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May 11, 2009

Weigh in on Baltimore's operatic future

Each time I write about some aspect of Baltimore's operatic future, as I did in Sunday's paper, I can count on spirited responses. So I thought it might be useful to post an entry here by inviting your comments on how, when, even why the void left by the collapses Baltimore Opera Company should be filled.

In Sunday's article, I outlined the existing companies in town and discussed a newly formed enterprise, Baltimore Opera Theater, set to debut next season, as well as Washington National Opera's planned concert-form presentation next month. As I've written before, I'm primarily interested in seeing full-sized, quality opera in this city again. Toward that end, I confess a certain yearning for instant gratification, such as might be provided by an existing, major opera company. 

All of this, of course, is open to discussion and debate. Use the comment function here to aim your wisdom or wrath at me (or each other).

I'll start the commentary by posting -- with permission -- this email I received Sunday from Jenny Kelly, whose husband, Giorgio Lalov, recently announced the launch of Baltimore Opera Theater. The couple have long been involved in touring productions of opera and ballet; their Teatro Lirico d'Europa has toured the U.S. for a decade.

Plans for their new Baltimore company call for productions at the Hippodrome and opera in concert form at the Meyerhoff. I suggested in my commentary that a little skepticism would not be unwarranted, given the economic climate and some of the goals Lalov has revealed. I also wondered if the couple can play well with others, given their propensity toward saying some rather, well, dramatic things about folks who have not been viewed as supportive of their plans and assurances. Here's the response (ellipses and punctuation are in the original):

Dear Tim,
Great article.  Let me please defend my words however... When I use words like slander and assassination...I don't do so to be dramatic. I don't care a tinker's do about being dramatic! At my age in life I am not a part of this intrigue business! I just want to see my son happy and business to go well and easy! I am being very honest and totally correct by the legal standard of the word slander. Please look up the definition of slander and you will see!
There are people on the board of the Lyric who are deliberately trying to POISON the pool of potential opera benefactors here in Baltimore AGAINST US  because they wish to control opera here in town and do what THEY PLEASE to do!

We are no strangers to slander! When I booked the first US tour of Teatro in the USA ... after our 10 year history of huge successes in Europe, with over 200 performances there a year ... I was able to use the hundreds of reviews we had generated and the list of CDs that we had on sale in Europe on the Italian Harmony Music label to lend credibility to what I was doing...along with a few photos that were fuzzy at best. Despite that... Columbia Artists Mgmt. was in the habit of owning the world here as far as opera tours. It enraged them that anyone would attempt to enter the market. As a result, they sent faxes and e mails all over the USA to all the venues that present opera saying that we would NEVER ARRIVE to even set foot here much less do a tour! And what happened? We came, we did that FIRST winter 2000 tour...We got RAVE reviews from the Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe to name a few of the MAJOR newspapers that loved our work...and the theaters that worked with us were very happy with our service and our behavior...  and now, CAMI, after years of presenting NYC Opera on tour and London City Opera, Stanislavksy Opera and the Helikon Opera as well as a Bulgarian company called Opera Verdi,  CAMI has NO MORE opera tours in the USA. They are gone and we are the only opera touring company that exists now...and we have 80
performances a year...and EVERYONE IS PAID ON TIME AND IN FULL and there are no bills left behind unpaid!

When I tried to book my first ballet tour in the US... again slander and faxes and e mails all over from CAMI... but then we brought the ballet here and they were GREAT! BETTER than CAMI's ballet OF COURSE.

Why are you trying to rally people around a company that costs TOO MUCH in THIS economy when you have HONEST people who want to start a new company in a sensible way? Stop with the GRAND OPERA. Why not OPERA that honors the composer and not the ego and narcissism of some men (some good old boys) that want to present it?
Jenny Kelly, Director
World Classical Performing Performing Arts Society, Inc.
Posted by Tim Smith at 8:55 AM | | Comments (7)


I think these Lalov folks are doing a pretty good job of poisoning the pool against themselves. This woman makes herself seem cuckoo for cocoa puffs. But if the art they put on stage is good, who cares that the management is a little, er, eccentric? The proof will be in the pudding.

