After a truly wonderful summer, I am THRILLED to be back in Philadelphia! This summer, I had the opportunity to see some spectacular operas all over the USA as well as London and Aix-en-Provence. In addition, I did a backcountry canoe trip in Canada and spent some quality time with my family. But I love being home and at the helm of Opera Philadelphia. For me, my work is rooted in community and is inextricably tied to a pride of place and civic life. All the travel I get to do is great, but now I’m back in the office, the rehearsal hall, and the Academy of Music!
Yesterday was the first day of rehearsals for our upcoming production of The Barber of Seville. We had a wonderful ‘Meet and Greet’ with the principal cast, creative team, production staff, and administrative staff. I love these meetings as you get to see many of the moving parts coming together. It only gets better when we are in the theater and we have our chorus and orchestra. The enthusiasm for the work was palpable and a great sign for the integrity of the production and thrill of performance. Whenever we approach a standard repertoire piece such as Barber, one of my biggest priorities is to make sure that it is not ‘dialed in’ or a stock performance that is solely bolstered by familiar tunes. For this reason, many of our standard repertoire productions, such as this one, are new productions employing fresh creative voices in direction and design. We try to pair this kind of creative team with a cast that is either new to the work or in early career stages of working with the material, along with a seasoned conductor. I have found that making these kinds of choices brings an extra thrill to the theater experience and also delivers a freshness, while still honoring the history of the work and conductor’s intent. And with Barber, this real and authentic sparkle is critical to making the whole endeavor work.
I am happy to report that this Barber team is all of the above and then some. I snuck into one of the afternoon music rehearsals and you could literally feel the energy in the room. Staging starts today – excited!
AND speaking of pride of place – in case you missed it – here is me taking over a section of Broad Street for the Ice Bucket Challenge (last week in front of the Academy of Music).
The past six weeks have been a whirlwind of activity that has had me exclusively focused on General Director duties, with no time for blogging. The good news is that A LOT was accomplished in real time and space. Since our remarkable partnership with the Philadelphia Orchestra to bring Salome to Philadelphia audiences, we have workshopped our commission of Charlie Parker’s YARDBIRD, picked and announced our fourth composer-in-residence, had our first on-site residence with our third composer-in-residence, sent our second composer-in-residence and librettist off to Scotland to research a new commission, produced A Coffin in Egypt with Flicka, and ended the fiscal year in the black! Whew!
A Coffin in Egypt, composed by Ricky Ian Gordon in conjunction with Leonard Foglia’s libretto, is the third opera in our American Repertoire program and was a thrill to produce on so many levels. This was our first project with our co-commissioner Houston Grand Opera - and it was a joy to work with them from beginning to end. A special shout out to Perryn Leech, HGO Managing Director, who joined us for our opening night. In addition, we were grateful that Nathan Gunn and Gene Scheer, members of our American Repertoire Council, were also able to join us. Coffin is based on the work of playwright Horton Foote. Ricky and Lenny, through their collaboration, created a work filled with intensity and insight that honored our stage. Working with them was such a privilege and joy! And speaking of joy - what a cast we assembled to bring this American story to life! It included a fantastic quartet consisting of of Veronica Chapman-Smith, Julie-Ann Green, Taiwan Norris, and Frank Mitchell, who all are also members of the Opera Philadelphia chorus. The piece also included non-singing actors, Carolyn Johnson and David Matranga, whose performances brought additional depth. The star of the show was, of course, the incomparable Frederica von Stade. Flicka is an amazing artist of the highest character. She is serious in her craft, joyful in life, and brings a radiant presence that affects everyone around her (on and off the stage). It was absolutely a highlight of my life to be able to work with her, not because of her celebrity, but because of the person she is: talent and grace personified.
Frederica von Stade as Myrtle Bledsoe. Photo by Kelly and Massa.
Gospel Quartet: Veronica Chapman-Smith, Frank Mitchell, Julie-Anne Green and Taiwan Norris. Photo by Kelly and Massa.
The most exciting and critical moment in the development of a new opera is the first music workshop. It is the first time that the creators and the producers get to hear the musical vocabulary of the piece and are able to determine the dramatic contours of the piece. For this particular work, it was especially thrilling and important since this is the first opera for both the composer and librettist, who both bring a jazz-infused tradition to the opera. Most workshops take place over a one-week period and includes the composer, librettist, stage director, stage manager, a conductor, singers, and usually just a piano as the “orchestra,” but we decided to include a bass player as well. For this particular workshop, we were able to include some of the singers who are cast to sing the roles when the opera premieres! The workshopping process follows these steps: For about six hours a day, the team works through the score, discovering its strengths and identifying things that could be changed to improve the piece. At the end of the week, there is a sing-through (with changes) for the producers. Following this, a meeting is held where feedback is given about things that are unclear or that need to be strengthened. For my part, I pop in on sessions during the week, but usually just for very short visits to just to say hi. This usually allows me to get a sense of the energy of the room and the work, but I avoid becoming an active participant. I believe that you need to allow creative artists the space and room to be their creative selves and to find their own path of expression. In my view, this is what we are doing when we commission them to write a work. So for the week, I like to remain supportive, but stay ‘out from under foot’. It is at the end of the week that my team and I, along with our fellow co-commissioners, engage fully in the work by listening and observing the progress to date. In this particular case, it was a thrilling discovery! The musical language and libretto are sweetly evocative of the jazz world of Charlie Parker and his short, troubled life while at the same time being operatic in both storytelling and musical expression (vocal and instrumental). It was a joy to experience this with our co-producing partners, Gotham Chamber Opera, and to be joined by others who are interested in the work. We have one more workshop planned for November with the full cast and then it is onward to the world premiere in June 2015 as part of our Aurora Series at the Perelman Theater.
