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March 23, 2009

One scenario for bringing grand opera back to Baltimore

The pathetic end of the Baltimore Opera Company leaves an awful lot of questions, especially about administrative management and board oversight. Right now, though, the biggest question is whether Baltimore will ever see the rise of another full-scale company -- a sustainable, full-size company, that is.

It's great that we have Opera Vivente, Peabody Opera Theatre and, set to debut on Wednesday, Baltimore Concert Opera. But these are complements to, not substitutes for, grand opera, the type served up for nearly 60 years by the BOC. Say what you will about the consistency of the BOC productions, this was a substantial, valuable company. And when everything clicked, it delivered a product that many a much larger, richer community would be proud of, as the November staging of Norma, the unanticipated swan song, drove home.

To get something like that back at the Lyric on a regular basis from a Baltimore-based grand opera company would require an act of philanthropy as of yet unknown in Baltimore -- a massive infusion of cash that would provide operating money and an endowment fund. I'd say $10 million, to be safe. Any takers? How about $5 million? Pretty silent out there, isn't it?

But let's say you could get high-quality, grand-sized opera every season here for much less money. You would still need ...

a board of directors, and you'd certainly need some folks skilled in fundraising, but you could get the job done for a fraction of the cost of the BOC. The only trouble would be that it wouldn't be a Baltimore company at all. Instead, a company from elsewhere would come in to perform some or all of the works already being readied for its own hometown.

This is precisely the arrangement that has gone on for many decades way down South, where Florida Grand Opera, based in Miami, presents its work about 35 miles to the north in Fort Lauderdale, where a local guild acts as presenter and raises the money. (Lauderdale didn't have its own opera company when the relationship began, so there wasn't an issue of carpetbagging or local pride. Those issues did eventually rise, however, and there was a Fort Lauderdale Opera for a few seasons.)

The geographic similarity with Washington and Baltimore is obvious. In the weeks before the BOC board called it quits and opted for liquidation, there were some contacts with Washington National Opera exploring the idea of a collaboration, possibly starting with a fundraiser for Baltimore Opera. That's moot now, but the idea of WNO establishing a presence in our fair city deserves serious consideration.

Once upon a time, Baltimore welcomed the touring Metropolitan Opera regularly, even while the BOC was very much active, so the concept of an outside company paying a visit shouldn't seem so foreign. And WNO would arrive with plenty of credibility and security behind it, allowing wary Baltimore opera fans, burned by the mid-season collapse of the BOC, to risk buying tickets.

A lot of technical issues would have to be confronted, given the severe limitations of the Lyric stage and, more problematic, the backstage area, compared to the Kennedy Center Opera House. But, again drawing on the Florida experience, this sort of thing can be planned for -- many Miami productions used to arrive in the original, much smaller Fort Lauderdale venue with substantially cut down sets, and the public didn't complain (now, both of those cities have comparable arts centers). And renovations at the Lyric remain a possibility, so it may well be that most WNO ventures could fit comfortably into the theater at some point.

The main thing is that Baltimore and Washington, as cities, already have a certain closeness -- hey, we've got a parkway and an airport in common, just for starters. Baltimore opera fans have been known to check out the action in D.C., and vice versa. So there's a certain logic to turning to Washington for our grand opera fix now. And no other company in this region, however respectable, could provide the necessary potency for that fix, not the Virginia Opera or Opera New Jersey (the latter is making overtures even as I blog).

Any plan for an outside company to build a seasonal presence in Baltimore would require vision, leadership and money, elements that seem to have dried up at the BOC, so I'm not suggesting this would be easy for anyone. But I think people here could get excited about the prospect of having WNO at the Lyric. Certainly anyone who caught the production of Peter Grimes Saturday night will recognize the quality of this company (several hundred BOC ticket-holders will be seeing performances of Grimes, thanks to free vouchers from WNO). And I suspect the Washington company would relish the possibilities of such an arrangement.

Even though there would be risks, and even though the current economy tends to dampen risk-taking, the rewards could be considerable.

