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February 16, 2010

A few more thoughts on the Lyric, 'Carmen' and Baltimore's operatic future

Yes, I'm back on this topic, which I hadn't planned on revisiting so soon. But in case you aren't so blog-addicted that you've already read every comment and response-to-comment on Monday's post, I just wanted to make a few more points about the presentation of Opera New Jersey's "Carmen" at the Lyric.

What I found so interesting and encouraging about the afternoon was the atmosphere and the demographics in the house -- lots of people, a wide variety of ages, all apparently drawn to the place for grand opera, just like in the good old days here. That response, assuming it wasn't just a fluke, ought to provide the boost, the incentive for opera-serious folks here to build something at least akin to a new Baltimore company in the house where the Baltimore Opera Company once resided.

Having said that, I don't want anyone

to think that I'd ever be fully satisfied with a regular dose of what was onstage Sunday. Let me go so far as to say that the Lyric staff should make a solemn pledge now to look for productions that go far beyond the level that Opera New Jersey revealed in this "Carmen." This was, as I wrote to a commentor on my previous post, a case of pleasant provincialism in terms of staging. (The cast was certainly better than that, in most cases.)

There are many talented, innovative stage directors and designers out there, and any new operatic venture at the Lyric should be looking to them when it comes to future collaborations. The theatrical side of things is enormously important in this visual age. I still think musical assets trump everything else, which is why I wasn't as bothered as some by Bernard Uzan's concept for this "Carmen," but I know that the total ear-and-eye package matters.

In practical terms, Uzan's bullring set, which turns choristers into mostly passive spectators, was probably the only production that would allow the former Baltimore Opera Chorus to be reunited for the performance -- there wouldn't have been time or money to have elaborate stage rehearsals; they could, more or less, just plop down and go to it (which they did, quite impressively).

In the end, I think the essential drama of "Carmen" emerged tellingly enough, as it did the first time I saw it years ago, (I never did buy Uzan's notion that Carmen would, in effect, stab herself, as she did here, but such directorial decisions are not so rare.) And with mostly solid singing and a fine orchestra in the pit, the operatic art was served.

So I still say the Lyric took a big step forward on Sunday. Now comes the tough part -- an encore.

Mind you, I haven't forgotten about Baltimore Opera Theatre, which debuted at the Hippodrome in November and is due back there with "Rigoletto" on March 11. This, too, represents a serious, passionate attempt to fill the void left by the sadly liquidated opera company. If this venture can pick up steam (the opening "Barber of Seville" featured some real vocal pros, but unacceptable chorus and orchestra), it could become a significant player on the scene. You never know.

Just as anything can happen in an opera plot, anything can happen with opera companies and opera-craving communities. That's why I say it's going to be interesting around here in the months and years ahead.

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:13 AM | | Comments (9)


Tim: With all due respect to you, the issue of production quality and production-sharing are two entirely different animals. Of course one should strive for the best possible, but that doesn't negate the argument that significant cost savings can be achieved by having two or more companies in relatively close proximity collaborate on a production. Obviously there are issues but saving on set and costume design and production and rehearsal time (to name but three points) are at least worth considering before any city decides to go it alone in starting (or, in the case of Baltimore, restarting) its own company. We have the same issue in Southern California. When Opera Pacific folded last year in Orange County, none of the other three companies in the region (Los Angeles, Long Beach or San Diego) have even appeared to make an attempt to bring a production or two into that market. Of course, there are challenges but it seems to me that they can be overcome.

after all these years you still amuse me and make me laugh
Bernard Uzan

Nice to know I might have a small function left. Cheers. TS

Tim (on behalf of my mother who was there Sunday and used to sing with BOC in the good ole days) Having read your critique of Carmen, I was wondering if my perception that Linda Chavez was off-key in the early part of Act One is correct. I thought Mr Leech sang loudly all the time, no shading or modulation at appropriate times. The lack of scenery was also disappointing. I know it's a money thing, but I heard a gentleman who said he was GM of the ONJ say that it was Mr Uzan's artistic vision and not necessarily budget. I especially enjoyed Kaitlin Lynch. Are my observations valid?

Your observations would be valid even if I didn't agree with them. An essential goal of art is to get reactions, and reactions to reactions. So thanks for sharing your thoughts. Since you asked, I thought the mezzo had a curious way of attacking high notes in the early part of the evening, landing slightly off-pitch before settling down -- a practice that disappeared after awhile, so I didn't mention it. The tenor definitely lacked nuance (after his first few notes, I knew there was no hope of getting a pianissimo B-flat in the Flower Song), but I was pleasantly surprised at how effective he could be at putting a dramatic spin on phrasing. To me, it was an acceptable kind of loud. Also to me, Caitlin Lynch was exceptional in tone and phrasing. Uzan's unit-set concept automatically limits the prospect of significant scenery (I did like the use of lights in the distance to suggest the smuggler's descent from a mountain -- a bit of scenic interest with a minimum of means). I suppose more money would have meant a more evocative or imposing bullring, but still no big change in the overall picture. I really do appreciate the director's idea of focusing all the attention on the principals and the intensely personal struggles in the opera, but I think the addition of so much ballet swirling around risked distracting attention from those very things. Sorry to be so long-winded. TIM

