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December 27, 2011

Highs and lows of Baltimore's music scene in 2011

As the year winds down, tradition calls for stock-taking. And, speaking of tradition, that figures prominently in any looking back at Baltimore's musical life in 2011.

Defying common wisdom, Lyric Opera Baltimore did the phoenix thing and made a promising debut in the very spot where one of the city's oldest cultural institutions breathed its last two years earlier. It is much too soon to know if the new venture has what it takes (or can get it) to hang on for the long haul, but the mere fact that it is here, staging grand opera at the Lyric, says a lot.

Opera companies are not easily born. This one had an advantage, to be sure, in that experienced folks from the unfortunate Baltimore Opera Company were ready and very willing to take on the challenge of trying again. Still, it represented a major achievement, all the remarkable for sprouting in the midst of a stubborn recession -- the very same recession that dealt the mortal blow to the severely wounded Baltimore Opera.

I've already expressed reservations about ...

the likelihood of an artistically conservative direction for Lyric Opera, and will not belabor that point now. Except to say that any opportunity for the new company to take even a mild walk on the wild side (repertoire, staging concepts, pricing, etc.) should be seriously entertained.

There are new audiences waiting to be cultivated here. Think how cool it would be, for example, if Lyric Opera Baltimore could celebrate native son Philip Glass with a production of "Satyagraha." It's too late for his 75th birthday (next month), so how about starting now to lay the groundwork for an 80th birthday tribute? (I know that Glass isn't exactly a wild-side figure anymore, but he would be in his hometown. Baltimore has never paid the composer all the attention he deserves.)

If Lyric Opera Baltimore was the vocal high of 2011, Opera Vivente was the vocal low.

It was not the only small company to leave the scene. Chesapeake Chamber Opera also slipped away, leaving behind some admirable efforts and tantalizing prospects for future development. But Opera Vivente had been around much longer, had established a much firmer track record. Great repertoire, often intriguing and absorbing production ideas.

It is still not entirely clear how the company got into such trouble, finding itself essentially homeless and financially unsustainable just as the 2011-12 season was about to begin. And even though there was talk of a return down the road, the announcement of a sell-off of costumes and props did not inspire much confidence.

One of the things that hindered Baltimore Opera Company was a tendency to circle the wagons inside, limit the flow of information and, so it seemed, duck responsibility. That did the company no favors when the end came, leaving ticket-holders and supporters wanting.

Opera Vivente kept pretty mum, too, in the last months. It, too, left ticket-holders and supporters wanting. Strange. And sad.

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:59 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

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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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