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 ...
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.