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Indies Ascending

The ENTREPRENEURIAL SPIRIT is alive and well on the New York opera scene, as the fresh approaches of three of Manhattan’s up-and-coming young producers attest.
by Matthew Sigman. Photographs by Kevin Thomas Garcia. 

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RHYMES WITH OPERA/2007
Four of the five founding company members of Rhymes with Opera, from left: composer Ruby Fulton, composer George Lam, soprano Elisabeth Halliday and baritone Robert Maril

Hair and makeup by Dana D’Adamo and KeLeen Snowgren
Three startup opera companies vie for their place in New York City.
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RWO’s Heartbreak Express, 2015, with Peter Thoresen
© Janette Pellegrini
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Utopia Opera’s 2016 Dido and Aeneas
© Joey Curry/WBC Photo

DESPITE THE CRIES OF DOOM befalling established American opera companies—dwindling audiences, perilous finances—each season a new crop of entrepreneurial companies invariably sprouts. Fertilized by the youthful spirit of singers, conductors and directors, these companies create innovative new works, reinvent classic repertoire, explore unusual venues and reach audiences outside the mainstream. The New York Opera Alliance, a consortium founded in 2011, boasts around forty members in the metropolitan area. They may be saddened by the loss of adventurous peers such as Gotham Chamber Opera, but they’ve long since stopped sitting shiva. “They come, and they go,” says William Remmers, founder and artistic director of Utopia Opera, “but lately they come more than they go.”

The Metropolitan Opera may cast a giant shadow, but the lights of New York are more than sufficient for imagination to grow. With annual budgets ranging from $1,000 to $500,000 and ticket prices ranging from $20 to $80, some have an unabashed hey-kids-let’s-put-on-a-show ethos, while others deliver slick professionalism. In a recent roundtable discussion, hosted by opera news at the National Opera Center, leaders of three adventuresome New York companies discussed their aspirations, frustrations and growing pains. Take away a few zeros on the balance sheet, and the challenges they face are not much different from those of big-budget companies: they strive to create a distinctive brand, select compelling repertoire, lure and retain audiences, raise and earn money, and identify talent.

None of these three companies—Venture Opera, Utopia Opera and Rhymes with Opera—is at a loss for vision and energy. But they could all use money and staff resources. When asked what he might do if a major unrestricted gift came over the transom at Venture Opera, founder and general director Jonathon Thierer doesn’t hesitate for a semiquaver: “Hire a development director!” he says. “Because at the end of the day, if you don’t have money, you can’t do anything. You need somebody to take over the job of building the finances and building the engine that powers your company, so that you can keep doing what you are doing.” 

Like many opera entrepreneurs, Thierer is a singer who has recast himself as a producer. The Chicago native, a baritone who graduated from Manhattan School of Music in 2015, sees the potential to create a new place for opera in modern society by placing traditional repertoire in immersive environments. His objective is to brand Venture as “opera on an intimate scale—intimate enough that the audience connects with each and every emotion.” The company selects venues to match its mission: “You are not a thousand feet away from the stage, like the Met,” says Thierer. “It’s one person to another.” Venture recently presented Carmen at Diamond Horseshoe, the showman Billy Rose’s former nightclub in the basement of the Paramount Hotel, now a popular space for experimental theater.

Remmers hails from Long Island and has been on the opera scene for several years as a baritone, director, conductor, pianist, percussionist and producer at several indie companies. Utopia Opera, he says, started as “an ad hoc group of friends” and is only now beginning to become a professional organization. (“One more signature and we’ll be incorporated.”) The company performs at the Ida K. Lang Recital Hall at Hunter College, a 148-seat theater without wing, fly or depth space, let alone a proscenium—but which, Remmers says, can be transformed into a fully theatrical experience with costumes, props and a few footlights. He acknowledges that the minimalist approach can last only so long. “Our singers and audiences expect—demand—that we get better with each show,” he says. Despite the creeping pressure to grow, he still sees Utopia as “a mom-and-pop company that does not pander or condescend.” The company brings wine and snacks for the audience.

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Venture Opera’s Don Giovanni at the Angel Orensanz Center in Manhattan
© Ken Howard
 

Remmers believes another element differentiates Utopia’s brand in the crowded indie field: “We are the funniest company,” he insists. They perform mostly comedies, from Falstaff to a transgender transposition of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Princess Ida.

Robert Maril, a cofounder of Rhymes with Opera—and yet another baritone—was raised in Oklahoma, studied at DePauw University and received a master’s in music from the Peabody Conservatory in 2004. He defines RWO as “a contemporary ensemble that commissions new works by emerging composers.” It performs most often in the seventy-five-seat Bank Street Theater in Greenwich Village. With, say, seven performers and six crew, the ratio of audience to company may be five to one. “The theater is small,” Maril acknowledges, “but new music fans in New York City have big opinions. A lot of our audience is composers and musicians and their friends—everyone you would expect to come to an indie opera production.” Maril’s fellow RWO founders, composers George Lam and Ruby Fulton, are well networked into both the academic and new-music scenes.

While Venture and Utopia stick to more traditional fare, albeit with highly divergent degrees of interpretation, Rhymes with Opera sits on the cutting edge of innovative repertoire. Where else would you find Lam and John Clum’s Heartbreak Express, a new opera that follows four Dolly Parton “superfans” waiting to meet their idol for the first time? “Our operas tend to focus on interpersonal experiences,” says Maril. “They don’t have to have a time period or even a plot or words.” RWO productions have emphasized projections and puppetry as much as people. For Erik Spangler’s Cantata for a Loop Trail, an RWO commission, the company positioned singers and environmental sound installations throughout Manhattan’s Isham Park.

