Opera Company of Phila. on new path with talk of orchestra collaboration

Soprano Norah Amsellem in "La Bohème," returning for OCP's 2012-13 season.
Soprano Norah Amsellem in "La Bohème," returning for OCP's 2012-13 season. (BILL MOHN)
Posted: February 09, 2012

Opera Company of Philadelphia is announcing more than new programming this week: In addition to a 2012-2013 season that includes old favorites such as Puccini's La Bohème and the local premiere of Thomas Adès' Powder Her Face, the opera company is taking note of sweeping internal developments that will affect what happens onstage.

Longtime opera chief Robert B. Driver leaves at the end of the current season but will return to stage individual productions. Music director Corrado Rovaris' contract is renewed through 2016. Most tantalizing of all, OCP is discussing unstaged concert opera produced in collaboration with the Philadelphia Orchestra and its incoming music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

"We're definitely working on Opera Company of Philadelphia version 2.0," said OCP general director David Devan, who is also considering presenting such works as Philip Glass' Einstein on the Beach and Tod Machover's Death and the Powers outside the usual theatrical venues.

The Philadelphia Orchestra connection was a mini-bombshell dropped by Nézet-Séguin at a recent news conference announcing his first Philadelphia season. Devan, who has been replacing Driver by increments since arriving in 2006, met the Montrealer years back when the two Canadians worked in Victoria, British Columbia.

"We're thinking about doing things that we can't stage at the Academy because the orchestra pit has a limit of 68 musicians," said Devan. "Maybe Tristan und Isolde? But we won't be displacing any of our own product . . . . Also, our own orchestra is secure. Maestro Rovaris had worked hard to develop it. "

For now, though, the season at the Academy of Music has La Bohème (Sept. 28-Oct. 7) cast with solid, familiar singers, among them Norah Amsellem, Leah Partridge, and Bryan Hymel. The already-announced East Coast premiere of Silent Night by Kevin Puts (Feb. 8-17, 2013) has the oft-heard-here tenor William Burden as a World War I soldier on the Western Front. Mozart's The Magic Flute will be re-set in the rain forests of the Amazon (April 19-28, 2013).

The Aurora series at the Kimmel Center's smaller Perelman Theater will be a Curtis Opera Theatre collaboration on Benjamin Britten's Owen Wingrave (March 13-17, 2013), based on a Henry James story about pacifism vs. loyalty, and Adès' Powder Her Face (June 7-12, 2013), one of the most acclaimed operas of recent times but also among the raciest in its portrayal of a randy duchess.

All five productions will be new. Though that's highly unusual in the opera world, Devan indicated that several co-production partnerships help keep the season budget to $9 million - same as the current season.

Aside from the Mozart and Puccini operas, the 2012-2013 lineup bears little resemblance to what OCP was doing 10 years ago - mostly standard productions of standard repertoire. Such fare was Driver's prescription for stablizing the financially ailing company when he arrived as general director in 1991.

Now Driver, 69 and currently holding the title of artistic director, stages some of the company's more adventurous outings, such as Henze's Phaedra last season and the upcoming Abduction From the Seraglio, which will resemble a 1920s spy movie. He says these are his true colors, and that his reputation as an operatic conservative was prompted by what the Philadelphia public needed at the beginning of his tenure.

"When I was in Memphis and other cities, I did experimental work," he said. The Amazon-jungle Magic Flute next season also will be his creation, inspired in part by his upbringing in Brazil.

Next season's Powder Her Face probably will be the most sexually explicit opera OCP has yet presented. Devan has no doubt that Philadelphians are ready - though perhaps only in the smaller environs of the Perelman Theater.

"It's not like we're programming an edgy contemporary work and jamming it down the throats of 7,000 subscribers," said Devan. "By its very nature, the Aurora Series goes into uncharted territory musically and theatrically."

It helps, too, that the central role will be sung by Nancy Gustafson, one of the bigger names of the season, as Margaret, Duchess of Argyll.

"Robert's 21 years here has allowed a foundation for this to happen," Devan said. "He's the one who wanted to make me general director and has supported me in this role. We're starting from a grounded place . . . and our board is to be completely commended. We've read the headlines . Our board has been unbelievable through this whole period."

Though the most conventional of the next-season operas, La Bohème is being discussed as one of the touchstones in the 2.0 version of OCP. As with last season's Carmen, the opening night will be simulcast several blocks away from the Academy at Independence Mall - without fear of comparisons to the Metropolitan Opera, which has become a strong Philadelphia presence in its movie-theater cinemacasts.

"The Met has upped the ante," said Devan. "We need to develop a Bohème with classical sensibility but bring an excitement to it. We're not the Met or the mini-Met. We're OCP, and that means exciting artists in a properly scaled house." It's often said that as much as half the Met's repertoire is dwarfed by its 4,000-seat house. "I would agree," he said.

Major-star casting coups are absent next season. Addressing that, Devan said OCP is now casting further in advance to be more competitive. He also hopes that co-producing partnerships with other companies, such as the Santa Fe Opera, will circumvent any repeat of the Anna Netrebko debacle: OCP caught her on her way up, only to have her cancel a 2004 Don Pasquale just weeks before she was to arrive. "You don't have to be the biggest company in the world," said Devan, "but you have to be influential."

The connection with Nézet-Séguin, one of the Met's hottest guest conductors, can't hurt. Though the two barely knew each other during their younger years in Victoria, the Philadelphia arts community has begun referring to Devan and Nézet-Séguin as "the Canadian Mafia."

"Somebody asked me, 'How does that work? Do you "nice" people to death?' " said Devan.

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

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