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The Philadelphia Story

Things are looking up, operatically speaking, in the City of Brotherly Love. DAVID PATRICK STEARNS reports.

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Philadelphia's Academy of Music
© Dominic Mercier 2014
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General Director Devan
© Chris Sembrot 2014
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Opera Philadelphia's 2013 production of Nabucco
© Kelly & Massa Photography 2014

What was once unthinkable at Opera Philadelphia has become almost commonplace. Formerly a bastion of standard productions of standard repertoire, the company now has seven new operas scheduled for upcoming seasons —high-profile projects such as Cold Mountain, by Jennifer Higdon and Gene Scheer, and The Trial of Elizabeth Cree, by Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell. 

New works such as Puts's Silent Night hold their own at the 2,900-seat Academy of Music. Chamber-sized Hans Werner Henze works filled the 650 seats of the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater. In November (2013), an off-site Serbian-language a cappella opera titled Svadba (A Balkan Wedding) played to sold-out houses at a repurposed water-pumping station. The new works range from Ricky Ian Gordon's Coffin in Egypt,starring Frederica von Stade this season, to Hip H'opera, a work being devised from the stories of inner-city Philadelphia school kids for 2015. Three composers in residence pass each other in the corridor — among them that paragon of Brooklyn chic, Missy Mazzoli.

As of 2013, the former Opera Company of Philadelphia is called Opera Philadelphia. It is, after all, a company with a whole new orientation. "I think we're in mid-stroke," says fifty-one-year-old David Devan, general director since 2011. "I don't quite know what the answers are, but it feels right that we're trying out all these things. The strategic plan is that we want to be one of the leading instigators of new work in the country."

This from a community that not long ago was so conservative that the mention of new operas prompted incredulity: "Good heavens, aren't there enough operas already?" one longtime patron said to me, with a straight face. 

The new works are in conjunction with the American Repertoire Council, a national steering group focused on advancing the company's commitment to new American operas under the advisory guidance of Nathan Gunn. Traditional grand opera is somewhat less in evidence, though Opera Philadelphia opened the current season with a Nabucco that was simulcast onto Independence Mall with an outdoor audience of 4,000, roughly half of whom were new to the company's database. But what, exactly, constitutes "traditional"? This season also saw Osvaldo Golijov's 2003 Ainadamar — for the second time, in a new production at the Academy. "When I asked for things like that fifteen years ago, I was laughed at," recalls ex-chorus master Donald Nally. 

"One would think it's impossible to find such an exciting opera company in such close proximity to New York City," says Marc Scorca, Opera America's president and CEO. "But this one seems to be defying the force of gravity. It's not alone in learning to relate to its community in the twenty-first century but has reached more deeply into itself to find transformation."

Devan's luck (backed by shrewdness) has been remarkable. He spearheaded Opera Philadelphia's effort to mount the Puts/Campbell opera Silent Night, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2012, following its 2011 premiere at Minnesota Opera. Nico Muhly's Dark Sisters had a chilly premiere at Gotham Chamber Opera in New York City but came together in the same production months later in Philadelphia. For Cold Mountain, Higdon went through years of planning with San Francisco Opera, but when that arrangement fell apart, Devan was on the phone "in two secs" and soon after announced a coproduction with Santa Fe. "You have to be out on the street for luck to find you," he says, "and we had been talking to Jennifer Higdon for two years prior."

Partnerships are everywhere. Traffic between Santa Fe and Philadelphia is so frequent that one might think the two cities had sister companies. Opera Philadelphia's composer-in-residence program is in conjunction with the downtown-ish Gotham Chamber Opera and Music-Theatre Group of New York. Each season has a Perelman Theater coproduction with the Curtis Institute of Music, usually something difficult such as Henze's Elegy for Young Lovers. This spring, Opera Philadelphia coproduces with the Philadelphia Orchestra for the first time, presenting a semi-staged Salome conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

One can sense a glass ceiling, of course: repertoire such as Wagner may be forever off-limits at the Academy of Music, whose orchestra pit holds only sixty-five players. Attempting to compete with the Metropolitan Opera, only two hours up the road, seems fruitless. Yet Opera Philadelphia has its trump cards. Thanks to the nearby Curtis Institute and Academy of Vocal Arts, young singers such as Matthew Rose and Stephen Costello had early exposure with the company. Though music director Corrado Rovaris is at home with operas ranging from Wozzeck to Ainadamar, his ownership of Verdi rivals any of the late greats.

"Corrado and I had a frank conversation last week," says Devan. "I said, 'I'm not leaving if you're not leaving.' And he said the same. This is the place where we've decided, hopefully, to make a mark."

Amid so much change, the company's budget hasn't leaped dramatically; it's gone from $9.4 million in 2003–04 to $10.9 million in the current season. Collaborations are one reason. But while the Academy of Music season once had five productions, it now has three, based on a recessionary assessment of what the opera company can do well with the money it has. Even with two Perelman Theater productions, Svadba in the pumping station and Salome with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the total number of performances this season is twenty-nine, compared to thirty-five in 2003–04. 

