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December 10, 2008

Week from hell: bankruptcies, cutbacks, uncertainties

Baltimore OperaThe long-rumored news that was finally confirmed earlier this week about the Baltimore Opera Company filing for bankruptcy came, oddly enough, just as the Baltimore Sun's parent Tribune Company filed for the same kind of protection from creditors. Then, yesterday, word arrived of financial trouble for the 74-year-old Handel Choir of Baltimore. That group isn't in as dire a position as the opera, but it's worrisome just the same. And it's got to be heartbreaking for a lot of kids and their parents, since the money shortage means that the Handel Children's Choir, an offshoot of the Handel Choir, will cease operations after a concert this weekend. And then there's the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, which recently canceled recording sessions scheduled for January (the concerts slated that month are still officially on the calendar).

That's just the local picture. Consider these recent examples of the Economy That Wouldn't Stop Spiraling: the Virginia Symphony is cutting salaries for music director JoAnn Falletta and administrative employees by 20 percent and canceling three of five spring concerts; Miami City Ballet will switch to taped music (shudder) for much of the remainder of the season because it can't afford an orchestra now. The string of bad news is enough to make the most determined optimist to get the shakes.

Back to the Baltimore Opera crisis. It's feels rather odd writing about a bankrupt company while working for another bankrupt company, but here goes: The opera mess casts a very dark shadow on this city. Like everyone else, I've heard about financial problems in the organization for years and wondered why they weren't more aggressively addressed. And like everyone else, I've wondered about some of the company's decisions, especially when it came to artists and scenery imported from Europe at no small expense. I've wondered about many of the repertoire choices and many of the singers engaged, not to mention some of the stage and scenic directors. But, ultimately, I've always believed that the company has made a useful, often valiant effort to serve the operatic art form. I certainly think that the many decades behind the company have left a solid enough legancy to be worth preserving and expanding.

Seems to me a mostly new team will have to be in place, on the staff and on the board, if Baltimore Opera is to climb out of this hole and establish credibility. A fresh, strong and reasonable vision for the company will have to be outlined. And the community will have to accept, as never before, its vital role in supporting what will always be a costly artr form. I know there are other operatic choices out there -- I've already heard from boosters of Opera Vivente, Peabody Opera Theatre and others -- but if we don't have a full-sized organization producing full-sized opera on a regular basis, we'll be missing an awful lot. This city would be a lesser place without Baltimore Opera. It's that simple.

BALTIMORE SUN PHOTO/MONICA LOPOSSAY: BALTIMORE OPERA'S NOVEMBER PRODUCTION OF 'NORMA,' WHICH MAY HAVE BEEN THE COMPANY'S SWAN SONG 

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:07 PM | | Comments (3)
        

Comments

Part of the problem with the Baltimore Opera stems from their choice of repertoire, combined with an old fashioned approach to performance. Instead of choosing operas that have not been performed in Baltimore, the same few are recycled. The staging is for the most part mired in the past and needs to be updated.
The Baltimore Opera should hire an innovative set of directors who have vision and daring and will shake up the institution of opera. There is an audience for opera, but not the way it is being presented in Baltimore. How many times can one watch a tired production of a Bellini or a Verdi opera, despite the brilliance of the music? Perhaps a rethinking of the way in which the operas are performed is in order. Opera must adjust to newer techniques of performance styles and so far the Baltimore Opera has not done so.
I hope that the Company can reconfigure itself with a new direction pointed towards the future, with original productions perhaps in partnership with other companies that would showcase operas not heard in Baltimore. I hope so for the sake of this city.

We are fortunate to have Tim Smith providing important information as well as perspective and insight. While some may disagree with his opinions of performances, his reporting of the state of the classical musical arts is extremely objective.

Considering the general traditional tastes of the Baltimore audiences, one must commend Baltimore Opera for bringing some extraordinary opportunities to experience Dead Man Walking, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and Siege of Corinth. These are hardly traditional opera repertoire and they cost the company dearly for its efforts to do something different.

Thanks for the kind words. You mention excellent examples of off-the-beaten-path works the company presented. I wish there had been even more like that, and more donors who could have provided so much underwriting for the less popular operas that ticket sales would not have been a crucial issue.TIM

It seemed to me that Baltimore Opera often succeeded in a balance between commonly and rarely performed operas, even in a short season of four productions, although maybe the current season was not a good example of this. I'm thinking of La Fanciulla a couple of years ago as one example of a rarely performed opera (and I remember one writer mentioning a relative who flew in from out of town to see it). There are other examples, and I also recall the Siege of Corinth and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk mentioned in another comment. (But maybe the company could stand to do something like Britten?) As for more modern, adventurous stagings, I myself like to see both traditional and updated productions. It should be noted that Baltimore did try some innovative updatings and met with disapproval. I heard about Baltimore's updated Carmen; I saw the traditional Carmen offered just a couple of seasons later as an apology to Baltimore ticket-buyers according to Director Harrison's explanation given on stage before the curtain rose. (However, some updatings can be pointless or create contradictions with the story.) One more word about sets: I can't speak to costs between building your own and importing from other companies, but Baltimore's home-built sets for Tosca (especially the cathedral interior), brought out for two different productions over the years, were some of the best traditional sets I've seen anywhere.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at baltimoresun.com/artsmash. This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
View the Artsmash blog
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