Local opera company will close its curtains

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The American Opera Theater, one of the most intriguing of the many pocket opera companies in the Baltimore/Washington region, is shutting down at the end of this season. The company announced Tuesday that its next production - a double bill of Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas" and the stage premiere of Melissa Dunphy's "The Gonzales Cantata," a setting of the transcripts of the congressional hearings of former attorney general Alberto Gonzales, a co-production with the Peabody Conservatory Opera on Feb. 4, 5, 11 and 13 - would be its last.

By day's end, however, funding had been found for the season's final scheduled production, Kurt Weill's "Lost in the Stars," a project with the Baltimore School of the Arts involving inner-city kids writing about race relations. The season, therefore, will continue until May.

Both "The Gonzales Cantata" and the unusual take on the Weill piece are typical of AOT's unconventional and creative approach. The company, which has operated for eight years, specialized in early music (a staged version of Handel's "Messiah," a production of Charpentier's rare "David et Jonathas"), performed with its own period-instrument ensemble, as well as more recent works, such as Philip Glass's "Hydrogen Jukebox" with Georgetown students, or "Songspiel," a Weill pastiche starring Sylvia McNair as a homeless woman in a bus shelter. Although not uniformly successful, its productions consistently brought new ideas and creative flair to a field that could use more of each.

"It just felt like it was time," Timothy Nelson, the company's founder and director, wrote on AOT's Web site. "This company began as a group of students wanting to create a new vision of opera in Baltimore. . . . Now it's time for us to move on and forge new paths."

Nelson created AOT from scratch, and although he proved adroit at fundraising, the company never got to the point of being able to afford a paid staff. Meanwhile, his own career as a freelance director has taken off; he is now based in the Netherlands, and is fully booked through September. "I've found it increasingly difficult," he said, "to manage the administration of the company. . . . Finally, it just felt like I could no longer do a good job of the details."

Many founders of opera companies find themselves wedded to those companies throughout their careers. The fact that Nelson is able to move on is itself something of a success story.

He's not abandoning the AOT brand altogether. "Most likely we will become more of a production company that creates individual projects when funded by an outside festival or house," he said. "I do hope we will be able to offer the occasional performance in Baltimore."

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