Posted by Tim Smith at 4:51 PM | | Comments (4)


Excellent idea! It would be wonderful to be able to get all or at least part of the Washington National Opera season in Baltimore. Another good candidate for Baltimore is the Philadelphia Opera company which is comparable in scope to our defunct BOC.
I hope someone is listening to you, this is a great idea. In the meantime for those of us that live in the city, can’t the Charles Theater or the Landmark theaters pick-up the Metropolitan HD telecasts? With the demise of the BOC we lost these also…

Thanks for the comments. I sure hope the folks in DC are taking a long, serious look at the possibility. It's not such a stretch to imagine a Baltimore Opera Guild (with multiple layers of membership) that presents the Washington National Opera, thus keeping our city's name in the picture. And I'd bet that folks here would get excited about having WNO general director Placido Domingo stop by at a fundraising reception once in a while. Meanwhile, about the Met's HD transmissions. The guy who runs the Charles told me that he was prevented from picking them up because of contractual issues, but I hope he revisits the idea soon. I suspect an arrangement could be made.TIM

(In the interest of full disclosure, I start this post by stating that my wife, Sara Stewart, has performed with the Washington National Opera and former Baltimore Opera Company.)

While it is probably inevitable that some company such as Washington will do performances at the Lyric, this idea, as a permanent solution, would be a terrible blow to Baltimore's artistic community.

One of the groups most affected by the demise of the BOC was the artists themselves. The BOC was one of the most, if not the most, important artistic outlets for many of the singers and orchestral musicians involved. (I always regretted that funds were not available to make the opera orchestra more vibrant and visible ensemble.) Local singers had the opportunity to begin their careers here, and as Mr. Smith has pointed out, many did. The small parts given BOC choristers were meaningful and significant for career development.

These were good jobs: high paying unionized gigs that provided a significant supplemental income for local artists. Approximately 100 people have lost a significant portion of their income as freelance musicians as a result of BOC's demise, in addition to the full time employees.

Furthermore, these musicians, using the Baltimore Opera as a financial base, formed a critical part of Baltimore's musical community. Many of the musicians who sang in church choirs and played in pick up ensembles for various social occasions were BOC musicians. And while Opera Vivente and the Baltimore Concert Opera are worthy and important organizations, they are too small to have an impact and themselves hire musicians from outside of the Baltimore region. They will not do well, long-term, in an environment where the major ensemble is fifty miles to the south.

Washington, Virginia, or another company will only serve to further the interests of musicians in those communities. The Washington Opera cannot absorb all of Baltimore's musicians, and in fact, most will be left out. And while it is true that Baltimore Opera musicians frequently performed with Washington, the vast majority of them did not have that opportunity for one reason or another.

And while a company may promise to hire a few local musicians, I must ask how many that will be. Surely they will not replace the entire chorus, although a pick up orchestra is possible. Will they give opportunities to outstanding Baltimore singers, as opposed to those they bring in from elsewhere?

I have spoken to any number of BOC veterans who are considering leaving the city due to the demise of the company. In the future, many will not even come.

Randall Stewart
Baltimore, Maryland
(The writer is an educator and DMA student in Orchestral Conducting at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.)

Thanks for your very thoughtful commentary. In my usual blog-y haste, I neglected to address the concerns you raise about the highly valuable local singers and instrumentalists who were hurt so badly by the collapse of the BOC. To be sure, an outside company would not be likely to employ them. The only thing that could help them would be a big, new Baltimore ensemble, but I just don't see that happening anytime soon. So I worry that the operatic art, at least the full-size version, will disappear from this city. That would be terrible.TIM

As a former subscriber to both the Washington and Baltimore Operas, I hope that the Baltimore community will not settle for imported productions from Washington.

In my experience, the Washington Opera usually spent most of their production budget on one or two major productions per season, and the other 4 or 5 productions each year were poor to fair. Baltimore usually put on four excellent productions. For the past few years, I have been a subscriber only to the Baltimore Opera.

Thanks for the comments. I just hope that if Baltimore 'will not settle for imported productions,' it doesn't mean we have to face a darkened Lyric for many seasons to come. That still seems to me to be a much worse fate.TS

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


You've said all that we humble bloggers crave to hear -- that someone cares to read our stuff. Thanks a lot for commenting.

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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 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.
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