera rebounds in Baltimore

When the Baltimore Opera Company closed its doors early in 2009 after nearly 60 years, it represented a major loss to the city's cultural heritage, but opera was far from over. No weight-challenged lady had sung. The spotlight just shifted, that's all. And widened.

Opera Vivente, which had been chugging along since 1998 with fully staged productions, and the American Opera Theater, which had been producing works in Baltimore for a few years, picked up renewed interest. Bit by bit, other enterprises sprouted around town.

"When people see a void, they tend to take advantage of it," says Brendan Cooke, founder and artistic director of Baltimore Concert Opera. Cooke, a baritone who sang often with the Baltimore Opera Company, sought to provide work and uplift for other local singers left out in the cold.

His organization chose a budget-minded concert format — no sets or costumes, only piano accompaniment — and gave its first performance in March '09, a couple of weeks after the Baltimore Opera announced liquidation.

In short order, Chesapeake Concert Opera entered the picture, likewise presenting works without staging or orchestra. The organization, recently rechristened Chesapeake Chamber Opera, is about to open its second season, now with staged presentations.

The scene also includes Baltimore Opera Theatre, which opened its season with a fully staged production of Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" Saturday at the Hippodrome.

The impact of Peabody Opera Theatre, which stages works with student performers each year, is felt in the number of alumni from the conservatory running and/or performing with Baltimore's numerous opera ventures. One of those is the Figaro Project, a new organization that basically follows the concert opera format, with some variations.

"It's very exciting," says James Harp, the former artistic administrator and chorus master of Baltimore Opera. "Having all of these organizations shows how much Baltimore is an opera town. And it really does add to the total arts scene here."

Harp is director of opera and education at the Patricia and Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric, where the Baltimore Opera was a tenant. The Lyric's foundation is pledged to support a company of its own, Lyric Opera Baltimore.

"We will have three wonderful productions next season," Harp says. The lineup lists Verdi's "La Traviata" and, pending final confirmation, Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" and Gounod's "Faust."

"Opera in grand form is a unique experience," Harp adds, "but concert opera or chamber opera can be wonderful, too. And opera in English, which Opera Vivente does, can make it very real and relevant to people. I really do believe that all of our efforts are going to help each other."

As Cooke sees it, "We're all giving opera fans in Baltimore a lot of different options."

The unanswered question is how much long-term, substantive support there is for so many options in one metropolitan area.

"We'll see what the market will bear," says John Bowen, founder and general director of Opera Vivente, which opened its 2010-2011 season this weekend with Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" — performed in English as "Lucy of Lammermoor" — at a church hall in Mount Vernon.

The company's initial budget in 1998 was $5,000 for one production. This season, with three operas and some cabaret shows on the schedule, the budget is $265,000.

"Things are looking pretty good," Bowen says. "What has kept us alive and kept us growing is that we have a very clear artistic mission statement. We're the only English-language company in the [Baltimore-D.C.-area]. We have an intimate performance space. We perform a broad spectrum of repertoire that often gets overlooked in larger opera houses. And we feature local and visiting artists."

Another staged production of "Lucia," this one in the traditional Italian, is due later in the season from Baltimore Opera Theatre, presented at the Gordon Center in Owings Mills. The entity was created by the locally based founders of a long-running touring company called Teatro Lirico D'Europa and uses staging elements from that troupe, along with many of the performers, supplemented by locals.

"If we had more donations, we would engage more local people and try to develop a local chorus," says Jenny Kelly, who founded and runs Baltimore Opera Theatre with her husband, Giorgio Lalov. "At this time we are doing all of this on a very limited budget and are taking no pay for ourselves whatsoever. We feel very encouraged," Kelly adds. "The ticket sales response this season is much better than last season. For the future, I plan to remain very careful."

The Baltimore Concert Opera, based at the Engineers Club in Mount Vernon, turned people away for its first performance in 2009. Demand has leveled off a bit since then. "Fundraising is slower, but we can't complain," Cooke says."We're doing fairly well. Last season, our budget was $68,000; it's $98,000 this year. We have a full, paid chorus."

Attending opera without the usual visual and orchestral elements to go with the singing and acting is not to every taste. "I don't see how you could ever argue that composers wanted it that way," says Bowen. "Opera is a multimedia art form."

Cooke agrees that "sets and orchestra are huge components of opera, but without the singing, it ain't opera," he says. "I think one of the gains in concert opera is a level of intimacy with the performers. For already existing fans, it's a chance to hear the piece in a different way. For others, it might be a gateway drug into opera."

