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In the Wings

Backstage glimpses with Boston Lyric Opera

General & Artistic Director Esther Nelson on Opera in Boston

Jan 27, 2012 12:03:00 PM
By BLO Staff

As we begin rehearsals for Peter Maxwell Davies’ The Lighthouse, our third Opera Annex production (you really should see the film clip on our website showing the evolution of the set, and also the interview with the composer and our Music Director David Angus), I am experiencing the familiar excitement that comes with turning a production dream into a reality. The tension is even greater with our Annex productions because we are not performing in a familiar theater but in a “found space,” always full of unexpected challenges. Opera is, to me, one of the most exciting art forms, embracing singing, orchestra, acting, set and costumes designs, lighting design, hair and make designs, and much more—it’s really the world’s oldest multi-media art form. Of course, it is costly and we often ask ourselves if we can justify its expense. Is opera still relevant? (more after the jump)

Because of the recent unfortunate demise of Opera Boston and continued press on the subject, we at BLO are reflecting more than ever.  A recent letter to the editor expressed concern that public dollars should not be spent on opera, an art form frequently still portrayed as a playground for the rich. It is not! Opera, like symphonies, ballets, and theater, belongs to the public. However, in the absence of any significant government funding in the U.S. it is, in fact, mostly because of the support from generous individuals and institutions that the public gets to enjoy those music and theater companies. Support ranges from large gifts to a multitude of smaller gifts. Cultural institutions have never been self supporting. The community at large is responsible for them. Europeans have opted to be taxed. Their countries, states, and municipalities often support 80% of a theater’s annual budget. The earned income for mid-size opera companies in the U.S. averages between 20-35%. Ticket prices are not geared for the wealthy but in line with the cost of a night out at the movies, dinner at a restaurant, and less costly than most Broadway shows. Our audiences reflect income and age diversity. Additionally, most opera companies offer many free programs and low-cost educational opportunities.
The wealth and health of a society is reflected by its culture. Vibrant cities offer a multitude of cultural opportunities, including opera. Boston actually has more small semi-professional opera producers, than most cities its size, mostly due to the many excellent colleges and conservatories, and the infectious energy created by their young artists. In Matthew Guerrieri’s article in The Boston Globe (Jan. 15, 2012) he reflects on the lack of a proper opera venue as one of the reasons for the city’s fractured opera history and draws interesting conclusions about possible other causes such as strained relations between the city’s old-money elite and the opera loving Italian immigrants. Other articles suggest that Boston is not an opera town because we do not have an opera company the size of Chicago, San Francisco and New York. There is a good reason. Boston is much smaller. BLO’s budget size supports four productions and ca. 18-20 performances a year, reaching more than 23,000 patrons. As such it is actually comparable to most other cities our size but Boston’s largest industries are educational institutions and hospitals, both not-for-profits and not potential contributors to the cultural sector, unlike the corporate support enjoyed by many other cities. Neither is there significant financial support from this state and none from the city.  In spite of that reality, Boston was the only city in the U.S. that supported not one but two fully professional opera companies, even if only for a short time. That luxury was mostly made possible by major individual donors. Opera Boston’s closing is not only a loss for audiences but also for the many talented local professional artists whose livelihood depends on freelance work.
Sadly, the unfortunate demise of Opera Boston has resulted in much finger pointing and has left the impression that Boston is a hopeless place in which to sustain an opera company. BLO is celebrating its 35th season. While this may still be considered the new kid on the block by Boston standards, it is the only opera company in Boston to have survived this long. BLO has grown slowly and carefully, graduating from the charming but small Cutler Majestic to the still intimate but larger Shubert Theater allowing BLO to finally produce some of the repertory’s most popular operas with their full artistic forces, such as Tosca, and Aida, and some of the larger classics such as Verdi’s Don Carlo (one of my favorites). BLO’s history includes world premieres, commissions, esoteric and classic operas. It is misleading to polarize the two opera companies as the bigger, traditional, standard, mainstream (BLO) versus the smaller company offering only rarely produced, esoteric chamber operas (Opera Boston).  Opera Boston has certainly focused more on lesser known operas but not to the exclusion of standard opera repertory. BLO’s mission has always embraced all of opera, from well-known to less well-known, from early baroque to commissions, from large to small. The last three BLO seasons included commissions, new operas, rarely produced Handel, Mozart, and Britten operas, and only three operas that might be labeled traditional. We have also been criticized for not producing enough grand opera. Unlike most other opera companies around the country we do not have access to a theater that can accommodate the space for their required larger artistic forces. (That brings up the Boston oddity, however, that we have a named Opera House that has everything in it but opera). In the meantime, BLO has launched the Opera Annex, a concept unique in the country. Last year’s Annex opera The Emperor of Atlantis drew national attention with a wonderful review in The New York Times.
Many of our operas are produced here, not rented or imported. Most of our current standard repertory productions can also hardly be labeled traditional. In fact, there have been heated discussions, pro and con, about some of our recent productions. I believe strongly that a responsible artistic institution has to stretch its boundaries, and by doing so it accepts the risk of not pleasing everyone. An exchange of ideas and trying new approaches leads to discoveries for the producer and the audience alike.
In closing allow me to express the hope that the community can focus on the positive opera climate in Boston and continue to feel energized by the work of the many smaller opera producers in our city, as well as opera’s presence in concerts by the BSO, Handel & Haydn, and others along with work by educational institutions. We can only thrive in a climate of community support, from its elected officials, its philanthropists, funding institutions, and by a public that cares. 
“Eating, loving, singing and digesting are, in truth, the four acts of the comic opera know as life, and they pass like the bubbles of a bottle of champagne. Whoever lets them break without having enjoyed them is a fool.” --Gioachino Rossini

Topics: Opera in Boston

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