In spring 2009, the Baltimore Opera Company folded after more than a half-century of producing grand opera at the Lyric Opera House. But the end of the BOC has hardly meant the demise of opera in Charm City. Several local companies offer everything from concert opera to rock opera in locations ranging from a Mount Vernon mansion to a fire-charred church. And for die-hard fans of grand opera, never fear— it returns to the Lyric in fall 2011. Meantime, give these a try.
Gazing up at the regal archways and gold-encrusted moulding, it would be easy to believe you’re in an Italian opera house. And the first few notes of the soprano’s aria only reinforce that feeling. But, you’re not in an opera house; you’re in the elegant ballroom at the Garrett-Jacobs Mansion. And the soprano hitting the high notes, well, she’s wearing the same Banana Republic pants as you.
Baltimore Concert Opera is exactly that, a concert. No elaborate costumes, no large sets, no orchestra. But before you decide opera isn’t opera without those elements, Baltimore Concert Opera general director Brendan Cooke wants you to close your eyes and let the sound wash over you, distraction-free. “I realized that the opera business is going in the wrong direction,” says Cooke, who sang with the Baltimore Opera Company for 10 years before founding Baltimore Concert Opera. “It is becoming very visually oriented and taking away from the vocal ability that makes it great.”
In its inaugural season last spring, Baltimore Concert Opera produced Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” and “A Flight of Puccini,” offering two sold-out performances of each. In its second full season, the company will present the music of “The Barber of Seville,” “La Bohème” and “The Marriage of Figaro.” Amongst the opulence of the historic Mount Vernon mansion, opera singers belt out traditional Italian arias while dressed in street clothes and standing before music stands. The informality is the point. “We encourage you to grab your drinks, bring them in and ask questions,” says Cooke. At each production, the conductor gives a pre-performance lecture, offering insight into the show.
In keeping with the informality, when Baltimore Concert Opera held open auditions last spring, they invited the public to purchase a ticket, watch and listen as each singer gave it their all, a sort of “So you think you can be an opera singer?” event. Baltimore Concert Opera relies mostly on local performers, but artists have traveled from as far away as California, even though the pay is far from lucrative. “There are a lot of people that just want to be singing,” says Cooke. “The caricature of the diva is falling by the wayside.”
In 2009, Cooke started the company with $750 of his own money. Now Baltimore Concert Opera boasts a $100,000 budget. Even more than the budget, however, Cooke values the public reception. “We’ve tried to make the vocal product more accessible, and we’ve attracted a lot of curious people,” says Cooke. “Finding people that have come for the first time, and then take the initiative to come back— that’s the most rewarding thing for me.”
“Il Barbiere di Siviglia,” Sept. 24, 26.
“La Bohème,” Dec. 3, 5.
“Amleto,” March 25, 27.
“Le Nozze di Figaro,” May 20, 22.
At The Engineers Club at the Garrett-Jacobs Mansion. Tickets, $25-$65. 443-844-3496,
Let It Rock
At first glance, Aran Keating and Dylan Koehler appear to be two average 20-somethings making a living in Baltimore. Opera composers? Surely not. But you can almost hear the electric guitars tuning as Keating begins chatting excitedly about Baltimore Rock Opera Society.
It all began in 2007, with five friends fresh out of college, a passion for the performing arts and a goodly amount of beer. Fast-forward two years and the group had written, produced and performed “Gründlehämmer,” a nearly three-hour rock opera featuring 22 original songs.
Traditional opera, BROS is not. You will not find a classical orchestra or Italian arias. What you will find is an entirely local mixture of amateurs and professionals volunteering their time to produce affordable and “completely mind-shattering” entertainment. Although Keating and his friends possess no operatic training, he cites the operatic aesthetic, structure and storytelling as the inspiration for what they do. “It’s not just rock music,” says Keating, BROS’ artistic director. “We strive to make the music tell a story.”
