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The 40 Seasons of Boston Lyric Opera: A History Part I

Aug 25, 2016 9:56:25 AM
By Jane Pisciottoli Papa

Each week during 40 Days of Opera, check back on the BLO blog for a new installment of this in-depth history of BLO!

Church_of_the_Covenant_Boston_-_DSC08187.jpg
The newly formed Boston Lyric Opera held its first performance at the Church of the Covenant on December 26, 1976 --Amahl and the Night Visitors

 As Boston Lyric Opera celebrates its 40th anniversary season, the Company finds itself enjoying a level of artistic and popular success unprecedented in its history. A look back at that history will prove informative for the charting of a course to world class status in the future.

 

Originating as an amalgamation of several small companies, BLO has evolved like a growing organism, following a spiraling trajectory ever upward, ever gathering strength, incorporating along the way many separate strands of ideals, goals, and ambitions, frequently revisiting its past intentions but always on a higher plain. It has proven adaptable to changing times, redefining itself several times over, but never losing sight of the original Boston focus that was its essential raison d’etre. In the process it has become the longest enduring opera company in Boston history and the only one to have successfully made the transition from embodying the dream of a single individual to its current status as a civic institution, a board-driven, professionally managed opera company, a gift to the city from its supporters.

 

But this status has been attained with great effort from many individuals and cannot be maintained without continual striving by all who love opera and BLO and who would see them both endure. In this regard the history of professional opera in Boston can be viewed as a cautionary tale, and one that has defined BLO’s past and bears upon its present and, to some extent, its future. Considering the context in which BLO arose and has developed is therefore an essential part of understanding the history of BLO.

 

Although the operatic art form has always enjoyed popularity in Boston, forming an institution around it has never before been fully successful. Multiple factors have contributed to the failure of the various attempts to establish permanent opera companies in Boston, but the lack of sufficiently broad-based financial backing has consistently proven to be the most significant one.

 

The first resident professional company of note, Eben Jordan Jr.’s acclaimed Boston Opera Company, went bankrupt in 1915 after only six seasons of production, when Jordan determined he could no longer afford to carry the Company without the backing of additional major donors. For the next few decades there was relatively little professional opera produced in Boston, with most of what did occur being presented by touring companies, as there were no locally based companies of significance nor ones that endured for very long.

 

In the post-World War II years Boris Goldovsky, director of the opera department of the New England Conservatory, and founding director of the opera department of Tanglewood Music Center in the Berkshires, founded the New England Opera Theater, a professional company that performed in Boston and then took its productions on tour nationally. Goldovsky is widely considered to have been a pivotal figure in the history of opera in America and a significant innovator in all aspects of opera production. One of the first to perform all works in English and to train singers as naturalistic actors, he presented the American premieres of a number of important works and also explored the field of stage technology, for example, experimenting with the acoustical properties of various set-building materials. Even though he and his company were highly admired by both critics and the opera-going public, the collapse of his financial backing forced him to cease performing in Boston in the 1960s, although the touring company endured until the 1980s. Some of his supporters had become concerned that his touring activities conflicted with the Boston component of his work, although the reality was probably more complicated than that. This situation illustrates how seriously many local backers of opera regarded the importance of building and sustaining a resident Boston company.

 

In the meantime Goldovsky’s most prominent protégée, Sarah Caldwell, organized her own company, which she originally called The Boston Opera Group, debuting in 1958, but in 1965 renamed The Opera Company of Boston (OCB). It flourished from the 1960s through the 1980s.  Nationally acclaimed for its artistic successes but never well managed, in 1990 it, too, fell victim to financial forces and also to its failure to grow beyond its dependence upon Caldwell’s will and strength of personality.

