Philly Opera works to avoid ‘sopho­more slump’

Daily Times (Primos, PA) - - NEWS - By Mike Sil­ver­man

PHILADEL­PHIA » When Opera Philadel­phia launched a rad­i­cal new pro­gram­ming for­mat last year, gen­eral di­rec­tor David De­van knew there was “a po­ten­tial for an em­peror has no clothes.”

The idea was to cre­ate a fes­ti­val of in­no­va­tive work that packed five dif­fer­ent op­eras — three of them world pre­mieres — into 10 days of vir­tu­ally non­stop ac­tiv­ity.

“There were so many mov­ing parts, we didn’t know if we could pull it off,” De­van said in an in­ter­view ear­lier this month. “So there was a lot of fear around belly-flop­ping.”

In fact, O17 was a crit­i­cal and box-of­fice suc­cess. Au­di­ences were en­thu­si­as­tic, and De­van was es­pe­cially heart­ened by the fact that 18 per­cent of those at­tend­ing were 29 or younger — the same per­cent­age as those 70 or older. F. Paul Driscoll, ed­i­tor-in-chief of Opera News, called the con­cept “a bril­liant way for a com­pany to de­fine it­self,” while Anne Mid­gette wrote in The Wash­ing­ton Post that it was “one of the most en­joy­able ad­di­tions to the fall cal­en­dar in years.”

But suc­cess in a fresh­man ven­ture is one thing, and De­van knew it would be a tall or­der to en­sure this year’s edi­tion — O18, which runs Sept. 20-30 — lived up to the first. “We’ve ac­tu­ally used the term ‘sopho­more slump’ to make sure there was no slump in the sopho­more,” he said.

Iron­i­cally, his board had wor­ried the first edi­tion was “too edgy,” and De­van had agreed to make O18 “softer,” more con­ven­tional. But au­di­ence feed­back told him that would be a mis­take. So O18 is pos­si­bly even more ad­ven­tur­ous — in a dif­fer­ent way.

“Last year was about a cel­e­bra­tion of com­posers,” De­van said. “This year we have the added di­men­sion of per­form­ing artists as cre­ators, which is some­thing our world doesn’t ever ex­plore.”

Most of the lineup for O18 had al­ready been sketched out when De­van de­cided to change di­rec­tion. “I went back to all the artists and I ba­si­cally said, ‘You know what we con­tracted you to do? If you could re­think that, what would you do?’ We ba­si­cally gave them the keys and said, ‘You fig­ure it out.’”

For ex­am­ple, mezzo-so­prano Stephanie Blythe was signed to head­line a night­club drag act, but rather than do­ing it as a stan­dard open mic per­for­mance, De­van said, “She came up with the idea of do­ing it as a se­rial,” each of three evenings ad­vanc­ing a scripted plot­line. So­prano Pa­tri­cia Racette was en­gaged to per­form Poulenc’s mon­odrama “La voix hu­maine,” in which a des­per­ate woman talks to her ex-lover over the tele­phone for the last time. But in­stead of do­ing it as a stand-alone, she and her col­lab­o­ra­tors de­vised an open­ing half set in a cabaret with added char­ac­ters to let the au­di­ence bet­ter con­nect with the pro­tag­o­nist.

An­other work, “Glass/ Han­del,” grew out of a con­ver­sa­tion with coun­tertenor An­thony Roth Costanzo, who had just recorded a CD mix­ing arias by the 18th cen­tury’s Ge­orge Frid­eric Han­del and the con­tem­po­rary Philip Glass. Costanzo pro­duced a mul­ti­me­dia show that in­cludes chore­og­ra­phy by Justin Peck to be per­formed at the Barnes Foun­da­tion art mu­seum.

The sole new opera this year is com­poser Lem­bit Beecher and li­bret­tist Han­nah Moscov­itch’s “Sky on Swings,” a touch­ing story of two women with Alzheimer’s disease whose mem­ory loss ends up en­rich­ing their lives by bring­ing them to­gether. The roles are sung by Fred­er­ica von Stade and Marietta Simp­son, two il­lus­tri­ous mez­zos who are near­ing the age of their char­ac­ters.

“We reached out to them on a lark and they both said yes,” De­van said. “And they both came to the work­shop, bring­ing their wis­dom and ex­pe­ri­ence and their vul­ner­a­bil­ity of go­ing on­stage again.”

The fifth and fi­nal pro­duc­tion, as last year, is an opera from the stan­dard reper­tory. Donizetti’s tragic “Lu­cia di Lam­mer­moor” star­ring so­prano Brenda Rae, is be­ing pre­sented in a new pro­duc­tion by Lau­rent Pelly, best known for his in­ven­tive work on come­dies. Later in the sea­son the com­pany will pro­duce two more main­stream works for its reg­u­lar sub­scribers, Ben­jamin Brit­ten’s “A Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream” and Gi­a­como Puc­cini’s “La Bo­heme.”

As this year launches, so does a $75 mil­lion fundrais­ing cam­paign, needed to keep the com­pany in good shape through 2023.

“What we want is to build a tra­di­tion so peo­ple say, ‘Oh, I’m not fly­ing to Europe this Septem­ber be­cause I’m go­ing to O,’” De­van said. “We know it will take three to four to five years to do that.

“Ul­ti­mately,” he said, “our in­ten­tion is that peo­ple can come to Philadel­phia once a year, and touch the fu­ture of opera.”

DAVE DIRENTIS/OPERA PHILADEL­PHIA VIA AP

This Sept. 12 photo re­leased by Opera Philadel­phia, shows Mezzo-so­prano Marietta Simp­son, in fore­ground, re­hears­ing the role of Martha in the new opera “Sky on Swings” pre­mier­ing as part of Opera Philadel­phia’s O18 Fes­ti­val.

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