A couple of weeks ago while I was admiring all the work The Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago has been doing, I was simultaneously following another project that I found especially intriguing and that I was frankly a little jealous not to have been a part of myself. I first started hearing about director R.B. Schlather's presentation of Handel's Alcina at the Whitebox Gallery in Soho after noticing that several of my colleagues whose work I greatly admire were all participating in the same project. The rehearsals all took place in the gallery and were open to the public, and the performance, which looked sleek, stylish, and unique (from photos and online streaming - I wasn't able to attend in person), was highly commended by several critics. The whole idea of presenting an opera with open rehearsals where the entire process becomes a piece of art is an intriguing enough concept, but when you choose artists of the highest caliber and the finished product becomes not just an artistic experiment but truly an exceptional presentation of music and drama, you're really onto something. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of this project was that it wasn't done under the auspices of an already existing company, but was the brainchild of one particular person who had the vision and determination to make it happen.
And so without further ado, I present five more companies founded since 2000. These companies present various works from the operatic repertory from all eras.
Mill City Summer Opera, Minneapolis, MN.
Current annual budget: $600,000
Number of productions per season: One mainstage and one smaller production
Mission: Founded by musician and lawyer Karen Brooks with a performance of Pagliacci, Mill City Summer Opera presents opera of the highest quality in non-traditional venues. They want to provide opera goers with an experience that is all at once "casual and relaxed and yet fully immersive". The main stage operas are performed on the Minneapolis riverfront on a multilevel stage built within the remnants of the mill's waterpower system. All three of their seasons have been sold out in a matter of days. They are currently working on expanding to add yet another production to their season, and the Artistic Director David Lefkowich summed up the company by saying, "One of our performers recently referred to us as the "Burning Man" of opera. Casual and compelling, funky and fun, elegant and intimate, Mill City Summer Opera is environmental theatre at its best." And amidst all the fun and funkiness they have been able to present some of the highest caliber singers currently working in the business.
Opera Coeur D'Alene, Coeur D'Alene ID.
Founded : 2000
Current annual budget: $200,000
Number of productions per season: One fully staged, one concert opera
Mission: Opera Coeur D'Alene, originally named Opera Plus, was founded in 2000 as a vehicle for the Western Opera Theater Tour to perform in Idaho. They began to produce their own operas in 2002, and have slowly but steadily increased in operations and infrastructure since then. Since October of 2012, when singer and director Aaron St. Clair Nicholson became General & Artistic Director, the company has added more than 30 fully staged and set performances for local schools and communities, added a concert opera (which sold out), and increased the budget by another $50,000. Their main objective is to provide high quality opera to the inland northwest, to help develop the careers of emerging artists, and to work towards becoming a destination summer festival for the Coeur D'Alene tourist season as well. They are one of two professional opera companies in Idaho.
Haymarket Opera, Chicago IL
Current Annual Budget: $130,000
Number of productions per season: Two fully staged productions with period orchestra
Mission: Early Music specialist Craig Trompeter founded Haymarket Opera because he wanted to, in his words "enrich the musical community of Chicago and the Midwest with performances of 17th and 18th century operas using period instruments in the orchestra and historically informed vocal practices and staging conventions." In contrast to Europe and the UK, there is very little performance of baroque music within opera companies and orchestras in the U.S. and next to none that perform with actual baroque bands, whereas you almost cannot find a performance of an early music piece in Europe performed with modern instruments. The sound of the period instruments together with a conductor like Trompeter, who is educated in and passionate about the particular stylistic specificities of early music provides listeners with a unique musical experience, transporting them to another era. Haymarket Opera is one of the few companies committed to only this kind of historical performance, their shows all sell out, and they have been extremely well received by the press, The Sun-Times calling them a "Chicago treasure." They are a passion driven, artist run company -- the conductor is the General Director and the Concert Mistress does all the P.R. They are committed to taking a slow and steady course and growing in a way that is fiscally responsible over time.
Resonance Works, Pittsburg PA
Current Annual Budget:
Number of Productions per season: One fully staged production, three concerts
Mission: Conductor Maria Sensi Seller, who trained as both an engineer and a musician, founded Resonance Works just last year after retiring from her engineering career. Her description of what she calls a "midsize" company from a recent interview in the Pittsburgh Gazette was "a very collaborative and very multi-modal music and performing arts company" whose goal is to "re-imagine the interaction between the artist and the audience and the music in the space." While this company has only been around for a very short time, they are already engaging high caliber artists and receiving positive reviews. One interesting aspect of the company is that it is also a collaborative effort, in which the artists are involved in the programming choices and therefore become "curators" of what they bring to the public. Resonance Works has recently concluded a crowdfunding campaign through Indiegogo seeking to raise additional funds, and continues to raise money via Fracture Atlas.
Opera Company of Middlebury, Middlebury VT
Current Annual Budget: $150,000
Number of productions per season: Two fully staged productions
The intrepid Douglas Anderson instigated the restoration of Middlebury's 1883 Town Hall Theater, and began staging operas on the premises while the theater was still under construction in 2004. Anderson's goal is to present "grand opera in an intimate setting" and their 232 seat theater has sold out every performance since their inaugural production of Carmen. Anderson favors creativity in his productions, setting Thais in Las Vegas with Cirque de Soleil performers, and Italian Girl in Algiers on a used car lot in Algiers Kansas, circa 1957. Since 2011, Emmanuel Plasson has led the orchestra as music director. The company has been called "the most exciting opera company in the Northeast" and was recently featured in Opera News. I have heard colleagues who have worked in Middlebury rave about the creativity and ingenuity employed by this small but compelling company. Anderson is also the Executive Director for the theater itself, which produces 165 events per year.
And the list goes on. There are organizations about which I have read or have known the founders and been impressed with their work like Pacific Music Works, Center Stage Opera, New York Opera Society, Fire Island Opera Festival, and Baltimore Concert Opera just to name a few. There are organizations who have either combined with other organizations or completely reformatted themselves during the last 10 years like Fort Worth Opera, North Carolina Opera, and West Edge Opera and Opera Memphis to great success.
We are, without a doubt, entering a new era of operatic presenting organizations in this country. These companies demonstrate what is possible with vision and tenacity, and will continue to inspire other leaders to bring this art form to their communities. I know that for me, researching this article has been a real eye opener. I am as guilty as the next guy of complaining about the state of the business, but the people featured in this article are actually doing something about it. And who knows - maybe some enterprising visionary will be inspired to revive the New York City Opera - opera is, after all, known for resolving very convoluted problems with just a few arias and ensembles. If anything, these companies demonstrate that hope is alive and anything is possible.