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Audiences on Independence Mall, watching Opera Philadelphia's 2013 simulcast of Nabucco
© Dominic Mercier 2014

One outcome, though, is that the season-opening Nabucco was indeed grand, with 190 performers and a musical solidity that came with additional rehearsal time for the expanded chorus. As Rovaris puts it, "The only way to do Nabucco is to DO Nabucco." 

In years past, grandeur was elusive, and cut corners were glaringly obvious. Plans had a way of being announced, then trounced. One season, La Clemenza di Tito morphed into Die Fledermaus. Indeed, the road from Opera Company of Philadelphia to Opera Philadelphia was littered with land mines.

"The company was the province of old Philadelphia philanthropists and well-meaning Italian immigrants," says Scorca, who worked there when the organization was formed following a 1975 merger of two other groups. "That will get you some good old-fashioned opera."

The city had a history of hosting stars eager to escape typecasting: While creating a sensation as Brünnhilde in New York, Birgit Nilsson sang Verdi in Philadelphia, often on a single rehearsal. And when Franco Corelli stopped a performance of Carmen to dedicate his flower song to his South Philly friends, he was idolized all the more.

More considered productions came from the ten-year administration, beginning in 1980, of Margaret Anne Everitt, who spoke in a variety of accents and created her own outpost of Regietheater with high-concept productions of The Medium, starring Régine Crespin; Oedipus Rex, offeringJessye Norman's staged American opera debut; and a Damnation of Faust in which Hell was inhabited by hairy, overweight men in red strapless evening gowns. Some locals say it was a golden age; others reacted as if they'd seen Springtime for Hitler.

A more Faustian bargain during the 1980s came with the Luciano Pavarotti International Vocal Competition, winners of which were invited to sing with Pavarotti in an Opera Company of Philadelphia production. The tenor was deeply dedicated to the event and couldn't confine himself to the usual handful of winners. One year, all the finalists won.

With the departure of Everitt in 1990 and the arrival of Robert Driver in 1991, the company was in such debt that board members recommended a shut-down. One hugely unpopular Driver decision was to part ways with Pavarotti, saying the company's resources were sapped. Firings and lawsuits followed. Those who loved the adventurous Everitt years despised Driver's operatic conservatism.

"Philadelphia just wasn't an opera town, and Robert was holding up what was at that time a dying art. You might even say that at one point it died on the ER table and they [Driver and his team] stubbornly refused to believe it," says Nally, who went on to Lyric Opera of Chicago and formed the acclaimed new-music chamber choir The Crossing. "They managed to hold out, which is why you have an opera company in Philadelphia today."

But it came at a cost. Even among his own team, Driver lost artistic points thanks to his scrupulous fiscal responsibility. Under Everitt, each production had only two performances; by 1998, Driver had increased the number to four and was turning away subscribers. The Philadelphia Orchestra's 2001 move to the Kimmel Center meant that opera could take up residence in the Academy of Music, allowing for more sophisticated productions. 

Another turning point was the 2005 Richard Danielpour– Toni Morrison opera Margaret Garner, a coproduction with Michigan Opera Theatre and Cincinnati Opera, which was a mixed success following its Detroit premiere but established the viability of new opera in Philadelphia — not in some Curtis Institute studio, but in the Academy. When Devan arrived from Victoria, B.C. in 2006, as Driver's number-two man, modern repertoire became Devan's trademark. He pushed the long-discussed idea of producing opera at the Perelman Theater with works such as Wozzeck that might not pull their weight at the Academy box office.

Slender, outgoing, seemingly in constant motion, the Toronto-born Devan cuts an unlikely figure in the more patrician operatic circles that Driver was born into. But having graduated from Stanford University's Graduate School of Business Executive Program, Devan is known to communicate with the money people in their own language. Upon becoming general director in 2011 — Driver would leave the company the following year — Devan went to singers' agents with an emphatic message: "We strengthened our balance sheet. We fixed the shop, and I'm not going to cancel on you. Here are the numbers."

Repertoire is now built partly around singers that Devan most wants to work with, Philadelphia native Eric Owens being high on the list. He is the starting point for next season's Don Carlo, in which he sings his first Filippo in a cast that includes Michelle DeYoung as Eboli.

Devan wears his responsibilities with outward ease and minimum jetlag. He flew to Amsterdam for a single afternoon to catch George Benjamin's opera Written on Skin. Recently he spent a day or so in Tianjin, China, when the performing-arts center there expressed interest in collaborating. For Svadba, he didn't even wait for the world premiere but attended the 2011 dress rehearsal at the small, now-defunct Queen of Puddings company in Toronto. And with a similar transformation happening at the Philadelphia Orchestra under Montreal-born Nézet-Séguin, Philadelphians joke about the new "Canadian Mafia." The punch line: "Do you 'nice' people to death?" Devan laughs. "It's the nice ones you have watch out for." spacer 

DAVID PATRICK STEARNS is classical-music critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer. 

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