 

Sarah Caldwell’s vision for her company, like Boris Goldovsky’s for his, had been one of artistic excellence and the establishment of a resident professional company that would challenge both its audience and its artists. Various different concepts spurred the founding of other Boston opera-producing groups that arose in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Many of them surfaced on an informal basis, gathering personnel and resources to produce a single opera with no real thought toward building an enduring institution. Most of these efforts embodied the personal concept of a sole individual. Several of the groups met with enough initial success that they sought to continue producing operas and applied for tax-exempt status as non-profit organizations in order to raise funds to support further activity and growth. Among these companies were New England Regional Opera, Associate Artists Opera, and New England Chamber Opera Group, the ultimate merger of which three laid the foundation for today’s Boston Lyric Opera. Although each of these three groups had a specific and unique reason for producing opera, each viewed itself as offering an alternative to what Caldwell was presenting, and they were strikingly similar in their insistence on featuring Boston-based artists. In fact in some instances their founders appear to have felt affronted by Caldwell’s use of “New York singers,” expressing a sense of almost personal betrayal by her in this, and decrying the lack of a truly “Boston company.”[1]

 

New England Regional Opera (NERO) had been founded in 1966 by Dr. Richard Marshall, then the head of the opera department at Boston Conservatory. His intent was to establish a touring repertory company that would produce chamber operas throughout New England for both adults and children. He attempted to affiliate with the Boston Conservatory and to perform as company-in-residence in its theater, but he met with administrative opposition and was unable to achieve this goal.

 

In 1970 during a performance hiatus of NERO, Ernest Triplett established Associate Artists Opera (AAO). A recent New England Conservatory graduate, he had sung in NERO performances and had taken small parts with Sarah Caldwell’s Opera Company of Boston. Eager for more challenging performance opportunities for himself and for other local young professional singers, he programmed relatively new music as well as neglected older operas, some of which were larger in scale than chamber works. This was also a self-described repertory company, but one that aimed to become a bigger player on the scene, an AGMA[2]-affiliated company early on, and one whose identity was tied closely to its founder, much as New England Opera Theater was synonymous with Boris Goldovsky and Opera Company of Boston with Sarah Caldwell.

 

Again, in 1972, at a time when these two older ensemble companies appeared to be faltering, Rafael de Acha and his wife Kimberly Daniel founded New England Chamber Opera Group (NECOG) to fill the possible void. Both singers in the New England Conservatory Masters program, they were soon joined in their venture by Philip Morehead, also NEC educated, as conductor and music director. They intended to function as a small ensemble repertory group with a focus on presenting young New England singers who were preparing for bigger careers, and they were especially interested in producing, and ultimately commissioning, works by local composers.

 

Each of the three companies achieved some of their goals and met with some degree of artistic success. Significant works were introduced: NERO’s East Coast premiere of Floyd’s Of Mice and Men;[3] AAO’s American premiere of Graun’s Montezuma;[4] NECOG’s world premiere of Earls’s Death of King Phillip.[5] Singers who went on to have important operatic careers acquired stage experience in their productions, among them David Arnold, Robert Honeysucker, James Maddalena, D’Anna Fortunato, Susan Larson, David Evitts. Most importantly, because of their efforts to complement Caldwell’s output, the Boston opera scene grew broader and much richer than perhaps it had ever been before, as audiences became more sophisticated in their knowledge of and taste for opera, more diverse in their demographics. But ultimately all three companies were forced to face greater challenges than they could overcome.

 

In 1976 as Marshall prepared to leave NERO and Boston for the General Directorship of the Charlotte Opera, and as NECOG and AAO wrestled with growing debt, representatives of each company met to negotiate a consolidation of the three by means of which they hoped to continue both providing Boston audiences with an alternative to Caldwell and offering Boston singers opportunities to perform, indeed a Boston-centric endeavor. At the urging of Frederic Cohen, Chairman of the Board of NERO, they pooled their stores of costumes and sets, their mailing lists and their talents, to create a new entity operating under the charter of AAO.[6] They chose the name “Boston Lyric Opera” for several reasons: they thought “Boston” should be the primary focus of the company and therefore of its name; the new name should be unlike the names of the antecedent companies, signaling a fresh start; and the inclusion of “Lyric” would call to mind other successful American opera companies (e.g. Chicago).[7] AAO’s Ernest Triplett became Artistic Director, AAO’s James Curran Managing Director, NECOG’s Philip Morehead Music Director. The Board of Directors, guided by NERO’s Frederic Cohen and AAO’s Randolph Fuller and Stephen Ruggiero, wrote by-laws by which to govern and turned their sights toward raising funds.

