Over the past few years, Opera Philadelphia has been working on becoming the very model of a modern opera company. It has explored new formats — an opera about Andy Warhol in a warehouse — while continuing its commitment to tradition. It has received grants for innovative outreach projects, such as Hip H’opera in inner-city schools, and a composer-in-residence program. It has been met with critical and public acclaim. And yet, for all of its success, it had a problem — audiences weren’t growing the way that they were supposed to.
If you’re an opera company, what do you do? You can wring your hands. You can pump more money out of your donors. Or you can conduct in-depth market research. David Devan, Opera Philadelphia’s general director and president, opted for the last option. He learned what his audiences were really thinking and is using that knowledge to transform his company’s season — not by jettisoning traditional opera production, but by enhancing it.
Opera Philadelphia announced Tuesday the launch of a new opera festival at the start of its 2017-2018 season. Called O17, the festival will blanket the city with opera — seven events in 12 days, from a traditional opera at the Academy of Music (Barrie Koskie’s production of “The Magic Flute”) to a piece developed by Daniel Bernard Roumain and directed by Bill T. Jones in the Wilma Theater to a double-bill of Monteverdi and a new work by Lembit Beecher, presented in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Selling out? Hardly. Exciting? Yes.
“Market research shows that young audiences consume opera in a different way,” Devan said in a conversation earlier this month. Twenty-seven percent of the company’s single-ticket buyers, he said, were between the ages of 25 and 34, closely followed by the 18-to-24-year-old group. But it was difficult to retain these buyers; they are not potential subscribers along the traditional model. “How do people consume things?” Devan asks. “Binge-watching.”
Although the festival is conceived to excite new opera lovers, it certainly isn’t cutting back on its appeal to established ones. There’s a world premiere of a chamber opera by Kevin Puts, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning opera “Silent Night” came to Philadelphia in 2013; the star soprano Sondra Radvanovsky will give a master class and a recital. The juxtaposition of so many different opera-related activities is calculated to help boost the sense of event and make the company seem like a destination for the out-of-town crowd.
At a time when many opera companies are struggling, the larger opera festivals in the United States seem to be enjoying generally good health — and some companies have taken note. In 2007, the Fort Worth Opera reinvented itself on the festival model: Rather than spreading three or four productions over the span of a season, it now presents all of its operas within a few weeks. “It’s a whole other feeling and a vibe you can’t really get in a single season,” Darren K. Woods, the company’s general director, said in a telephone interview last year. Another small company that’s following suit is Opera Delaware; in May, it is presenting its new festival format, with two fully staged operas (including Franco Faccio’s neglected 19th-century gem “Hamlet”) and a recital running alternately over a little more than a week.
One thing that these developments have in common: Festivals make artistic experimentation easier rather than harder. “The festival gave us the ability to do new work and fold it into the whole season,” Woods said. “We’re not just marketing ‘Dead Man Walking.’ We can spend all of our money marketing a season that just happens to include new works.” Opera Philadelphia is developing collaborations with companies around the world, from the Monnaie in Brussels to the Vienna State Opera — although the sudden demise of New York’s Gotham Chamber Opera leaves it without one key co-producing partner for a number of its smaller new works.
As far as the festival format goes, Opera Philadelphia remains unique in its vision of a way to have its cake and eat it, too. The O17 festival will be followed by a regular season, with three additional productions. The company hopes that new audiences will come to the festival and return to some of the regular season fare. But if not: O18, the 2018 festival, is already in the works.