For Virginia opera lovers, it’s a whole new scene

(Anne M. Peterson/ Anne M. Peterson ) - Kevin Gray and Lisa Vroman in the Lyric Opera Virginia production of ‘The King and I.’

(Anne M. Peterson/ Anne M. Peterson ) - Kevin Gray and Lisa Vroman in the Lyric Opera Virginia production of ‘The King and I.’

When Robin Thompson sat down to see a performance of Philip Glass’s opera “Orphée” at the Glimmerglass Opera in 2007, he had low expectations. “I thought, ‘God, that’s going to be endless ostinato,’ ” he said, referring to Glass’s signature musical phrases that repeat over and over and over and over.

But then the music started. “From the downbeat,” Thompson says, “I sat bolt upright in my chair. It had nothing to do with any Philip Glass music I had ever heard. And then the curtain went up, and the design was just amazing.”

(David A. Beloff/David A. Beloff) - Baritone Matthew Worth and soprano Sara Jakubiak in Virginia Opera's production of Philip Glass' ‘Orphee.’

When he saw “Orphée,” Thompson was the artistic administrator at the New York City Opera, and he planned to snare the production for that company. Instead, City Opera went into a long, painful decline; the 2008-09 season, when Thompson had planned to stage “Orphée,” was cancelled; and Thompson, having left his post and written a book on “Porgy and Bess,” ended up at the Virginia Opera in the consulting post of artistic adviser, brought in to help guide that company after the firing of its long-time general and music director, Peter Mark.

But Thompson is loyal: He’s brought the production of “Orphée” that he saw at Glimmerglass, directed by Sam Helfrich, along with him. It opens at George Mason University’s Center for the Performing Arts on Friday night.

“It’s a leap,” Thompson concedes, to present a contemporary work that’s never been done in Virginia by a composer whose ostinatos strike fear into the hearts of many classical music traditionalists. “ ‘Orphée’ is a leap for this company and this audience, and I know that, but I felt it was very important to send a strong, loud signal that the company was changing. A number of things came together, and I said: ‘This is it. This is what they should do.’ ”

Opera in Virginia is changing, all right. For one thing, there’s more of it. This may not be immediately apparent from the Virginia Opera’s schedule, which, like that of the Washington National Opera and many other companies, has gradually shrunk in the current economic climate: fewer productions, fewer performances. But the company’s new management is working to rebuild. Next season will see three more performances, while the young-artist program is expanding with a new “Master Teacher” series of classes with notable artists, starting this month with the soprano Diana Soviero, whose “La Traviata” with the Virginia Opera in 1975 is still remembered vividly by many local opera-goers.

Meanwhile, there’s a new company in town: Peter Mark, not one to go gently into the good night, has founded Lyric Opera Virginia . In its first season, the troupe has drawn strong reviews for Verdi’s “La Traviata” (in September) and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I” (in January). Mark has laid out a template that reflects the mix of great ambition and popular touch he showed at the Virginia Opera: one opera from the standard repertory, often a huge assignment for a small company (next season is Puccini’s challenging “Fanciulla del West”); one American musical; and one “jewel box” production that Mark describes as “a carefully crafted shortened version . . . that has musical jewels from each work.” This season’s, scheduled to open in May, will be a 90-minute “Carmen.”

Given the acrimonious parting of ways between Mark and the Virginia Opera in November 2010, relations between the two ensembles seem surprisingly cordial. The companies have to maintain some contact to make sure that, in a small market, they don’t offer the same operas or schedule performances on the same dates. Mark, of course, took some of his prime donors with him, notably Edythe C. Harrison, who hired him in 1974 for the Virginia Opera and gave her name to the theater in Norfolk that remains that company’s home base.

But not all patrons think they have to take sides. After all, the Virginia Opera offers four productions a year, and Lyric Opera Virginia promises three; together, they amount to what in many cities is a full season.

“Opera-lovers,” says Russell Allen, hired as president and chief executive of the Virginia Opera in September, “are perceiving it as more opportunities to go see opera.”

“With 1 percent of the population going to opera,” Mark says, “no one can have a monopoly with 1 percent of the market. I think I’ve proved there’s room for a lot of growth.”

Lyric Opera Virginia has excitement and newness on its side; Mark says many of the first performances sold out. The Virginia Opera is more established — it’s looking ahead to its 40th anniversary season in 2014-15 — and has a larger operating budget: $5.4 million this year, to Lyric’s $1.9 million.

The Lyric Opera is targeting a broader popular audience: “We are very committed to sharing the works that we love in fresh formats, so we can bring more audiences to the form,” Mark says. The Virginia Opera, in Thompson’s view, is seeking to assert its place at the table with other significant American regional companies, using Thompson’s connections to help win back a higher caliber of singers and conductors.

Thompson has outlined his own template for Virginia Opera seasons to come. First, every season will open with a new production of a work new to the company, dubbed the “First of Firsts” series. This was sparked by “Aida” last fall, a work that on paper seemed far beyond the compass of a company the size of the Virginia Opera and that was astonishingly successful. (It was largely planned before Thompson arrived.) Next year’s “first” is Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers.”

The other regular season component will be an American work; after “Orphée,” the 2012-13 season will offer Andre Previn’s operatic setting of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” With the focus on American work and young American singers, the company will “eventually be making a position,” Thompson says, “that would have been filled by City Opera, if City Opera had still existed” in its familiar form.

There are, of course, plenty of question marks. Mark’s liability has been a hot temper; it remains to be seen whether he can sustain another organization over the long term once the honeymoon has faded. Allen, who is setting out to rebuild the Virginia Opera’s subscriber base, is not necessarily a visionary, and he has a track record of relatively short tenures at a number of organizations — most recently the Washington Ballet, which he left last year after a single three-year term, and earlier, yes, the Virginia Opera, where he was general director from 1994 to 2000.

As for Thompson, his contract expires in May. Allen has yet to announce a search for the next official artistic director. “The way I look at it,” he says, “it’s either going to be a conductor, or a stage director, or somebody like Robin, and all three will be looked at.”

Both companies are setting out less to break new ground than to rejuvenate the old — something that’s a specialty of the opera world, and for which Glass’s “Orphée” could serve as a metaphorical model. The opera, written in 1993, closely follows the screenplay of the 1949 Jean Cocteau film that moved the Orpheus legend into the modern age. Glass replaced the original Georges Auric score with music whose straightforwardness echoes now French composing traditions — an homage to the group of composers known as Les Six — and now earlier operas based on the same story, by Gluck in the 18th century and Monteverdi in the 17th. In effect, he contextualizes the opera by giving it the sounds of the archaic turned modern, with musical references to the past embedded in his own distinctively contemporary vocabulary.

Considered one of his most successful operas, and calling for relatively few musicians, it’s establishing itself in the repertory of opera houses around the country. (The Portland Opera mounted the same Helfrich production and released a fine recording of it in 2010.)

It will be interesting to see whether Virginia’s opera-goers respond to the beauties of this piece — and whether, in the long run, competition may be the best thing to have happened to opera in Virginia in a long time. On the record, at least, both companies are sanguine.

“I think,” Allen says, “there’s enough room for both.”

Orphée

conducted by Stephen Jarvi, Friday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. at the George Mason University Center for the Arts in Fairfax. Box office: 888-945-2468, cfa.gmu.edu/tickets

 
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