 

The opening chapter of BLO’s history began somewhat inconspicuously, as the newly formed company initially fared no better than had the original smaller companies in battling the forces which even now plague those who would produce opera in Boston. Obstacles in addition to issues of funding included the dearth of suitable performance spaces and the difficulty in controlling costs when contracting with unionized personnel. The young BLO played out in late 1976 and early 1977 the programs that had previously been organized and scheduled by its antecedent companies[8] and then appeared to stall.

 

Organic growth often follows a pattern of periods of consolidation and stabilization alternating with periods of active risk-taking and more visible change. This model describes the evolution of BLO from its earliest days onward.  Having made a bold and complex move toward building a future by joining forces, the leaders of the new company still faced impediments to growth. Board members and artistic and administrative personnel from each of the parent companies had collaborated to form the new entity and had divided up the tasks of running and financing it among themselves. However in addition to their still-differing perspectives on the project, funding and artistic challenges remained. Unable to immediately steer through these difficulties BLO mounted no additional mainstage productions from mid-1977 through 1979[9], a period of consolidation,  offering only a gala fund-raising concert commemorating the career of Jenny Lind in March of 1978[10].

 

Again this break in activity appeared to signal a possible disbanding of the Company, and yet another small performance group arose during the interim. Hub Opera, under the direction of New England Conservatory graduate Charles Ellis, declared its intent to feature works performed by locally trained singers at affordable ticket prices, but it produced only one work, Mozart’s Don Giovanni in October of 1979[11]. By the following June it had ceased operations and joined forces with BLO, just as the latter burst forth with renewed strength.

 

Once more during a period of inactivity the specter of demise had loomed over a professional Boston opera company, this time the young BLO, but vigorous fund-raising led by Board President Randolph Fuller and a change in management had staved off failure. Feeling he lacked the necessary Board support to fully implement his plans, Ernest Triplett resigned his position, and in December of 1979 BLO engaged John Balme as General Director of the Company. A period of notable growth had begun.

 

Balme was a Britton who had moved to the United States in 1971 to further his music studies. He came to Boston in 1975 as an assistant conductor to Sarah Caldwell, then worked at the University of Texas and San Diego Opera before returning to Boston when offered the BLO position. He saw his mission as one of re-energizing the Company by putting it back on stage as soon as possible and shining a spotlight on it. Perhaps influenced by Caldwell he developed a somewhat flamboyant leadership style, displaying a willingness to take chances and to draw attention to his work by doing the unexpected. Thus his first production in Boston, mounted less than three months after his appointment, was the extremely rarely performed early Verdi work, Un Giorno di Regno[12]. He followed in short order with several other novelties – a Festival of opera films at Suffolk University in June and July, two outdoor performances on City Hall Plaza in July,[13] and a special performance of Fiorella[14] at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in October of the same year, 1980. However the way further forward for a relatively new company with unstable finances was not obvious nor unobstructed.

 

Sarah Caldwell’s domination of Boston’s opera scene during the ’70s and ’80s cannot be overstated. Her work had gained national notice and she had begun to forge international cultural connections with the Philippines, with Soviet Russia, and with Israel. But major financial backing for the arts in Boston was almost all completely tied to the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Museum of Fine Arts, so even she, hailed by many as a genius in her field, was forced to wage a constant struggle to survive and flourish.

 

Other opera supporters whose funds BLO, or Caldwell’s OCB, might have attracted were affiliated instead with the Boston Opera Association[15], through which organization they directed their money and efforts toward supporting the Metropolitan Opera on tour in its annual week-long visits to Boston. When the Met discontinued its tours in 1986 the Association lobbied to engage major Met stars for concert performances in Boston and tried to bring in touring performances by the New York City Opera, but it failed to raise sufficient funds for the latter. It then turned its support toward sponsorship of the performance of opera by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. This group of socially prominent individuals appears to have been the sole extant proponent of a position completely at odds with the one held by almost all other Boston opera lovers, who believed in the importance of a high quality resident Boston opera company.