As part of its mission, RWO also presents an eight-week summer music program for composers and singers. At the end of the workshop, each composer emerges with chamber pieces that the company performs. “The whole reason for our company is that George and Ruby were young composers, and they know that it’s almost impossible, if you are a young composer, to get an opera staged.”

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VENTURE OPERA/2014
Venture Opera general director Jonathon Thierer

© Kevin Thomas Garcia
 

WHILE THE MET LOOMS LARGE, none of these companies see the $300-million Goliath as competition. “The Met is who we are competing with the least,” says Thierer. “It’s a separate audience.” If anything, companies such as Venture compete with Netflix, or any of the many stay-home-or-go-out choices available to urban culture consumers. Venture’s specific target is city-dwelling millennials, age twenty-five to forty. The companies’ “new and edgy” productions are built with that audience’s aesthetics in mind. Social media, web banners and word of mouth are their targeted marketing channels, not print or posters. Audience word of mouth is essential.

There is no competition among these smaller companies. “There’s a lot of communal feeling,” says Maril. “We support each other. At the end of the day, we are all after the same thing.”

A challenge these companies do face is coordinating their schedules with other indie companies. “A lot of people who go to shows by companies like ours are also performers in shows like ours,” says Remmers. “They can’t see the show, because they are doing another opera.” Among the objectives and functions of the New York Opera Alliance has been to maintain a shared website, with an online event calendar to minimize such overlap. 

Administrative offices for these companies are bedrooms, coffee shops or wherever they can get Wi-Fi or a cellular signal. Maril relates a recent meeting of Rhymes with Opera leadership, which convened via Google Hangouts, an online platform that allows for voice and video teleconferencing. Participants linked in from Hong Kong, Baltimore, San Diego, New York City and Washington, D.C.

Artistic headquarters for these companies are in Manhattan. Whereas hipster Brooklyn, with its “lumbersexual” culture, is the incubator of the avant-garde—and home to the particularly successful LoftOpera—the artistic locus for Utopia, Venture and RWO remains the island of Manhattan. (For the record, none of these clean-shaven, well-groomed interviewees arrived on a skateboard. No tattoos or piercings were readily apparent.) Says Thierer, “The brand we are building for the company is better suited to Manhattan. We are achieving our demographic goals.” And while mega-million-dollar condos are sprouting all around Greenwich Village, the quiet, cobblestoned side-streets still offer a bohemian atmosphere suitable to the offbeat brand of Rhymes with Opera. Says Maril, “To have something ‘downtown’ is cachet.”

Venture Opera casts through agents, with a focus on artists at the level of major vocal competitions. “You just know they are going to be great, but they haven’t had their break, so they are eager for work,” says Thierer. Utopia holds auditions but often casts from within its artistic family. At Rhymes with Opera casting is also mostly “an inside job,” says Maril, who performs regularly with the ensemble. RWO does, however, hold auditions for its summer program; it also looks for artists whose interests and passions match the company’s composer-driven mission. “We love it when people come with a piece a composer friend has written for them,” says Maril. “We don’t want to hear Menotti.”

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UTOPIA OPERA/2011
Utopia Opera’s artistic and musical director William Remmers

© Kevin Thomas Garcia
 

GOVERNANCE FOR these companies is still in the hands of performers and a coterie of their friends, some of whom fundraise or perform pro bono professional services, but proper boards are in various states of emergence. These leaders know that in order to achieve their artistic vision they must cede to stronger, more independent board leadership. Thierer relates a recent conversation he had with Opera America president Marc A. Scorca. “He said the board of directors cannot be just friends. It has to be people who are going to be checks and balances. They have to be people who will look at your sales and fundraising and say, ‘This is what you need to cut.’”

Remmers notes that, for a small company, even the appearance of bad financial management is bad public relations. “It’s very easy to overstep your bounds with one big production, then cut back for the next,” he says. “But people will have less and less faith in the company. If you can’t keep the momentum going forward, people will say, ‘This company is foundering.’” 

Despite their different missions, there is one strategy that all three leaders agree on: shedding the stereotypes of the art form. Whether it’s Venture through immersion, Utopia through humor, or Rhymes with Opera by pushing the possibilities of music as theater, each strives to reach a contemporary audience by breaking away from classical norms.

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Utopia Opera’s 2015 performance of Princess Ida
© Joey Curry/WBC Photo
 

Gimmickry, however, is out of bounds. “Audiences are smart,” says Remmers. “Is it a gimmick or is it meaningful? The audience will know.” Thierer agrees that meaning comes through interpretation, not spectacle. “Art is a reflection of us at a given period of time. There is no way you could take Norse gods and suddenly put them in jeans and hightops and have a hipster Ring cycle,” he says.

As for Rhymes with Opera, despite the seriousness with which some of their most outré work is curated, one might think that every now and then the limb they go out on will break. Has the company’s leadership or audience ever said, “This has gone too far?”

Maril answers, with a mischievous grin, “Not yet.” spacer 

Matthew Sigman, a former editor of Opera America, is a three-time winner of the Ascap–Deems Taylor Award for Music Journalism. 



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