It is sad to hear that opera will be at the Hippodrome which must have the most uncomfortable seats in town… no leg room at all! Acoustics are not great but very much on dry side and I would not consider attending opera amplified… so thanks for bringing some bread and butter repertory to the Hippodrome but you won’t find me trying there.
It looks like the Lalov’s are their own worst enemies, rather than building support for their new venture; they are alienating large groups of potential backers. Some dirty laundry is better left to be done at home… if you get support of opera lovers in Baltimore, present operas of quality the opposition to the new venture will melt away. But their declarations are doing exactly the opposite.
I truly hope that the Washington National Opera brings some of their productions to Baltimore and that we in Baltimore will get our act together and establish a company that will be source of employment for our artists and be a source of civic pride.

Giorgio Lalov told me earlier this month that he is considering the use of amplification for operas at the Hippodrome, which, as you note, is acoustically dry.TIM

Almost seems that Lalov is more concerned about losing the Opera patron dollar perhaps?

WNO is a fine temporary substitute for staged operas. However, they must be careful not to push down the formation of a separate resident Baltimore opera company. That, I believe, is the ultimate goal for most people. It is a fine line with the proximity but could be a wonderful opportunity for both (if done correctly).

I have reservations about Mr. Lalov's ideas and the manner in which he is making his entrance into the Baltimore scene. But I do wish him well in his adventure.

I think there is the possibility that out of this there will be a few more companies than at the start. Opera Vivente can be solidified and grow as the chamber opera; the Baltimore Concert Opera can become a full fledged concert opera with full orchestra; the Baltimore Opera Theatre could start and thrive; WNO could bring regular productions to the Lyric; and finally a new regional opera company could unfold as a tenant of the Lyric. So, all in all, I believe the prospects are very good as long as the financial situation can sustain these projects.

Just my two cents.

Worth more than that, I'd say.TIM

We still don't know the full story of why the Baltimore Opera couldn't reorganize under the chapter 11 bankruptcy.

The official story is that foundation and corporate support dropped, ticket sales for Aida were below expections, and government support was cut. But many organizations continue to operate in bankruptcy (airlines, auto companies, etc.).

Why didn't the Baltimore Opera try to continue with semi-staged or concert productions for a year or two?

And what did the Board of Directors do to develop support from the State and local governments to preserve this 58 year old Maryland institution? These governments are supporting other Maryland institutions.

For example, the General Assembly authorized Govenor O'Malley to use eminent domain to seize the Preakness and Pimlico racetrack if necessary to prevent loss of this Maryland institution.

And Baltimore city is working to preserve the Senator Theater.

Why didn't the Baltimore Opera's Board of Directors develop a plan to save the Baltimore Opera through government loans, grants, or other mechanisms? Will any new grand opera company in Baltimore bring in any more government support than the Baltimore Opera?

Teatro Lirico d'Europa has appeared several times in Southern California with productions that are always perfectly competent. Most importantly, they're priced at a level that many people can afford. Is it a long-term solution for Baltimore? Perhaps not, but it is part of the answer for those who want opera in production, as opposed to opera in concert.

May I respectfully suggest that before anyone starts making plans for a new company (or new companies) that some serious, objective work be done to define WHY the Baltimore Opera failed. Was it the repertoire? The theatre? The casting? Advertising that was insulting to its base audience? Too many performances? Lack of financial controls? Most likely a combination of some of these factors. I'm not suggesting a witch hunt - its too late and counter-productive to spread out blame. But what can be learned from this failure? Shall we take a look back at the rock over which we (as a community) have tripped before continuing our journey? As an opera-goer, I am looking for a place where I can go, safely park my car, get a comfortable seat and hear well (preferably unmiked) a good performance of a reasonably conservative production at a halfway reasonable price. Is such a thing possible in Baltimore?

Good questions, every one. I hope more people are asking them.TIM

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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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