 

Another organization, the Boston Concert Opera, enriched the music scene from 1975 through 1989 under the direction of David Stockton, a conductor from Texas who had previously worked for Sarah Caldwell. At first performing in New England Life Hall (as the Festival Orchestra of Boston), then moving to Jordan Hall in 1978 (initially as the Concert Opera Orchestra), and finally graduating to Symphony Hall in 1984, the Company attracted substantial audiences and financial support with its unstaged presentations of unusual repertoire and interesting artists. However, despite its apparently sound fiscal management, the state of its finances was always precarious, and after a few artistic miscalculations, in March of 1989 it succumbed to an insurmountable debt.

 

More competition for support arose from yet another small company, the Boston Academy of Music (BAM), which grew steadily from its simple beginnings in 1980. Richard Conrad, its founder, artistic director, and principal singer, piloted it through a number of incarnations until it had found a niche of its own. After providing several seasons of summer orchestral concerts and choral performances at community events such as Christmas tree-lighting ceremonies, BAM began to attract attention for its Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and concert-style opera “marathons” focused on the music of beloved 19th century composers. Always operating on a minimal budget but with an almost cult-like appeal for its audience, BAM moved up the scale to fully staged performances of unusual repertoire featuring Boston singers at the Emerson Majestic Theater in 1999. By 2002 BAM had begun collaborating with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project to produce Opera Unlimited, a biennial festival of new works. With an ever-enlarging share of both audience and financial backing, it emerged in its next incarnation late in 2002 as Opera Boston, this time without Conrad at the helm. But like almost every other opera company in Boston’s history it failed to broaden its base of financial support to the point where it could withstand major cash flow difficulties, and in 2011 it ceased performing.

 

The above-named organizations all left a lasting mark on the Boston opera scene, expanding audience interest in the art form and broadening knowledge of it among locals. In addition to competing with those groups for financial support from an extremely limited pool of resources, BLO found itself vying against a plethora of other small companies not unlike itself, all focused on presenting local singers and advertising themselves as the “not-Sarah” company,[16] and all dependent on the capricious good will of the fragmented opera community in order to continue to function. Boston had clearly developed a large appetite for opera but little inclination to support any of it adequately.

 

Despite all the unfavorable circumstances and the competition for audience and funding the young BLO continued to attract attention. The Company’s community profile was certainly raised by its participation with the Brookline Symphony[17] in a performance of Aïda[18] at the Edward A. Hatch Memorial Shell on the Charles River Esplanade. Complete with an elephant tethered near the stage,[19] the event reportedly attracted 10,000 audience members on a Sunday afternoon in August of 1981.[20] Press reviews of the Company’s performances were never wholly positive but opera lovers continued to turn out to see them, perhaps mindful of BLO’s mission to present promising young area singers and appreciative of John Balme’s musical gifts as a conductor. Nevertheless the Company was still financially dependent upon the generosity of a very few individuals, a narrow base of support.

 

During Balme’s tenure with BLO, the Company took a major step forward when it became company-in-residence at Northeastern University in September of 1981. This affiliation with the Division of Fine Arts offered BLO office space and the technical resources of Northeastern’s Alumni Auditorium and its staff, as well as the stability gained by performing regularly in a familiar venue. At the time of the merger that had resulted in the creation of  BLO, the Company had expected to take up residence at the National Theater,[21] but a prolonged period of closure of that facility in anticipation of renovation had left BLO without a performance venue. So like all of Boston’s other fledgling opera companies BLO had then been forced to negotiate for performance spaces for each of its productions separately, and as a result it had resorted to playing in the auditoriums of other area colleges and high schools as well as churches. All of these spaces represented temporary solutions to the problems arising from limited funding and the lack of suitable affordable alternatives, given the high costs associated with Boston theaters staffed by unionized labor. Alumni Auditorium was a temporary solution too, but its pluses, including the acoustics of the space, outweighed its minuses, and the collaboration proved positive all around. During BLO’s first seasons in residence there reviewers found its musical standards improving and the physical appearance of its productions more professional.[22] Perhaps successfully addressing the issue of performance venue, even on a temporary and imperfect plane, was a factor that set BLO apart from the other small companies with which it still competed for the support necessary for its survival and for further growth.

