Opera Company of Philadelphia on its way to reinvention

The Opera Company says farewell to outgoing board chairman Stephen A. Madva (left) and welcomes new chairman Daniel K. Meyer. DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer
The Opera Company says farewell to outgoing board chairman Stephen A. Madva (left) and welcomes new chairman Daniel K. Meyer. DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer
Posted: April 05, 2012

Declaring an early victory on the strategic plan that led it safely away from the brink of collapse, the Opera Company of Philadelphia is setting its sights on new and more ambitious artistic and financial goals.

In a recently approved plan covering 2012 to 2015, the company aims for more performances in varied sites, bigger names on stage, international coproductions with other companies, and a deeper reach into the city and its neighborhoods - but all tempered by certain conditions.

The abiding imperative:

"We are being very prudent. We are not going to expand until we have it paid for," said general director David B. Devan.

To that end, the opera company has launched a five-year, $10 million campaign to pay for its expanded artistic and organizational plans. The annual budget could increase by as much as $4 million - to $13.5 million - but only to the extent that the money is raised to do so.

If the goal seems a stretch for a small company in a diminished economy, the effort has begun with the wind at its back. A $5 million challenge grant has been pledged by the Wyncote Foundation on the recommendation of friend of the arts Frederick R. Haas and his partner, Daniel K. Meyer. A gift of this size would be welcomed by any recipient; for the smallish opera company, with its history of financial struggle, it is huge news - the largest single gift since its founding in 1975.

Subsequently, at its March board meeting, the opera company elected Meyer its new chairman after what it described as a long period of research that considered internal and external candidates to replace lawyer Stephen A. Madva.

Meyer, 52, is a longtime company supporter who has worked as a choral conductor and choir master and who recently retired from Cooper University Hospital as program director for the division of infectious diseases. He serves on the board of the William Penn Foundation, and is an adviser to the Wyncote Foundation.

"He's just retired, he has the time and resources, and he cares deeply about this institution," said Devan.

Meyer's chairmanship begins in September with an initial three-year term.

Regarding the timing of the newly expansive planning, Meyer said: "Our sense was that we had outlined some very ambitious goals and that we achieved those goals a year or two ahead of time, particularly the financial ones. The plan is to see if we can bring it up to the next level."

Madva, 63, board chairman since 2004, places the credit squarely on Devan. "He's been all about achievement, sustainability, relevance, and artistic excellence. We are light-years ahead of where we were."

Some specifics on where the opera company is going are still embryonic. The need for an endowment - $40 million would be appropriate for the company's size - is universally recognized, though feasibility studies await.

As for expanding its season, the new performances would not be full-scale traditional performances in the Academy of Music.

"Going forward, we're thinking about product lines rather than single operas," says Devan, who a year ago signed a new contract that keeps him in the top spot for at least another four years. "Investing in a 200-year-old opera house as the only place opera can happen is perhaps shortsighted. We can be nimble and entrepreneurial artistically."

A yearly concert in the Academy of Music with the Philadelphia Orchestra, perhaps with a video wall instead of traditional scenery, is being explored; other city sites are being eyed for another annual performance. These two would be in addition to the three large-scale operas currently presented in the Academy, one chamber opera in the Perelman, and an additional copresentation in the Perelman with the Curtis Institute of Music.

"There could be seven opera experiences, each with its own different aesthetic," said Devan. Some form of digital distribution is a top priority, he said. The opera company greatly expanded its profile internationally in 2010 when it staged a flash-opera event in Macy's Center City (with Haas at the organ); as of Wednesday morning, the video had registered 7,768,911 views on YouTube.

"If you do something interesting, there is a global audience for it," said Devan.

Such exposure might not translate into ticket sales, but it can help further the goals of adding board members and philanthropic support from beyond Philadelphia. Already, the Kresge, Mellon, Fidelity, and Knight Foundations have been generous supporters.

"National funders outside of Philadelphia are completely fertile ground for us. In fact, I think the $10 million challenge is key in our being able to demonstrate community support to leverage with foundations outside our geographic area. We are really well positioned," said Devan.

"The Opera Company of Philadelphia has a compelling story to tell and has done it with really no resources. I think there are donors out there who will respond," says Meyer. The company is well aware of several local philanthropists who have supported the Metropolitan Opera, but not the same art form in their own backyard.

Artistic and financial plans, when they are succeeding, work in tandem. Meyer points out that greater financial stability means the ability to make artistic plans further in advance. More planning time often means being able to sign bigger talent to productions several years in advance. Bigger-name singers, and attracting national and international coverage, may mean attracting new and bigger donors.

In a nutshell, Devan says, staff and board are working to create a new model for an opera company - one that commissions an opera every year, that performs Puccini and Verdi with top names in the big hall and perhaps Wagner with the Philadelphia Orchestra, that brings opera to families and neighborhoods, and receives local and international applause for all of it.

If it succeeds, the Opera Company of Philadelphia will have repackaged an old European genre - one that thrived here pretty much intact for a century and a half - for the New World.

As Devan says: "Younger people have a completely different aesthetic expectation. What they consider a satisfying theatrical experience is completely different from what their parents expected. And the Opera Company of Philadelphia is working hard to provide an experience that will meet that expectation."

Contact Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or pdobrin@phillynews.com. Read his blog at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/artswatch.

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