For OCP, a brisk pace and a bold repertoire

Jennifer Higdon's "Cold Mountain" opera was resurrected with OCP's help after its development foundered at the San Francisco Opera. It will premiere here in 2016.
Jennifer Higdon's "Cold Mountain" opera was resurrected with OCP's help after its development foundered at the San Francisco Opera. It will premiere here in 2016. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 14, 2011

Having helped raise Jennifer Higdon's stillborn Cold Mountain opera from the dead, the Opera Company of Philadelphia also announced on Wednesday a series of like-minded new-opera projects that dramatically change the company's face - and future.

In roughly five years, the company has morphed from a conservative, standard-repertoire-based organization to a haven for new opera with a speed that astounds even those who made it happen.

"Think about it: We have four [operas] under active commission and two others that we're working on," said general director David Devan. "We have a composer-in-residence program. We've now become the place where everyone sends a score. I thought we'd be having this conversation in 10 years, not five."

The announcement of the Higdon opera, which was initially commmissioned by the San Francisco Opera but foundered there, also unveiled a larger collaboration with Santa Fe: The companies will co-commission Oscar, based on the trial and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde, from composer Theodore Morrison and librettist John Cox, with the title role written for countertenor David Daniels. Both works will premiere in Santa Fe, with later East Coast premieres at the Academy of Music - in 2015 for Oscar, 2016 for Cold Mountain.

Aside from its relationship with Santa Fe, the company is coproducing with the Minnesota Opera the Kevin Puts opera Silent Night, about the World War I Christmas truce, premiering this season in Minneapolis and in 2013 in Philadelphia. The already-announced Dark Sisters, a Nico Muhly project in collaboration with Gotham Chamber Opera and Music-Theatre Group, premieres in 2012 on June 8. As part of its American Repertoire Program, OCP is committed to staging an American opera every season for the next decade.

The Higdon announcement is the most dramatic - not just because the Philadelphia composer won last year's Pulitzer Prize for music, but because the project had seemed dead when Higdon and librettist Gene Scheer split with the San Francisco Opera. The project's two years under San Francisco's aegis, 2009 to 2011, were mostly spent looking for subject matter and being thwarted, sometimes by lack of suitability for operatic adaptation, but more significantly by rights issues.

"We went through several dozen [properties]," said Higdon. "Getting Cold Mountain took 10 months of pushing and taking back avenues to make it work. It was a major ordeal. Miramax, which holds some of the rights [because of its 2003 film version, based on the best-seller by Charles Frazier], was up for sale when all of this was going on, and we had to wait until it was bought."

Earlier this year, however, the commission for what was to be Higdon's first opera was canceled. A spokesman for the San Francisco Opera said the parties parted over financial terms: The creators were asking more than the company wanted to pay. "There's no ill will between us. We're all very happy for her and think it's a great subject matter," said the spokesman.

Though Higdon admitted that financial negotiations were a small factor, she also cited conflicts with San Francisco Opera general director David Gockley, who built an extensive new-opera record in his years running the Houston Grand Opera, and who takes what Higdon described as an interventionist approach toward the creative process.

"Other people have done operas with him, and that's the way he works," she said. "I didn't feel that it was right to ask him to change the way he runs his opera company."

Devan is quick to note that his input into the opera stops at consideration of practical matters, such as the number of characters. He also points out that the Civil War opera is based on the original novel rather than the film version. Already, star baritone Nathan Gunn has committed to the Santa Fe production, playing the central role of W.P. Inman, a Confederate deserter whose journey home has been compared to Homer's Odyssey. Devan said OCP is in negotiations with Gunn.

The collaborations with Santa Fe will cost $1.5 million to $1.8 million each - covering commissioning and production construction costs but not musicians' fees - split 60/40, with Santa Fe carrying the larger share. That also means Santa Fe gets the prestige and media attention of a world premiere. Similarly, Dark Sisters and Silent Night will have their world premieres in, respectively, New York and Minneapolis.

But being second, in Devan's estimation, has definite advantages: "We get all the press quotes to put in our marketing materials. We have production photos. It's all in the way you look at it."

It's also possible that Philadelphia will get better operas, since the co-commissioning arrangement allows for revisions between productions. He said, "We want the industry to know that we're serious about contemporary opera . . . but we also want to make sure we're being true to our audience."

Devan is remarkably calm amid the current stock market gyrations and the severe problems being experienced up the road by the New York City Opera. In effect, City Opera is attempting to convert to a model similar to OCP's, in which orchestra, chorus, and soloists are hired on a production-by-production basis, as opposed to obligatory blocks of time in which musicians are employed.

Beyond that, the OCP business plan was redesigned three years ago with an emergency fund - now at $2.5 million - to address market crashes. Some parts of the fund are for risky ventures in the digital market, others give an internal line of credit that must be paid back but avoids bank interest. Devan plans to build another $1 million into the fund by creating $100,000 budget surpluses every year for a decade.

"We didn't let a good crisis go to waste. . . . We've rescaled supply and demand to be appropriate for the times," he said of the move from four Academy of Music productions per season to three. "The philanthropic community takes us very seriously. We are able to maintain all our donors at current or increasing levels. We haven't attracted new donors but are doing well within the current group." Also, last season's attendance was 94 percent of all full-view seats.

What no one talks about is the move evident in some companies to create an alternative to the standard repertoire and starry casts of Metropolitan Opera simulcasts. One major differentiation in Philadelphia is the Aurora Series at the Kimmel Center's intimate Perelman Theater, featuring unusual repertoire and an annual collaboration with the Curtis Institute.

"We were warned by Opera America [an industry organization] that no company has made two houses work," Devan said. "But we weren't selling the repertoire. We were selling the experiences and selecting the repertoire based on that experience. We used the recession to look at what's really important to us. It was a matter of survival and we wasted no time with it."


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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