“Gründlehämmer,” set in the mythical world of Brotopia, has a Beowulf-esque feel with a young warrior battling an evil king. But instead of weapons, he uses electric guitars. “Gründlehämmer,” which is the name of the Holy Grail of guitars, sold out its first weekend run in September 2009 and returned for a second sold-out run in February 2010 at the 2640 Space in Charles Village.
BROS holds auditions for its all-local cast and networks to find Baltimoreans willing to lend artistic abilities, set pieces, lighting and performance space. “We are all otherwise employed, but we treat this like it’s our real job. We have an extended family 100-deep. It’s entirely a community effort,” says Keating. “It’s a microcosm of the entire art and music scene in Baltimore.”
This winter, BROS will present a double feature of one-hour rock operas: “Amphion,” a tragic love story set in the Byzantine Empire, and “The Terrible Secret of Lunastus,” an epic set in space in the distant future.
Rock opera may not appeal to traditionalists, but BROS tries to include universal elements, from love to humor to horror. “At ‘Gründlehämmer,’ we saw kids, lawyers, grandparents in the audience,” says Keating. “This is an art for everyone.”
The BROS double feature, tickets, $12.
For dates and location, go to http://www.baltimorerockopera.org.
Tradition for All Ages
Ask Jenny Kelly about her love for opera and she’ll regale you with stories of her time spent performing abroad and booking productions throughout the United States for the touring opera company Teatro Lirico D’Europa. Now, however, the Baltimore native is concentrating on bringing traditional grand opera back to her hometown through Baltimore Opera Theatre.
As the closest thing to the grand opera of the Baltimore Opera Company, Baltimore Opera Theatre is dedicated to producing full-scale, fully staged classical operas. Think larger-than-life sets, elaborate costumes, a full orchestra and all the dramatic emotion and action you can handle— all performed in Italian.
In its first season last year, Baltimore Opera Theatre produced two full productions at the Hippodrome, Rossini’s “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” and Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” This season the company will present three opera favorites, “Madama Butterfly” at the Hippodrome, and “Lucia di Lammermoor” and “La Traviata” at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts. The Gordon Center stage and orchestra pit is larger than that at the Hippodrome, perfect for accommodating the full cast with chorus and extras and an orchestra of 40.
To keep expenses down, Baltimore Opera Theatre and Teatro Lirico D’Europa share set pieces, costumes and an orchestra, and the Baltimore productions feature the international cast of Teatro Lirico D’Europa, with a few local singers and musicians mixed in. Markand Thakar of the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra will conduct “Madama Butterfly” during the upcoming season.
Despite the tradition behind Baltimore Opera Theatre, Kelly emphasizes its mission is to attract audiences of all ages. The company has lowered prices to accommodate the current economic climate and Kelly connects with area schools to invite their performing arts students to serve as extras. “Opera is no longer stuffy and reserved for the elite,” she says. “When we look out into the audience and see lots of families, we know we’re doing something right.”
“Madama Butterfly,” Oct. 23. At The Hippodrome.
“Lucia di Lammermoor,” Feb. 2, 3. At the Gordon Center for Performing Arts.
“La Traviata,” March 9, 10. At the Gordon Center for Performing Arts.
Tickets, $25-$55, 410-419-4344, http://www.baltimoreoperatheatre.net
FOR INFORMATION ON PURCHASING TICKETS call 410-419-4344.
“Intimate. Innovative. In English.” The alliterative motto of Opera Vivente neatly sums up the homegrown operas general director John Bowen has staged for the past 12 seasons in Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Mount Vernon.
Don’t let the Italian name or formal location fool you. All of Opera Vivente’s productions are in English, and they’re usually given a modern spin. “I am always trying to tell a story and do so in the most efficient and relevant way for a modern-day audience,” says Bowen. “People want something to which they can relate.”
Last season’s production of “The Magic Flute” received a particularly local treatment, with plenty of Baltimore slang, O’s jerseys and Natty Boh.
