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October 9, 2011

Opera Vivente cancels 2011-2012 season; seeks new home

Opera Vivente, which has enlivened the Baltimore scene for 13 years with wide-ranging repertoire and often highly imaginative productions, all performed in English, has cancelled its 2011-2012 season.

That season was to have opened in a new home next month at with "The Marriage of Figaro." The company announced several months ago that there would be a move from its base at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Mount Vernon to a facility on the east side of town, where the Maryland State Boychoir makes its home.

"Efforts began last spring to ...

move the company to a new venue to provide improved production and an enhanced audience experience," according to a notice posted on the Opera Vivente website. "After six months of negotiations, a lease could not be executed and Opera Vivente’s ability to fund its current season operations became impossible."

Money was also a factor: "Although season ticket sales and contributions were encouraging, projected income for the remainder of the season is insufficient to ensure financial stability if the company pursued its season production plans."

No refunds are being given: "Income from ticket sales and contributions has been used to fund ongoing production and administrative costs since the close of the 2010-2011 season in May, 2011." Patrons are being asked to "convert" those ticket purchases into tax-deductible contributions.

In addition to "Figaro," the 2011-12 lineup was to have included "Ariodante" and an version of "The Bartered Bride" transformed to a Baltimore location, complete with Baltimore-speak -- a followup to the company's Bawl-mer-ized 'Magic Flute" in 2010 (pictured).

The company, founded and directed by John Bowen, "will use this time to explore options for its future" and asks for "patience and continued support as we work through these difficult circumstances."

UPDATE: Responding by email to my phone call asking for more details on what happened, Bowen said he has "nothing to add to the press release information. It certainly isn't an unusual tale in the current scary economic and social climate in which we now live."


Posted by Tim Smith at 4:50 PM | | Comments (17)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera


A week ago John Bowen was still blogging about "The Marriage of Figaro," so whatever happened must have happened suddenly. My wife and I have subscribed to Opera Vivente for many years, and we were looking forward to the new season and the new venue. We had subscribed to the Baltimore Opera for many years, and when that company folded we were left holding tickets to performances that never occurred, so we now feel like serial opera chumps (not to be confused with opera seria chumps). It is a shame -- we enjoyed many of the OV productions, and even when we did not think a production worked, we admired Bowen's ambition and his nerve. Now we wonder how he had the nerve to take our money and assign us seats if he didn't have a lease.

All good questions, which I shall try to get answers for (I only learned of the news while going from one concert on Sunday to another ). And I love the opera seria line. TIM

This will be a huge gap in the local opera season. I've enjoyed Opera Vivente's grand chamber opera style for several years and hope to see them back next season.

If most of the season subscription revenues were already collected and have already been spent without putting on any production, what production expenses were incurred and how were the remaining production and administrative expenses to be generated? Surely not with single ticket sales and stray late subscription. Did contributions fall far below expectations?

There's a word for what this guy has done: fraud. He gives everyone in the arts business a bad name and, in a stroke, wipes out 13 years of good work. Shame on him!

Bob Thomas, you know nothing about what happened with OV and the Maryland State Boys Choir and I highly doubt you ever saw a production at OV.

When you do a capital campaign and are prepared to do $400,000 of renovations to a dilapidated space, pay architects to look at your plans so you can get the permits to do the work and the Maryland State Boys Choir pulls the rug from under your feet in early Sept., this is what happens. Fraud? I believe you are a bit dramatic and mis-informed.

And the money from subscription sales... do you think it just went into Dr. Bowen's pocket? We're not sure how much it took to pay lawyers to draw up leases and negotiate with the Boys Choir lawyers (who happen to be in Ohio, Ohio Real Estate lawyers drawing up contracts for property in Maryland, yeah, that's the ticket) and we don't know how much it took to pay architects to look over the plans (plans that involved electrical and foundation updating). Plus, where do you think the costumes and sets are? Storage? Maybe? That costs money too.

So, if OV finds a new home within the year and can fiscally put on a season in 2012-13, they'll have sets and costumes to use.

Shame on you for throwing around such stupid vocabulary while being ignorant to the situation. Does Baltimore even deserve to have opera anymore?

What a shame! It is unfortunate that things are going awry at Emmanuel Church with that goofy interim rector and
they couldn't help John Bowen.

Uneven shows and uncomfortable seats. A single idea that was funny once (opera in Bawlmorese). Still, I supported them to support opera in Baltimore. Now he takes ticket money and "encourages" patrons to consider it a donation?
Goodbye, Mr. Bowen.

A very unfortunate turn of events, they did great work. I hope they may yet do so again. I, too, am a subscriber, and will greatly miss the planned season, but I see absolutely no evidence of bad faith being involved.

I can tell you from my experiences with John (he was my director and friend at a local church several years ago) that he is a very honorable man and would never take advantage of anyone. I'm sure that he was just trying, up to the very last minute, to make things work out for the upcoming season. What is shameful is to accuse someone of wrongdoing without evidence.

