Sunday, May 17, 2009

Rest in Peace, Baltimore Opera Company

The Baltimore Opera Company is now defunct and a memory. It had a unique history and I will always have a soft spot for it because I was in my first opera with them. I got to be a part of how an opera was created, it was a powerful experience for me as a young girl. Being on the inside was fascinating, I remember the sights and smells, lights and sounds, the personalities, and even our staging. I loved hearing a full orchestra emerging from the orchestra pit beneath us on the stage and how bright the stage lights were. We brought the audience into a world we were creating right there in real time. It was magic.

So the Baltimore Opera Company is no more. What happened to it? Yes, they were hit with a huge mountain of debts that caused bankruptcy, but that hasn't happened to every opera company. It is very costly to run a full opera because of the amount of people and ingredients involved to have its true artistic experience - musicians in the orchestra, singers, costumes, sets, rehearsal pianists, conductors, all the technical aspects, stage directors, wigs, surtitles - if any of these are of lesser quality, the performance can suffer as a whole. Opera is a full theatrical experience, that is its power. Any of us who have been a part of opera scenes or an opera production in a church basement know this immediately - no matter how well we sing or how great our dramatic interpretation is, there is always something lacking - an orchestra, a decent stage, cheap sets, limited acoustics, bad stage direction, an out of tune piano, uncomfortable seating and temperature for the audience, and the list goes on and on. A full professional opera company, however, is a cherished place: opera can be performed the way it was meant to be.

Opera is not an art form many Americans seem interested in anymore. Since funding for the arts in schools is decreased every year, people become less and less informed about it. Operas are often sung in a foreign language with stories that can be rather silly, they can become slow-moving and laborious. People singing opera can seem weird, their voices doing freakish things, sometimes they move unnaturally on the stage and are disconnected. Sur or subtitles were introduced to help American audiences understand what is being sung, to enhance the experience for them. However, audiences don't go to the opera anymore because the price of tickets is exorbitant to cover all the costs and make a profit. It doesn't help that opera can be considered an art form for the elite. Many operas offer gimicks to bring in crowds - "new and improved!"- operas set in nuclear power plants; a muscle-bound tenor takes his shirt off during the production; Peter Sellers setting all of Mozart's operas in current day. I remember reading a review of an opera standard by an opera company in Germany in the 1990s and when the curtain opened, the whole cast was seated on toilets. Trust me, that would not draw me in to see a production! Did anyone see the "Tristan und Isolde" production Live from the Met about 10 years ago - all these huge hobby horses and toys on the set - what the hell? It literally pains me. What is lost is this: the power of opera is the music and singing that propel the plot. The music is first and foremost. When all the ingredients are right, there is no art form that can move me more.

Back to Baltimore... I think the company lost its identity. The great opera singer Rosa Ponselle started the company in the 1950s. Because she had married (and subsequently divorced) the son of Baltimore's mayor, she lived in the wealthy enclave of Green Spring Valley where all the famous racing horse farms were located. She had clout and got a lot of money for the company because of her personality. She gave many young singers with limited opportunities a professional place to work - Beverly Sills, James Morris, Spiro Malas to name a few - and the company became something. Funding never seemed to be a problem. They only had three performances of three productions a season - on a Thursday, Saturday, and Monday night. My parents held Saturday season tickets from 1963 for 40 years. They bought me season tickets during my high school years, I was in the third row up close and just loved it, it was an exciting environment. The opera chorus was always strong and there was a proud tradition of supernumeraries (people who don't sing but are in costume) - no one could top the march of the heretics in their "Don Carlo" from the early 1980s. There were no empty seats on Saturday nights back then, the well-dressed crowds poured into the lobby at intermission to smoke and be seen, but even though there were a good amount of wealthy patrons, Baltimore remains a blue collar town and stayed pretty low-key. The air was filled with great pride in their own successful opera company.

The company changed hands over the years, and with each change, the core of what made the company special was lost. An additional performance was added on Sunday so lead roles were double-cast - more people to pay. They added more productions a year, many were big productions with big casts like "Aida," to bring in the crowds. I went to a "Norma" production on a Saturday night about 10 years ago - where were all the Saturday night personalities I remembered? The audience make-up was very different. There were wealthy younger people there who didn't have a clue, they were there to be seen and didn't seem to be interested. Those wealthy bluehairs who had had a connection to Rosa Ponselle were gone. The production was ok, but that special warmth, appreciation, and heart of the Baltimore audience that had worked to achieve their own opera company didn't exist anymore. I mourned their loss. The company was very different.

In about 2003, my opera-loving father told me that they didn't have season tickets anymore. What?!?!? He went to pay for them and was informed that their Saturday seats had been sold. Dad sent in ticket stubs and cancelled checks for proof, but to no avail, there was no record of them in the computer, he was told. NOTHING was done about it, no apology, no concern. 40 year patrons were unceremoniously dumped.

In March, the Baltimore Sun posted a picture of a woman who came out to mourn the end of the company, she had a little coffin with the dates 1950-2009 on a placard. She was in black. Nobody showed up except the press to take her picture.

For facts about the Baltimore Opera, see

1 comment:

  1. Wow!..what a very poignant and insightful well written blog!