« A tough battle for 2011: Fighting the anti-cultural crowd | Main | Innovation rewarded: Post-Classical Ensemble receives $200,000 Mellon grant »

January 4, 2011

American Opera Theater's next, typically provocative production may be its last

One of the more interesting stories on what might be called Baltimore's alternative opera scene has been the innovative little company that arrived earlier in the past decade with an emphasis on the baroque. Initially called Ignoti Dei Opera, the ensemble, founded by Timothy Nelson, eventually changed its name to American Opera Theater and moved well beyond the baroque as it tackled off-the-beaten-path fare and provocative interpretations of more standard works.

The 2010-11 season will apparently be the company's last.

December's production, a re-imagining of Puccini's "Madama Butterfly," was canceled. Now, the February venture, a collaboration with the Handel Choir of Baltimore and Peabody Conservatory, is being billed as a swan song. 

Press releases received Tuesday from Nelson and the Theatre Project both announce that American Opera Theater is "finally hanging up its hat," but "going out with a bang"; the company's own Web site uses the word "goodbye."

However, Nelson sent me a subsequent email saying there is "some possibility of saving" a spring production of Kurt Weill's "Lost in the Stars," if money can be found. UPDATE: Heard again from Nelson, who says "the needed resources for 'Lost' were just confirmed, so we are going forward with it."

Meanwhile, next month's "bang" is a most intriguing double bill Feb. 4-13 at the Theatre Project: Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas" (the work that launched AOT eight years ago) and the local premiere of

Melissa Dunphy's "The Gonzales Cantata." The latter work, from 2009, gives a Handelian treatment to the congressional testimony of former Attorney General Alberto ("I don't recall") Gonzales. Characters include Senators Ben Cardin, Arlen Specter and Diane Feinstein (she's portrayed by a he in the cantata). Sounds like fun.

If the double bill does turn out to be AOT's finale, Nelson and company can certainly feel good about the way they shook things up over the years. I recall some very cool productions of works by Cavalli, Charpentier (the rarely encountered "David and Jonathan," played out on a stage filled with sand), Handel (the literally high-flying, circus version of "Acis and Galatea") and Weill (the intriguing "Songspiel" with the fabulous Sylvia McNair).

That AOT should be reaching the folding-up-the-tent phase is not surprising. Nelson hasn't lived in the area, or even the country, for some time; it's harder to maintain or develop a company's profile and support from afar. And Nelson is more interested in directing than the day-to-day running of a company, with the endless fundraising that entails. So, even if "Lost in the Stars" materializes later this season, the company is not likely to go on as it has. Instead, we might get periodic Nelson-directed ventures  in the future, rather than a regular season. 

It's impressive how much Nelson managed to achieve, despite the financial and logistical odds. Baltimore has benefited considerably from his creative spark.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:33 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera


If someone wants to know why the right wing does not support public funding for the arts, one should only look at this program: the Gonzales Cantata. Far from being provocative, this is an instance of preaching to the crowd. Even more. it's an instance of shameless opportunism which will get a few performances while Bush is still remember but has no chance of surviving - and if you don't believe me, how many works by Gossec, who glorified the French revolution, are still in repertoire? And Wellington's Victory is only remember because the composer is a guy called Beethoven, because the work is a monstruosity.

And has anyone dared to do a Biden Cantata - and boy, there is plenty of material. Or even the supidities of our president such as "the Austrian language." But conservatives see this blatant bias and this is why they oppose the funding. Yes, the composers should have the freedom of writing whatever they want. But don't ask us to pay.

Right Wing Nut is an appropriate name for you isn't it? You should try to be a little more intelligent and informed before you start sounding like an idiot. If you had done the tiniest amount of research on the piece you would realize that it is absolutely non-partisan, in fact it is extremely sympathetic to Gonzales the historic figure. And the Democrats on the congressional committee are the most ridiculous, and perhaps ridiculed, characters in the opera. The most sympathetic characters are obviously Gonzales and Hatch.

Beyond that, and in what is a dramatic conceit perhaps too much for the mind behind such a non-subtle and anti-contextual coment as yours, this really isn't about the historic figure of Gonzales or any of the senators represented at all (just as Handel's Giulio Cesare isn't a representation of the historic Roman emperor). It is instead a metaphor for the broken American political system, aside from any partisan point of few.

As your comment demonstrates, people like you don't support public funding of the arts because you can't understand the arts, it has nothing to do with the content of the art presented.

Post a comment

All comments must be approved by the blog author. Please do not resubmit comments if they do not immediately appear. You are not required to use your full name when posting, but you should use a real e-mail address. Comments may be republished in print, but we will not publish your e-mail address. Our full Terms of Service are available here.

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

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.
View the Artsmash blog

Baltimore Sun coverage
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Marin Alsop
Famous faces in classical music
Sign up for FREE entertainment alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for nightlife text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
  • Weekend Watch newsletter
Plan your weekend with's best events, restaurant and movie reviews, TV picks and more delivered to you every Thursday for free.
See a sample | Sign up

Most Recent Comments
Stay connected