Verdi's "La Forza del Destino" nearly killed the National Lyric Opera Company two years ago. Now, still facing epic debts, the group is banking on Gounod's "Faust" to bring it back to life.
"Sometimes," sighs Nikita Wells, director and founder of the troubled local company, "I feel as if I'm actually making a pact with the devil."
Tonight and tomorrow night in Lisner Auditorium, the National Lyric will take a gamble of make-or-break proportions. For this $40,000 production of "Faust"--a daunting expense by small-company standards -- Wells has hired four New York City Opera singers, leased grand-opera sets and costumes, engaged a professional stage director and enlisted a 70-piece orchestra and a chorus of volunteers. As with past productions, Wells, a baritone, will sing. The role is the soldier Valentin, who comes to a bad end.
A full house and good critical notices -- the company is used to neither -- could help pay the National Lyric's new and old bills and attract some needed sponsors. Anything much less could bring on bankruptcy and ruin.
"I figure that if we sell 85 percent of the seats, we'll be okay," says lawyer Nicholas Chabra, who recently volunteered to manage the books because he saw a need for locally produced grand opera. "If we sell out we'll probably be in excellent shape. I've been playing with these percentages and the margins of error, and I'm just hoping that the budget that's been projected for 'Faust' is accurate."
Says Wells, who doubles as a particle physics researcher for the Rand Corp., "What we'd really like to have is a corporate or private angel. We need a good $20,000 in donations just to get us out of the hole. I'm personally broke. Oh, my God. I'm thousands and thousands in hock. But I'll always feel hopeful as long as people believe in us."
Some people do; others don't.
William Hudson, conductor of the Fairfax Symphony and still listed as the National Lyric's music director on company letterheads, counts himself among the skeptics. He was conductor for the disastrous "La Forza del Destino" -- a production for which some of his players have yet to be paid.
"Nikita is a very likable fellow, and I understand that he's quite a brilliant physicist," says Hudson, who got decent reviews for "La Forza," which the singers did not. "But it seems to me he's a little bit irrational in his compulsion to do grand opera. There's sort of a maniacal quality to this man: It seems he'll do anything to put on a production--which is really a vehicle so he can sing -- even if it means leaving a great swath of destruction."
Wells bristles at such criticism -- especially at the implication that his is a vanity company. "Vanity company? Why vanity? I've gone through hell and back for opera and I know every facet of it. I'm trying to establish a real professional company. All these people criticize, but let them try to do it. What do they want? To form a committee? Do nothing at all? You have to let people know you're alive and kicking. If I don't put on this thing, the thing dies."
The National Lyric has started to clear its "La Forza" debts, which amounted to about $12,500 to the Fairfax Symphony alone. Drawing on donations and short-term loans, it recently paid the orchestra's union players most of what they were owed. And last Tuesday, the company reached a small-claims settlement with seven nonunion players who've waited two years for their fees. For "Faust," the company has agreed to pay the Prince George's Symphony, an amateur group, about $4,000, Wells says, as a donation to the orchestra's board, not a fee for the players.
"It's very difficult to be angry at them," says Fairfax Symphony violist David Quick, one of the plaintiffs in the small-claims case. "I don't think they had any bad intentions. It's just that they were very badly managed. Actually, I wish them well."
Wells uses the stage name Nikita Rosanoff, a popular Russian basso who was Wells' great-grandfather. Wells, who talks with a slight lilt, was born 44 years ago in Paris, the only son of Russian ballet masters. His parents, Nikitina and Sergieff, who danced with Pavlova, fled to France shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution.
"My parents always discouraged me from going into the arts -- they knew what a hard life it was -- but I guess I have that theater blood in my veins," Wells says. As a youth, he studied violin and voice; later he sang professionally and developed a love for opera. But when he settled in the United States about 20 years ago, he finally followed his parents' advice. He took engineering and physics degrees at George Washington University and got a job in science. He never let go of opera, though.
Three years ago, with the help of former Bolshoi Opera star Renata Babak, a Soviet defector, Wells formed his company, with a goal of offering low-cost tickets in Washington. (The National Lyric's top ticket is $15, compared with $40 for the Washington Opera.) Using freelance singers from Washington and New York -- with Babak in leading roles -- the company started big: first, Mascagni's "Cavalleria Rusticana," and then performances of Verdi's "Il Trovatore," "Aida" -- for which Wells put a live camel on stage -- and finally "La Forza," which broke the camel's back.
After seeing "Aida," The Post's reviewer wrote, "A company that offers a production with such a discrepancy between aims and abilities . . . wins little for itself other than the label of pretentiousness."
The current production of "Faust" is the first time the National Lyric is using established opera singers for all the principal parts. Robert Grayson will sing Faust, with Marianna Christos as Marguerite, Kenneth Bell as Mephisto and Susanne Marsee in the smaller part of Siebel. The New York City Opera singers say they are performing for the occasion at a greatly reduced rate.
"I just love singing and I love the role," says Christos, who has done Marguerite for the City Opera. "I had some free time so I thought, why not?"