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Ousted opera head forms new Virginia opera

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 9, 2011; 8:25 PM

Peter Mark, whose contract as artistic director of the Virginia Opera was terminated after 36 years in November, is taking his revenge. At a news conference Sunday, before an audience of people who expressed their support for him by e-mail after his ouster, he announced the creation of a new Lyric Opera of Virginia.

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The company will perform at the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts in Virginia Beach, the Center for the Arts at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, the Landmark and Carpenter Theaters in Richmond, and at an as-yet-unspecified location in Northern Virginia. The press release outlines a 2011-12 season that will include Verdi's "La Traviata," Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The King and I" and a so-called "jewel box" (or abridged) production of "Carmen."

No dates have yet been set with the theaters, according to Maggie George, who is working on the launch as a volunteer. No staff has yet been hired, either, although Mark has several people in mind, according to Edythe Harrison, the founder of the original Virginia Opera, who is a supporter of this new venture. "We're not going to have a huge staff," she said.

The projected budget of this new company is $2.5 million; neither George nor Harrison could comment on how much of that money is already in hand, though both said they expected a good part of that to derive from ticket sales. (Most companies derive between 15 percent and 30 percent of their revenue from ticket sales, though some get more.) The press release announced a Web site and phone number, but neither is yet operative; Harrison estimated that the Web site, lyricoperavirginia.org, might be operational on Monday.

Mark's 36 years at the Virginia Opera were not without controversy. He presided over the company's growth into a significant regional force, but the end of his tenure was also marked by charges of artistic stagnation and the notion that his difficult personality led to a challenging working environment for many artists and staff. This year, he was able to turn the unanimous decision by the opera board's executive committee not to renew his contract into a rallying cry for some vocal supporters, leading to a public brouhaha that contributed to his contract being terminated a year ahead of schedule.

The new company, according to Harrison, will emulate the success of the old company during its first 25 years. (Mark's supporters paint the company's decline as having stemmed from the board's decision to remove Mark from sole control and bring in a professional administration.)

The obvious risk is that the new company will divide support and audiences from the existing Virginia Opera, but neither company is officially worried about that. "There's 365 days in a year, Harrison said. "If you're thinking that the other company does four operas and we do three, that's seven times a year."


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