 

All of these gains were nearly rendered meaningless when the Company, greatly overextending itself financially and artistically, chose to produce Wagner’s Ring cycle[23] in its new home. The first cycle was a concert-style offering on four successive Sundays in July and August of 1982,[24] presented under the auspices of the Wagner International Institution of New York in conjunction with the newly formed New England Wagner Society. Derided in some circles for being structured on a significantly smaller scale than what Wagner had originally intended, especially regarding the size of its orchestra, the series was nonetheless well attended, and operations stayed within the $80,000 budget.  Based on that success a decision was made to present a fully staged version of the cycle the following summer, first in Boston at Northeastern, then in New York at the Beacon Theater.[25] Conceived as a set of modest sized touring productions with the potential to be presented in other cities after the New York performances, it might have become known as “the Boston Ring.” This would have given new meaning to the idea of BLO as a “Boston company,” a term that had previously always meant “a company of Boston based or trained singers performing in Boston.” The Ring had required the importation of singers for the principal roles, which clearly cut against the grain of the usual definition, and which had drawn criticism from some in the community.

 

Together Balme and BLO were both applauded and vilified for having dared to produce four of the most difficult of all operatic works on a very limited budget, in a facility comparable to a high school auditorium, with virtually unknown singers and greatly scaled back orchestral forces. Ultimately they were shown to have drastically underestimated the costs of the productions and overestimated the likely revenue, especially regarding the New York series. Having budgeted for $439,000, a break-even figure, the Company found itself about $150,000 short of its revenue goal.[26] The resulting deficit brought BLO to the threshold of extinction once more.

 

A substantial portion of the debt was money owed to the orchestra members, and they refused to play for BLO until they were paid. In particular they refused to play for Balme, forcing changes in leadership at BLO. Anne Ewers was named General Director of the company in October of 1984, the previously announced 1983-1984 season[27]  having been postponed and then cancelled.

 

Ewers had worked with Balme as an assistant stage director in San Diego and had joined BLO in May of 1982 as General Manager of the company. She had held this position concurrently with that of resident stage director before taking over the General Directorship after Balme’s post-Ring resignation. No one was truly sanguine about her chances of making a difference in the circumstances of the Company, given the seemingly intractable size of the debt problem, and BLO was widely expected to shut down completely within six months. But despite her lack of previous administrative experience she succeeded admirably in turning things around.

 

 

In next week’s installment of The 40 Seasons of Boston Lyric Opera: A History, find out what Anne Ewers did to keep BLO “in the black and in the news,” and read about the leadership team that would grow the Company in the early 1990s, on blog.BLO.org.

 

[1] “A new opera company,” by Harry Neville, The Boston Herald, February 7, 1971, p. 158

[2] American Guild of Musical Artists, a labor organization representing opera, chorus, and dance artists

[3] Of Mice and Men, music by Carlisle Floyd, libretto by Floyd after the Steinbeck novel, performed February 10, 1973, at  Loeb Drama Center at Harvard University, three years after its world premiere by the Seattle Opera in 1970

[4] Montezuma, music by Carl Heinrich Graun, libretto by Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, in 1755; American premiere by AAO, February 14, 1973, at Boston’s Cyclorama

[5] Death of King Phillip, music by Paul Earls, text taken by Earls from a play by Romulus Linney, performed March 26, 1976, at All Saints Church, Brookline,  as part of a double bill with Chocorua,, music by Robert Selig, libretto by Richard Moore, that had premiered at Tanglewood a few months earlier

[6] Dated July 2, 1970

[7] Although there are references in Boston newspapers of 1897-1898 to a short-lived Boston Lyric Opera Company of that era, none of the founders of the modern company with whom I communicated cited the older company as a source of the name.

