Etymology as well as economic interests are squarely on the side of the recent change in the name of the Opera Society of Washington. From now on the company will be known simply and directly as The Washington Opera. For 20 seasons it flourished and established a distinguished reputation as the OSW, a label that came to be recognized by artists and public alike as a symbol of imaginative operatic production of a high artistic quality.
But throughout those 20 years there were more than a few times when someone asked why it was called the Opera "Society." the word, in its various dictionary definitions as well as in its several general public, usages, often seemed to suggest something of an exclusive nature, or an organization that you had to join to enjoy; and it also carried, in some minds, the stamp of an outfit that might have been conceived in, and operated out of, the vest pockets of a small clique, probably located in Georgetown.
It did not matter that these things were not true, even though there were times when nearly all of the direction of the OSW did live in Georgetown or very near it. It was an idea that took hold in people's minds and that gradually militated against the wider, more democratic idea of opera that most American opera companies today are working hard to establish. Finally, the word "society" definitely proced offputting to some of the business firms and foundations that were approached for substantial contributions. "Society," they were said to remark questioningly: "Is it something people have to join?"
The new name has just the right sound: The Washington Opera. It is clear, simple and direct. Like the San Francisco Opera, the Houston Opera, the Baltimore Opera, the New York City Opera. In two words it stats its business in a way no one can misunderstand.
With the name change has come also, from the company's artistic director, George London, backed by his business manager, Gary Fifield, and the president of his board, Christine Hunter, a solid plan for the direction in which they hope to move their company in the seasons immediately ahead. They want, plainly enough, to present more performances of more operas than the company has been able to present in the past.
No opera company is a major outfit if it is limited to three performances of three operas a year. Four performances of four operas is better, as, for that matter, even four performances of three operas would be.
What are the problems? The answer is simple: money, money and more money. And since every opera company in the country loses more money everytime it raises the curtain, it follows that the Washington Opera will lose more money when it gives four performances of four operas than it lost when it gave three performances of three operas. (There is some reason to believe that less money is lost by giving four performances of three operas, if you follow.)
The team of London and Hunter has shown in recent OSW productions that it is aiming for a very high standard of performance in all departments: lighting, sets and costumes, singing and staging. So did many of those who ran the OSW before them. The repertoire proposed for the coming year is a fine one, in precisely the ways that forme OSW seasons were excellent: London has named "The Magic Flute," "The Elixir of Love," "The Sea Gull" and "Tosca" as the four operas to be given.
The first and last of these were among memorable OSW productions, with the "Flute" headed by a cast that included Benita Valente and Cesare Valletti, and the "Tosca" still able to raise chills thanks to the sight and sound of John Reardon's Scarpia and Nicholas di Virgilio as Cavaradossi.
"The Sea Gull" is by Tom Pasatieri, and from most accounts, themost successful of more than 12 operas he has written so far. It would thus stand alongside, or perhaps surpass, Lee Hoiby's touching "Natalia Petrovna." For the Pasatieri, the Washington Opera will be bringing to the Kennedy Center the same strong cast - von Stade, Lear, Stilwell, Reardon and others - that gave its memorable Houston premiere.
One of the most hopeful aspects in the statements now coming from the Washington Opera is their hope for some closer arrangement with the Kennedy Center that will help them in their goals. In the past, one great problem in giving more than three performances of any one opera was the matter of booking the time necessary for rehearsal and production in the Opera House. To give four performances of one opera will require engaging the house for more than a single week. But, as London has said, "it will cost more, but we have to do it."
London has also talked about bringing in "the great stars." He is a man who has been one of the world's great stars, and his own personal magnetism made its mark on famous stages in New York, Moscow, Bayreuth, Salzburg and Vienna.
It does seem like a good, cautionary note at this point, however, to remind London that when he sang in those theaters, he was surrounded by other stars. The history of the company he now heads has been made by creating ensembles of fine young artists, many of whom are now major stars around the world. They were not "great stars" when they sang here, but they were superb musicians and singers.
As for the giants among today's opera conductors - Boehm, Karajan, Solti, Giulini, Abbado, Kubelik, Dorati - their presence would obviously be welcome, if they would spend the needed preparation time, something that seems extremely unlikely.
Otherwise, London would likely be most successful in upgrading the caliber of the conducting in the Washington Opera by choosing wisely from among the greatly talented Americans who are available.
As the new team in charge of Washington's major opera company has already discovered, they are building on a fine history. But in the theater, it is always the next performance rather than the last one that counts. To The Washington Opera, in its new steps, the opera fans in this area are wishing all kinds of good luck.