Team at the Charlie Parker workshop
COMPOSERS (to the third power)
It was also a busy period in our Composer-In-Residence program. This program (made possible by wonderful people at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation) is in partnership with Gotham Chamber Opera and Music Theatre Group. Each three year residency allows a composer to explore and develop her or his operatic craft. The program allows for three composers whose three year long residences are staggered so that when one finishes, a new composer can be found to replace them. This summer we are saying goodbye to our first resident, Lembit Beecher (well not really saying goodbye as he is moving to Philadelphia and we are continuing to work with him on a new project that we are developing with him for some time in the future - stay tuned). Lembit had a great week with us along with some local devised-theater artists with whom he continues to explore ideas.
Missy Mazzoli is completing her first year and together, we are well on our way to producing a new opera with her in 2016. We recently completed the first reading of that opera’s libretto reading and several weeks ago we sent Missy and her librettist Royce Vavrek to Scotland to do further research for the opera, including helping them to capture the Scottish landscape as part of the expression of the piece.
Also this past month, we had Andrew Norman - our third resident present to take part in a residency intensive. He spent time observing the rehearsal process for A Coffin in Egypt, he began singing lessons, and he was able to plot his work for the upcoming year. Together, we cooked up a couple of exciting and important activities and projects for him.
And finally, but certainly not last, we selected our fourth resident! I am thrilled that David T. Little will be joining us for the next three years, in what for us, has become a central part of our artistic practice and a hotbed for creative expression. I am looking forward to our team being able to support David’s already active opera career by furthering his development as part of this rich and active group!
Amongst all the above activities, our Board of Directors and our marketing, development and production departments performed their usual work of brilliance, achieving balanced fiscal results for yet another year! (Our fiscal year end is May 31.)
To everyone who came to our productions this past year, who contributed money, resources and talent - THANK YOU. Our artists are truly grateful, as am I.
Next up - I am writing this blog entry on my phone in San Francisco - here for the annual Opera America conference. I will hopefully be posting some perspectives on the state of our industry - stay tuned…
Our collaboration with the Philadelphia Orchestra was truly exhilarating and I think we created a Salome that exceeded any experience that we could have developed in a traditional opera house. As the picture below shows – we produced a complete theatrical event in the concert hall and it had a power that was truly epic. Because of the setup in Verizon Hall, the audience experienced a Salome that was almost deconstructed; you could see and participate in all its parts. The constant stage presence of the orchestra, who played the score better than I have ever heard with inspired leadership by Maestro Nézet-Séguin, with an amazing cast floating over top of a cistern with an almost always present John the Baptist, created a performance tension that never let up. The music experience was exemplary because you could hear every nuance in the orchestra with piercing clarity, and the elevated stage allowed the vocal lines to soar through the hall. The brilliance of Strauss was heightened in every way. Special thanks to my colleagues Yannick and Allison at the Philadelphia Orchestra and the leaders of our respective Boards, Richard Worley and Daniel Meyer, who helped make this happen and to the Orchestra and Opera teams that performed miracles to transform the space and maintained a work schedule and an environment for all the artists involved to achieve great things.
Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Camilla Nylund as Salome
Birgit Remmert as Herodias
John Mac Master as Herod
Alan Held as Jochanaan
Andrew Staples as Narraboth
Photo by Dominic Mercier
This Salome experience is a part of my larger thinking about art and place. The physical environment, in addition to great performers and great work, really does affect how you hear things, process stories, and the overall emotional impact of opera. For this reason, the idea of producing opera in just one place (i.e., a single opera house) I think limits the potential for the form and how audiences engage with the work. The trick is to find the right match of the work and the place – all the time! This requires us, from an artistic planning process, to deconstruct any work to truly understand what its artistic assets are and how we can bolster or enhance these assets by the environment in which we choose to produce. If done correctly, the right space creates a more visceral experience for the audience – which is the whole point.
I am not suggesting that we give up on the traditional opera house. It makes sense that the bulk of the repertoire has been written for this kind of environment and therefore will remain an important part of the life line of an opera company. But I do think there are some standard pieces that might be better served by a new environment (with a new partner, such as the Philadelphia Orchestra). The bulk of talk in the opera industry today is about using alternative venues for new work – an idea that I am also a strong proponent of – but I don’t think we should limit the conversation to be exclusively about new pieces. The reality is that our stage craft, technology, and our collective aesthetics have changed dramatically since most opera houses were built, and if we are not willing to revisit “place” of performance, when it makes sense, then we might be missing an opportunity to stimulate progress.
If anyone out there in cyberspace has any ideas on existing pieces of repertoire that might work in alternative spaces please let me know: @ddevan on twitter or use the comment section of this blog.