[8] Amahl and the Night Visitors, music and libretto by Giancarlo Menotti, prepared by AAO, performed December 26, 1976, at the Church of the Covenant; A Grimm Duo (The Dog and the Sparrow, The Brementown Musicians), music by Paul Earls, libretti by Earls after fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm, prepared by NECOG, performed December 31, 1976, at Goddard Chapel, Old South Church; Zaide, music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, libretto by Johan Andreas Schachtner, English version by Nicholas Deutsch, prepared by NECOG, performed February 18 and 19, 1977, at Longwood Theater, Massachusetts College of Art; The Story of the Wise Woman and the King, music by Carl Orff, libretto by Orff after a Grimm fairy tale, English version by Gerhard Lenssen, prepared by AAO, performed May 21, 1977, at the Berklee Performance Center of Berklee College of Music

[9] In May of 1977 the Company had announced that its season of 1977-1978 would consist of three works: Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors; Smetana’s The Two Widows; and Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts. See “’Die Kluge’ confounds Lyric Opera,” by Richard Dyer, The Boston Globe, May 25, 1977, p. 19.

[10]Boston Lyric Opera program notes for “A Jenny Lind Gala – Boston Lyric Opera Presents Elizabeth Parcells as Jenny Lind,” March 4, 1978, at Jordan Hall, Boston, and March 11, 1978, at Mechanics Hall, Worcester

[11] Don Giovanni, music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte, performed October, 1979, at Suffolk University Theater

[12] Un Giorno di Regno, music by Giuseppe Verdi, libretto by Felice Romani, English adaptation by Don Wilder and David Witherspoon, performed March 13 and 16, 1980, as King for a Day at Roberts Auditorium, Brookline High School; production borrowed from the National Opera Company of Raleigh, NC

[13] The Impresario, Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, libretto by Gottlieb Stephanie the Younger, English version by Richard Gibson, performed July 17, 1980; and Trouble in Tahiti, music and libretto by Leonard Bernstein, performed July 23, 1980

[14] Fiorella, music by Amherst Webber, libretto by Victorien Sardou and Pierre-Barthélmy Gheusi, orchestration by John Balme, translated by Richard Gibson, performed October 17, 1980, in commemoration of the April 23, 1906, performance given by Mrs. Gardner in the music room of Fenway Court, now the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

[15] Boston Opera Association, 1935-2002, legal guarantors of the Metropolitan Opera’s Boston performances on tour

[16] Other companies performing during BLO’s early years included Cambridge Opera Workshop, The New Opera, Boston City Opera, Longwood Opera, and Bel Canto Opera. The last two still exist, with only Longwood Opera continuing to perform regularly. Longwood Opera was co-founded by John Balme and Scott Brumit in 1986, a year during which Balme was not active with BLO, with a mission quite like those of early BLO and of its antecedent companies. Additional small opera companies dedicated to presenting local artists have arisen in the intervening years.

[17] Brookline Symphony, a community orchestra of which Balme was also Director at the time

[18] Aïda, music by Giuseppe Verdi, libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni, performed August 2, 1981

[19] See paid advertisement for the performance, The Boston Globe, August 2, 1981, p. A18.

[20] “‛Aïda’ gets lost on the Esplanade,” by Richard Buell, The Boston Globe, August 4, 1981, p.19

[21] The National Theatre was a 2,000 seat multipurpose auditorium, built in 1911, closed in 1978, demolished in 1997. It was located at 535 Tremont Street near the corner of Berkeley Street in the South End, next door to the Boston Cyclorama, at the site now occupied by the Boston Center for the Arts. Associate Artists Opera had performed there prior to the merger that created BLO.

[22] “Review/Music: Mozart opera ends up in good company,” by Richard Dyer, The Boston Globe, September 28, 1981, p.1

[23] Four operas, Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, Götterdämmerung, music and libretti by Richard Wagner

[24] July 11, 18, 25, and August 1, 1982, at Alumni Auditorium, Northeastern University

[25] July 25, 26, 28, and 30, 1983, at Alumni Auditorium, Northeastern University, Boston, and August 8, 9, 11, and 13, 1983, at the Beacon Theater, New York

[26] “Marquee: Boston Lyric Opera cancels ’83-84 Season,” by Margo Miller, The Boston Globe, December 18, 1983, p. 1

[27] The proposed works were Daughter of the Regiment, Death in Venice, The Marriage of Figaro, and Otello, according to an advertisement placed by BLO in the Theatrebill of the Metropolitan Opera on Tour for June, 1983.

Topics: #40DaysofOpera, BLO, BLO history

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