Over the last few years, Opera Philadelphia has been working on becoming the very model of a modern opera company. It’s explored new formats – an opera about Andy Warhol in an old warehouse – while continuing its commitment to tradition – Verdi’s “Don Carlo” at the Academy of Music. It’s gotten grants for innovative outreach projects, like Hip H’opera in inner-city schools, and a composer-in-residence program. It’s 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 through experienced outside firms. David Devan, Opera Philadelphia’s general director and president, opted for the latter; learned what his audiences were really thinking; and is now using this knowledge to transform his company’s season – not by jettisoning traditional opera production, but by enhancing it.
Today, Opera Philadelphia announced the launch of a new opera festival at the start of its 2017-18 season. Called O17, the festival will blanket the city with opera – seven events in 12 days, including three world premieres, at a wide range of venues, 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,” said David Devan, the company’s general director and president, in a conversation earlier this month. 27% of the company’s single-ticket buyers, he said, were between 25 and 34 years old, closely followed by the 18-24-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.”
But while 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 stagione 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 and a recital running alternately over a little more than a week. (One highlight is a full staging of Franco Faccio’s “Hamlet,” a neglected 19th-century opera that got a tantalizing concert performance by the Baltimore Concert Opera last year.)
One thing 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, however, remains unique in its vision of a way to have its cake and eat it, too. The 2017-18 season will continue as usual, 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.