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May 19, 2009

Another Tim weighs in on Baltimore's operatic future

This just in from Tim Nelson, whose American Opera Theater helps to spice up Baltimore's music season. He has been teaching in Canada, and just now caught up with an article I wrote a couple weeks ago about the city's operatic future (I didn't write the headline, by the way). Here's his response:


In his piece entitled "Small Opera Companies Try to Fill Gap," Tim Smith makes the true and important point that Baltimoreans should not forget the role of grand opera in the city’s cultural life. We all hope that from the ashes of the Baltimore Opera Company some more healthy and effective opera company will emerge. Perhaps the premise of his title is ...

flawed, however. What we at American Opera Theater, and what John Bowen with Opera Vivente, produce is not, will never be, and most importantly does not aspire to be “grand opera”. We provide something unique in offering new pieces to the repertoire, and in producing works that could never be produced well by a grand opera company at the Lyric Theater (Handel, Monteverdi, and many of the Britten operas). We also create productions that in many ways are more interesting and have more to say to the human soul. Smith is right in inviting the Washington National Opera to perform in Baltimore until some home-grown operatic entity can form. I for one hope to see WNO at the Lyric soon!

What concerns me about Smith’s piece is the sentence “My concern is that Baltimore could end up witnessing more locally generated good intentions than genuine high-caliber opera.” It begs the question “what is high-caliber opera?”. Is grand necessarily good? Not always, and in the United States right now, not usually. Opera sits at the pinnacle of all the arts because it is gesamtkunst – total art – and encompasses all of the arts. Opera is about so much more than singing, orchestral playing, and large sets. Opera is an apex because it has within itself the potential to be deeply relevant to the contemporary cultural dialogue. It has been a long time since performances of the Baltimore Opera had anything interesting to say on a dramatic level, since they added anything to the music that one could not have received, perhaps even better, from a concert performance.

We who create smaller scale, but more interesting, opera no doubt need to have a commitment to engaging ever higher quality singers, increasing our investment in production value, and establishing a uniformly high quality of instrumental playing. But, whatever company can “fill the gap” left by the Baltimore Opera Company, they too must have a commitment to creating productions that meet great singing with great dramaturgy, that speak to contemporary audiences, moving audiences to understand the important role of opera and to sustain both their local grand and alternative opera companies. Whatever the case, Baltimoreans should be proud to have so much operatic activity in their city, and I hope they will explore all its many manifestations.

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:30 PM | | Comments (0)

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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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