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Baltimore’s opera scene is scaled back, but still rich. Come experience it. | COMMENTARY

Dinyar Vania, tenor, and Katelyn Jackman, mezzo soprano, perform a scene from Verdi’s Rigoletto as part of the Maryland Opera’s production of “Verdi in the Valley,” performed last February at Stevenson University.
Dinyar Vania, tenor, and Katelyn Jackman, mezzo soprano, perform a scene from Verdi’s Rigoletto as part of the Maryland Opera’s production of “Verdi in the Valley,” performed last February at Stevenson University.(Ed Davis)

I vividly remember where I was when I heard the news. The news that the company into which I had poured my heart and soul for more than three decades was to be no more. The news that silenced a major voice for an important art form. The news that the Baltimore Opera Company was declaring bankruptcy.

It was November 2008 — the Great Recession had hit the economy hard and arts organizations were feeling the pain. When I heard the news, I was at what was once called the Lyric Opera House in Baltimore, preparing the fabulous singers of the principal cast and chorus of Baltimore Opera Company for Bellini’s affecting tragedy, “Norma.” Ironically and sadly it is an opera closely associated with the founder and muse of the Baltimore Opera, Rosa Ponselle.

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Everyone who worked at the Baltimore opera, where I had served as artistic administrator since 1988, knew that these were perilous financial times. And even with this foreknowledge, I was still unmoored when three weeks later, the opera declared bankruptcy. This was a very painful outcome for our board, donors and opera lovers everywhere. We were all in a state of shock. Our supporters felt like we had not tried hard enough. Our ticket buyers felt duped, as we could not refund their tickets. And I felt it was like the plot of a terribly tragic opera of which I wanted no part.

Personally, I felt such a sense of loss. For a while, I seriously considered leaving the art I loved for an entirely new vocation. I might have done just that, but a glimmer of hope pulled me back: through the perseverance of several board members, the good faith of our audiences and the continuation of some dedicated funds and endowments, the Baltimore Opera Company reorganized under the auspices of the Modell Lyric as the Lyric Opera Baltimore.

And so we tried again. For five seasons, we produced exceptional operas that garnered critical and audience acclaim. And yet, the Lyric’s 2,500-seat theater was still too large to fill. So Modell-Lyric and Baltimore Lyric Opera ceased producing and performing opera in 2017.

It became obvious that a new, scaled-back model for opera was necessary. Enter Maryland Opera. This completely independent 501(c)(3) that was formed in early 2019 is committed to both the grand opera tradition and financial transparency and sustainability. We produce themed opera concerts as grand as the budget will allow. With this model, we are able to deliver opera to Baltimore’s opera lovers.

Say what you will about opera — and believe me, I’ve heard it all — those who love it really, really love it. We understand that not everyone does. To them, I would say: Have you ever attended a live opera experience? You have never given opera a full chance unless you have actually experienced the nexus of the harmonies of a full orchestra supporting the massive sound of a finely-trained human voice, set against the backdrop of expertly designed scenery, all of which combines to tell the story of the intense pathos of human joy, suffering, love, lust and rage. Unless you have dived deep into that glorious mix of artistic expression of the highest echelons. To fully appreciate opera, you must experience it live and in person.

So I challenge you: Come and experience it! Experience Maryland Opera’s upcoming performance of “Passion at the Pendry: French Fantasies” this Valentine’s Weekend, on Feb. 14th and 16th. Experience the lust and romance of French grand opera performed in the historic ballroom of the Sagamore Pendry Baltimore and see if it doesn’t move you.

And may I go one step further? Experience it for the good of Baltimore. This city deserves the high culture of a magnificent and grand art form like opera. Baltimore’s contemporary, non-traditional and underground arts scene is thriving and exciting. But that does not mean that traditional arts that have stood the test of time for centuries need to be replaced.

May our city boast the full spectrum of artistic genres and styles. And may all who live here boldly sample this variety of all that our city has to offer and be better for it.

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James Harp (jharp@marylandopera.org) is the artistic director for Maryland Opera.

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