Bowen, a Peabody graduate, began brainstorming the idea of opera in the vernacular in 1994. He knew he wanted a small performance space. And he knew he wanted to provide an outlet for locally trained opera singers who face difficulty procuring roles in Baltimore. After four “workshop years,” Opera Vivente debuted in 1998, and Bowen is gearing up for his 13th season this fall.
In honor of the company becoming a teenager, he’s programmed three operas involving both the emotional upheaval associated with the teenage years, and supernatural occurrences related to the lucky number 13: Donizetti’s “Lucy of Lammermoor,” Handel’s “Rinaldo” and Puccini’s “The Will-o’-the-Wisps.”
Audiences regularly fill all 180 seats in the church’s Great Hall, and no seat is more than 120 feet from the performers. That intimacy is key to the opera experience Bowen wants to foster. “I want the audience to be welcomed in and moved by an art form that is one of the most fantastic things man has ever created,” he says.
“Lucy of Lammermoor,” Oct. 22, 24, 28, 30.
“Rinaldo,” March 4, 6, 10, 12.
“The Will-o’-the-Wisps,” May 13, 15, 19, 21.
All at Emmanuel Episcopal Church. Tickets, $30-$75, 410-547-7997, http://www.operavivente.org
Timothy Nelson’s mission is to remove the pomp and circumstance of traditional grand opera and emphasize the dramatic side of the art form. “We focus less on the cocktail reception and tuxedoes and opera frill, and much more on opera as a form of drama,” says Nelson, the artistic director of American Opera Theater. “Opera should move you, not just because the music’s great, but because it’s relevant, contemporary theater.”
Nelson, a Peabody graduate, founded American Opera Theater in 2003 with several other artists from Peabody, and in 2004 the company presented its first production, Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas.” Unlike other opera groups in Baltimore, American Opera Theater is an actual company. There are no open auditions or castings, and the majority of its members have worked together since its beginning seven years ago.
It is perhaps the stability of the company that allows AOT to experiment with new approaches and new work. This season features “Butterfly,” a new version of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” that reorders the traditional score and story to produce a more intimate portrayal of the heroine’s struggle. Even the music gets a modern spin, written for a prepared piano— an instrument played by placing objects inside to create different percussion sounds— and an Indonesian musical ensemble made of a set of instruments called a gamelan. Later in the season, AOT will produce a setting of the Alberto Gonzales congressional hearing in the style of a Handel oratorio, double-billed with the company’s staple piece “Dido and Aeneas,” which will feature the Peabody Chamber Opera and Handel Choir of Baltimore.
The Theatre Project, where the company performs, offers an intimate space that removes the need for elaborate staging or exaggerated gesture, as is typical of traditional grand opera, and allows for smaller-scale shows. AOT will present two one-man shows this season: “Harawi,” a cabaret performance for voice and piano of Olivier Messiaen’s famous works, and “Kafka’s Fragments,” a staging of Kafka’s prose and poetry for soprano and violin.
The company will close its season with a new setting of Kurt Weill’s “Lost in the Stars,” a musical theater piece about apartheid in South Africa. AOT performers will appear alongside students from the Baltimore School for the Arts in a retelling that examines racial relations in Baltimore. “When I was conceiving the piece, something seemed more organic and sincere about using Baltimore City youth,” says Nelson. “They’ve grown up in this climate, it’s personal for them.”
And the company is passionate about calling Baltimore home. “Baltimore has a wonderful climate for experimental work,” says Nelson. “We’ve tried performing in other places, but those cities just didn’t have the audiences that were open to trying a different approach. In Baltimore, the audiences are open-minded. They’re excited.”
Harawi, $20 or $10 with purchase of Butterfly ticket
Gonzales Cantata & Dido and Aeneas, $30
Kafka’s Fragments, $20 or $10 with purchase of double-billed ticket
Lost in the Stars, $30
All performed in Baltimore Theater Project
Check http://www.americanoperatheater.org for upcoming dates and more information.