Opera in Baltimore is thriving with at least seven opera companies

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 11, 2010; E05

This spring, the city of Baltimore got its own version of Mozart's "Die Zauberflöte": the "Bawlmer Magic Flute," set in present-day Charm City, courtesy of the small company Opera Vivente. Papageno, the bird-catcher, was an Orioles fan who made his living trading hard-to-find baseball memorabilia. His lady love, Papagena, had a bird connection as well: She was a Hooters waitress, her emblem the Hooters owl. Both sang in a dialect you won't find taught in most opera programs: Bawlmerese.

Opera in Baltimore is thriving. A year ago, that statement seemed nearly impossible. When the Baltimore Opera filed for bankruptcy in the middle of the 2008-09 season, ending a 58-year tradition, the city seemed destined for a nearly opera-less future. It's true that there were a couple of small local companies, but nobody imagined that a mere 18 months later Baltimore would have at least seven opera companies, maybe more.

These companies aren't your grandmother's opera. More than half of them started this season. Most of them are operating on a shoestring: $275,000 for the relatively well-established Opera Vivente, which just finished its 12th season; $10,000 to $20,000 for the Chesapeake Concert Opera, which is recasting itself next season as the Chesapeake Chamber Opera thanks to the encouragement it got after its first six performances this spring.

They offer young local singers, nontraditional stagings and in some cases unusual repertory -- such as the stripped-down adaptation of "Madame Butterfly" for prepared piano and electric gamelan orchestra that American Opera Theater will present on a double bill with Messiaen's "Harawi" in 2010-11. And they are definitely playing to a new audience.

"The growth has been in unexpected areas," says Tim Nelson, who founded American Opera Theater in 2002. "Twenty-five-to-40-year-olds; people from less affluent, less educated backgrounds."

"We took a survey at our second-to-last show," says Beth Stewart, a soprano who founded Chesapeake Concert Opera, which performs in a church in Bolton Hill. "Tons of people said, 'We weren't really into opera before. Now we are.' "

* * *

What makes Baltimore so opera-friendly? First, there's a ready talent pool: young singers who come to the city to study at the Peabody Institute, and don't want to leave after they graduate. Baltimore offers cheap rents and proximity to the major audition centers along the East Coast, such as New York and Philadelphia. But it didn't used to abound in performance opportunities.

"I had all these singer friends" from Peabody, says John Bowen, Opera Vivente's founder, "who liked Baltimore and wanted to stay, but couldn't get hired until they had gone to New York." Opera Vivente was founded in the 1990s in part as a way to counteract that.

But today's graduates are finding that they can't get hired anywhere anyway. "We found ourselves and our friends coming of age at a time when opportunities seemed to be rapidly dwindling," says Chesapeake's Stewart. "We had conversations, over many beers: What are we going to do? Are we going to wait it out or create opportunity ourselves?"

For Stewart, creating opportunity meant founding the Chesapeake Chamber Opera; Caitlin Vincent, another Peabody alum, founded the Figaro Project with grant money from Peabody and Johns Hopkins. It's not the career every young singer envisions.

"A couple of years ago," Stewart admits, "I would have turned up my nose and rolled my eyes at 200 bucks" -- the top fee the Chesapeake Chamber Opera will offer for a leading role next season. "But if you really love it, you go after it, make connections, meet colleagues, get a role under your belt in front of a live audience, maybe get reviews." After all, it looks better on your résumé than saying you spent two years coaching, taking auditions and waiting tables.

In fact, there are so many singers eager for work that the Chesapeake Chamber Opera had 300 applications for its first season, even though they were paying almost nothing. Opera Vivente regularly sees auditionees from as far away as California. "The opera singer world is so glutted that there could be five times the number of companies in Baltimore and there'd still be singers to populate them," Bowen says.

* * *

Small as they are, even these start-up companies can lead to other opportunities. The eight-year-old American Opera Theater has helped its founder Nelson, who trained as a composer and harpsichordist, cultivate an international directing career.

Working half the year in Europe, Nelson said by phone from a directing gig in Amsterdam, "I can get the 'Carmens' and 'Bohèmes' out of my system, and then come back to Baltimore and do 'Kafka Fragments.' " The latter, an important piece by György Kúrtag that isn't exactly a repertory staple, will be part of an American Opera Theater double bill in 2010-11 with "The Gonzales Cantata," a 2008 setting of the transcript of the Senate judiciary hearings before the appointment of Alberto Gonzales, the former attorney general, in the style of a Handel oratorio.

Is there really an audience for all this? It's not necessarily the traditional one: Former subscribers to the Baltimore Opera might go to the Baltimore Opera Theatre, founded last year by an impresario who offers conventional opera on as large a scale as possible. The Baltimore Lyric Opera is another fledgling venture that hopes to present full-scale traditional opera at the Lyric opera house, and broke the ice in February with a "Carmen." But, Bowen says, "the Baltimore patrons who are grand opera fans are probably going to Washington, or going to the Met."

He's not interested in trying to win them over. "I think the days of grand opera are numbered, in this country at least," he says. His goal is different: "I want to foster a more eclectic audience for opera."

It's an open question how many of these small, homegrown outfits will survive -- but for now, at least, they are offering a new vision for the future of an old art form.

American Opera Theater, the Baltimore Concert Opera, Opera Vivente and the Lyric Opera House of Baltimore will all be offering free programs at Artscape, Baltimore's free arts festival, from July 16 to 18. See http://www.artscape.org for details.

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