Dear Mr. Page, As a former member of the Baltimore Opera Orchestra, I'd like to address your comments about the use of the BSO in collaboration with any new opera company at the Lyric Opera House. The BOC orchestra functioned for 20 years, working with numerous conductors, with minimum rehearsal time and was able to impress audiences with our performances of Salome, Tannhauser, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Elektra, as well as Aida, Carmen, Butterfly, Tosca, and Norma, to name just a few. This group of freelance musicians bonded together to give the Baltimore public great performances time and time again, and most are hoping for the opportunity to resume their positions in the Lyric pit. The BSO serves the community in its capacity as the city's symphony orchestra. I would like to be involved in the resurgence of opera whenever that opportunity presents itself. Thank you.

Please note that my name is Tim Smith, and has been for as long as I can recall. (I don't think Tim Page gives much thought to these issues today.) Also please note that I've expressed great admiration for the former opera orchestra on many occasions, including the post you're responding to. I was merely suggesting that, given how fragile things are out there, a new company might be wise to seek a new way of building strength, and a partnership with the oldest, strongest organization in town might be something worth considering. Let me reiterate that if the old Baltimore Opera company -- minus the internal adminsitrative weaknesses, of course -- were to be reborn, an awful lot of people would be happy. What we'd like to happen is one thing. A lot of attention needs to be paid to what's feasible and most promising. I think a lot of ideas need to be considered along the way. TS

As a member of the Former Baltimore Opera Chorus, and a current member of the WNO Chorus (who sang in Sunday's Carmen) I have to say it was bitter sweet to have such a triumphant event occur without our brothers and sisters in the pit. One thing I have truly enjoyed over the years is the constant improvement and consistent level of play of both the Baltimore Opera Orchestra and the WNO orchestra both ensembles show such versatility of skill and ability to play dramatically varied musical stiles from "Dead man walking" to Tosca and everything in between with little rehearsal time (especially in Baltimore). While I will agree with T.S. that a partnership with the BSO might be a short term solution to get started. However, it should not be the long term solution. Correct me if I am wrong but wasn't the BSO in the pit originally (long before my time)?

I have to take issue with the previous comment regarding SoCal opera companies. Although our current season was already set when Opera Pacific in Orange County unfortunately folded, Long Beach Opera will be performing Grigori Frid's The Diary of Anne Frank at the Irvine Barclay Theatre (Orange County) on May 15th and we look forward to future performances in the area.

Yes, operadovi, at one time the BSO did play in the pit at Baltimore Opera. And as I detailed in a previous response on an earlier thread, it was the conflicting schedules of the BSO and the opera which led to the building of the Meyerhoff, and that house was purposefully designed so there was no possibility of it accomodating an opera production (lest the Lyric be closed and pressure be put on the BSO to accomodate the opera company in the new hall.
This goes back to the pre-and early Commissiona days when, with all due respect, the BSO had not yet attained the high artistic level it enjoys today. But I seem to recall that Commissiona conducted an opera or two for BOC.

Hi Tim,
It is wonderful to know that there is opera again in Baltimore. My husband, Mark and
I always enjoyed our time in Baltimore for the operas in which he sang and the chorus was always amazing. Great people and great audiences. I also have to say, we certainly miss writers like you in other places in the critical world. Your reviews and comments are always well written and perceptive even if not every one agree with you. Here's to success for opera in Baltimore. We'll follow this and your blog with great interest. All the best.

Thanks so much for the kind words. I know it's much too early to tell if there will be another, full-fledged company based at the Lyric again, but I enjoyed the buzz in the place and I got the impression that something will happen before too long. If so, I hope the first thing they do is offer your husband a contract. I sure do miss hearing his rich voice here. TIM

In a recent blog posting on his own blog John Bowen (Opera Vivente) ponders "does all great opera have to be grand opera?" He writes that

"a lot of the talk in our industry and in criticism has centered on the question of "How can we keep doing the same stuff we've always been doing for less money"? We must produce yet another Carmen or Traviata or Butterfly, but for half the cost as the last time we did it. To my mind, this almost always results in a production that is unsatisfactory on many levels and is reviewed as such. But we are coming to accept it as the best we can do, after the oft-invoked caveat of "but in the current economic climate…”

To m, the more productive question for the opera industry to be asking is: "What are the elements of opera that are somewhat independent of cost, and what repertoire and production style best focuses us (and our audience) on those elements"?

When I start making a list of those elements, here's what I come up with:

1) Intelligent, musical, singing.

2) Committed, detailed, and skilled acting.

3) Evocative, thoughtful design that serves to enhance the audience's emotional response to the work rather than being an element that steals the audience's attention away from the work. (avoiding the old bon mot of "the audience left the theatre humming the set" in other words)

4) Direct communication with the audience that does not require expensive technology and equipment

5) Direction that places narrative, catharsis, and relevance at the forefront rather than spectacle or concept.

Opera Vivente will open a new production of Impressions of Pelleas on Friday night. It will be interesting to see how Bowen "practices what he preaches."

You could read his whole post at Click on "blog"

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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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