Prepare for audiences to no longer trust that a subscription is of any value, and only making last minute decisions to buy. And after two instances of the "No Refunds" sign hanging on the proverbial door, who could blame us? That will only make the hill steeper for any group trying to bring opera back in a meaningful way.

A symbolic offer of even a partial refund on tickets as a show of good faith might be remembered when the company is in better health and sends out letters to its subscriber "family." Think on it.

We've had a bad run of opera companies in Baltimore ditching plans, whether it was a whole season or individual performances. I believe it's all due to circumstances beyond their control, but several companies in Baltimore, not just one, still need to take note for the future and be more careful. In the present case, somebody or some group at what was to be OV's new home really made the deal go sour when they tried to reverse the lease negotiations. As far as how firm plans were from OV's side, the company gained a listing as one of only two Maryland companies in Opera News magazine's annual upcoming season calendar (September issue) with the new home given as its location. I also enjoy Director Bowen's friendship, and I do not believe that there has been any carelessness or other lacking on his part. Opera Vivente has enriched the local opera scene with regular productions of Handel and even some Britten included in its repertoire. As far as my money is concerned, I'm not just thinking of the present lost season. I would hate to see this company fold, an outcome that in my mind would be as bad as if not worse than losing the former BOC. Late in the game for this year, perhaps, but I have sent my donation to OV in spite of this outcome, in hopes that the company will be back on stage in the near future. I invite fellow opera lovers who want to preserve this vital part of Baltimore's vibrant opera scene to do likewise. (See Mr. Weaver's comment above summing up all the hidden expenses of an opera company.)

We have loved these performances for years--it's a huge shame that it's come to this! But my sympathy is limited:

1) If all the ticket money has already been spent on operations and administration, then how exactly was OV planning to actually mount any productions? "The money's been spent" sounds like "The dog ate my homework". Really, where did the money go?

2) If OV tries to re-open next year, exactly who will buy season tickets? We heard many reassurances, we lost hundreds of dollars, and no way we'll every buy season tickets to OV in the future. I am sure this is a very common sentiment. So I see no way for OV to ever re-open, sadly.

3) It's hard to imagine John Bowen as a criminal or felon or a jerk or anything along those lines. This is a guy who devotes his time to producing small-scale opera! Gotta love that. It seems much more likely that he's an atrocious manager with no public relations skills. Unfortunately, lack of nefarious intent doesn't change either of the above issues.


Cory Weaver: I stand by description. Whether or not I've seen a production is totally beside the point, as are any of the issues you raised. Perhaps this wasn't what John Brown intended but the bottom line for me is that people who purchased tickets are not being offered refunds. They bought tickets — they weren't making a contribution — and they lost their money. Others above have noted the obvious ramifications, which extend not only to this company but to others in the region, as well.

From what I have heard this unfortunate series of events is based on miscommunication and NEA funding. This season OV was moving to a new venue with the Maryland State Boys’ Choir (MSBC). The two groups worked out an agreement to share this space and an NEA grant was awarded to OV to be paid out later in support of the coming season’s production costs. In order to produce opera in the new venue expensive updates needed to be made. The MSBC suddenly refused to financially support the updates, saying they were only necessitated by the opera productions. This came as a surprise to OV. OV could not afford the updates alone, and were forced to move productions back to the church. OV was then informed that they would no longer receive the expected NEA funding because the church is not ADA compliant, so the money that had been promised to cover upcoming production costs is no longer there.

Many of the music organizations in this town run productions on grant money, not ticket sales. Ticket costs would have to be astronomical to cover even half of the expenses of a staged production or an orchestra, and none of us want to see that happen. Where your ticket purchases DO matter is in grant proposals and funding, where an arts organization that can report serving a broad audience has a better chance to receive the grant monies needed to produce their art.

If there is anger to be taken out anywhere, take it out with your public officials and demand that local arts organizations get the private sector support that they deserve!

John Bowen has just emailed several exchange deals: Lyric Opera, Balt. Concert Opera, Annapolis Opera,and the Figaro Project. It is a GREAT offer and the generosity of the opera companies shows the cameraderie and close community. f you have season tickets and have not heard of this, get on the OV email list.

A suggestion that Opera Vivente maintain some kind of visibility during the season in spite of the cancellation has been raised. I'm aware that An die Musik has offered its space for any kind of performance that OV might want to do to stay on the opera map in Baltimore and perhaps raise funds. Perhaps a free performance sponsored by company supporters with suggested donation by attendees? If OV spends the season supposedly looking for a new space and with its website shut down (I didn't think that was a good idea), it might be harder to make a comeback later. The Facebook page is still open with opportunity to view photos of past productions. Perhaps the website should be open again, too, but some kind of stage performance during this season would be a good idea.

I was just listening to Mozart's Marriage of Figaro on an old CD. Sometimes I think of how hard his life was and it brings me to tears. I think of all the music he left for our world to cherish. The people who bring us this music today still suffer from monetary limitations. We owe so much to music. Can we repay that debt?

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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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