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Backstage glimpses with Boston Lyric Opera

OPERA ANNEX: THE LOVE POTION'S VENUE AND THE “PROBLEM” OF BOSTON

Nov 14, 2014 4:29:00 PM
By BLO Staff

We are in the midst of “tech week” as the Company prepares for its upcoming Opera Annex production of Frank Martin’s The Love Potion at Brookline’s Temple Ohabei Shalom. Modeled on themes from Hagia Sophia and the Great Synagogue of Florence, Italy, and featuring a stunning golden dome, the Temple is a strikingly non-traditional space for operatic performance.

In fact, Boston is an “opera venue-challenged” city, and BLO’s annual Opera Annex series was created, at least in part, to address that problem: the lack of conventionally appropriate playing spaces. For each of the past five Seasons, BLO has sought out unusual locales in which to stage chamber-scaled works, choosing operas which themselves might be characterized as somewhat atypical repertoire. As the Temple undergoes a dramatic transformation to prepare for performances of The Love Potion, pictured below, we also look at some past responses to the venue problem.



Esther Nelson, BLO General & Artistic Director, speaks to a group of community members, Adagio donors, teachers, and others about the designs and concept of The Love Potion, with David Schweizer, stage director, looking on.



The Temple Ohabei Shalom sanctuary, in transition, as The Love Potion stage and set loads in.
The Love Potion costume sketches by Nancy Leary, left, and inspiration research, right.


A Brief History of Opera Venues in Boston
In 1958, Boston lost to the wrecking ball its first and, to-date, only purpose-built home for opera, the Boston Opera House on Huntington Avenue. Ever since, would-be producers of opera have been scrambling to find suitable places in which to perform, presenting works in diverse spaces from theatres to outdoor parks, from churches to universities.

1958 also saw the beginning of the rise to prominence of Sarah Caldwell, someone who was destined to leave an indelible stamp on the field of opera production and interpretation with her Opera Company of Boston, and yet the first of many for whom the venue issue would loom large. Her very first professional production – Offenbach’s Voyage to the Moon in June of 1958 – was staged outdoors in the Public Garden as part of the seventh annual edition of the Boston Arts Festival. She spent the next ten years producing works in the now-defunct Fine Arts Theatre, on Norway Street near Massachusetts Avenue in Boston’s Back Bay, and in the larger theatre of which it was a part (variously named Loew’s State Theater, Back Bay Theater, Donnelly Memorial Theater). Then Caldwell and her company were physically on the move again, seeing performances at the Shubert Theatre; the Kresge Auditorium and Rockwell Cage, both at MIT in Cambridge; Tufts University’s Cousens Gymnasium in Medford; and the Cyclorama/Flower Market in Boston’s South End. She spent seven seasons at the Orpheum/Aquarius Theater before buying the Savoy/Keith Memorial Theater in 1979 and renaming it The Opera House. Ever pragmatic and adaptive, Caldwell made the most of the unique attributes of each venue in which her company performed, and some of her most notable work took place “on the road.”

This period also saw the establishment of several other small opera companies in Boston, each with its own mission and identity, but all alike in their determination to offer performance opportunities to local artists. These intrepid, young companies could not afford to perform in conventional theatres, so their usual performance venues included some of Boston’s venerable old churches (Arlington Street Church, Emmanuel Church, the First and Second Church of Boston), various locations at local colleges and universities (Loeb Drama Center and Lehman Hall at Harvard, Agassiz Theater at Radcliffe, Longy School of Music, Massachusetts College of Art, Wheelock College), and the occasional small auditorium, such as New England Life Hall.

In 1976, three of these companies – New England Regional Opera, Associate Artists Opera, and New England Chamber Opera Group – joined forces to create Boston Lyric Opera. The newly-formed Company had expected to take up residence at the National Theater on Tremont Street in Boston’s South End, but soon after the Company’s founding, that facility was closed indefinitely in anticipation of renovation and ultimately demolished, leaving BLO without a performance venue and causing it to begin life as a roving troupe.

BLO’s very first offering was a performance of Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors on December 26, 1976, at Boston’s Church of the Covenant on Newbury Street. Other productions followed at Massachusetts College of Art, Wellesley College, Berklee Performance Center, Old South Church, Tremont Temple, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and Brookline High School. BLO even performed complete operas in outdoor venues, twice on City Hall Plaza in 1980 and once at the Hatch Memorial Shell on the Esplanade in 1981, long before its highly-acclaimed Carmen on Boston Common in 2002.

BLO took a large leap forward when it landed in its first permanent home and became company-in-residence at Northeastern University in September of 1981. Continuing artistic and institutional growth next brought the Company to the Majestic Theatre beginning with its 1988/89 season, and then to the Shubert Theatre, its current home since the 1998/99 season.

In a wondrous turn of events, since 2009, BLO has deliberately and actively sought out facilities for its Opera Annex productions that resemble the kinds of venues it and its predecessor companies in Boston had once been forced to accept for lack of other options. But the difference is one of profound proportion – BLO seeks non-traditional environments possessing qualities that will enhance the audience experience of its productions and that will challenge its creative team in exciting artistic ways. Thus the eerie Victorian interior of the Castle at Park Plaza mirrored the atmosphere of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw and of Beeson’s Lizzie Borden, the two Annex productions BLO has presented there. The view of Boston Harbor from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum provided the perfect backdrop for Maxwell Davies’s The Lighthouse. The Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts was readily made to suggest the makeshift nature of a performance area in a concentration camp for Ullmann’s Emperor of Atlantis, or Death Quits. The multi-levels of the Artists For Humanity EpiCenter provided plural playing spaces of various configurations for MacMillan’s Clemency, as well as affording an opportunity for the young artists enrolled in programs at Artists For Humanity to participate in technical and artistic aspects of the production.

Now, as BLO once again strives to match the attributes of its performance space with the artistic atmosphere of its production, we eagerly await the unfolding of the medieval tale of Tristan and Isolt within the Byzantine-Romanesque splendor of Temple Ohabei Shalom.

A special thanks to Jane Pisciottoli Papa, member, Boston Lyric Opera Board of Overseers, for her contributions to this blog article.

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