With Chesapeake Chamber Opera, founding director Beth Stewart initially envisioned only the economical concert format. "But we found our performers really wanted to do fully staged operas, so we updated our name and will add some sets and costumes," she says.

To make this more financially viable, Stewart scaled back the season from a half dozen last year to three at a Bolton Hill church, starting with Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel" next weekend. The budget for the season will be "somewhere between $10,000 and $20,000," Stewart says.

Casts will include young singers from the area and as far away as Utah — "singers you won't be able to afford in 10 years," as Chesapeake Chamber Opera's publicity puts it. The idea behind the company is to provide experience for those freshly out of school, like Stewart herself, a soprano who studied at Peabody.

Singers aren't getting rich performing for Stewart's group, or for the Figaro Project, which also showcases emerging talent and was also founded by a soprano, Caitlin Vincent. Like Stewart, she decided to stay in Baltimore after graduating from Peabody.

"It's difficult for singers transitioning into a career," Vincent says. "This is a way for us to get performance opportunities and promote opera." With a budget of about $1,500, the Figaro Project will present the premieres of three one-act operas by Peabody grad students; the group also performs on the opera cabaret series at Germano's in Little Italy.

Occasional sniping can be heard in this operatic fertile territory (Bowen, for example, likens the Chesapeake and Figaro troupes to "a bunch of students putting on a show"), and occasional confusion can be encountered in the public. There are people "wondering what's this group, what's that group, and who does what," Cooke says.

Still, it seems that each of the new ensembles has settled into a distinctive enough niche. American Opera Theater, for example, is known for exploring unusual fare and unusual ways of presenting familiar works. The group, founded by Peabody alum Tim Nelson, also has collaborated with the Handel Choir of Baltimore in creative ways.

Other groups have at least floated collaborative ideas. "There is not enough audience to cannibalize each other's base," Cooke says.

"My hope is that, instead of dividing the audience, we cross-pollinate," Stewart says. "We've had people say they're going to check out Baltimore Concert Opera and Opera Vivente because of Chesapeake Chamber Opera. But I hope we also grow new audiences."

That's a hope widely shared. "The potential fan base is unlimited," Cooke says. "We're all equally invested in breaking the stereotypes about opera. We have to let people know it isn't a club for old, rich white people." Vincent could be speaking for any of the other organizations when she says of hers: "Our goal is to make opera less intimidating."

The commitment to the operatic art can be easily felt in what all of the organizations are doing, and that may be enough to ensure longevity for them. As Stewart says: "Passion is contagious."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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Opera in Baltimore

American Opera Theater: specializes in edgy staged productions of offbeat and standard works. This season includes a pared-down "Butterfly" in December, Kurtag's "Kafka Fragments" next spring at the Theatre Project. 410-752-8558; americanoperatheater.org

Baltimore Concert Opera: presents complete and abridged works with piano accompaniment, without sets or costumes; features local and visiting artists. The season includes "La Boheme" in December, "Marriage of Figaro" in May at the Engineers Club. 443-844-3496; baltimoreconcertopera.com

Baltimore Opera Theatre: fully staged operas, employing resources of the Teatro Lirico d'Europa touring company plus some local performers. Season includes "Lucia di Lammermoor" at the Gordon Center, "La Traviata" at the Hippodrome this winter. 410-419-4344; baltimoreoperatheater.net

Chesapeake Chamber Opera: showcase for young singers from area and beyond; piano accompaniment. Sets and costumes added this season, which includes "Hansel and Gretel" next weekend, "Romeo et Juliette" in February at Memorial Episcopal Church. 410-929-2181; chesapeakechamberopera.org

The Figaro Project: showcase for recent grads and current students; piano accompaniment. In addition to cabaret shows at Germano's Restaurant, season includes world premiere of three one-act operas by local composers in a staged production at the University of Baltimore. No phone; thefigaroproject.com

Lyric Opera Baltimore: newly formed entity of the Modell Performing Arts Center to present large-scale productions at the Lyric Opera House. Expected to engage former Baltimore Opera Company chorus and orchestra. Debut season planned for 2010-2011. 410-685-5086; lyricoperahouse.com

Opera Vivente: produces fully staged works of standard and rare repertoire, all performed in English. Season-opening production of "Lucy of Lammermoor" closes next weekend, followed by "Rinaldo" and "The Will-o'-the-Wisps" at Emmanuel Episcopal Church. 410-547-7997; operavivente.org

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