After rescuing the city opera, he's free to tackle the obscure

Robert B. Driver, ex-chief at Opera Philadelphia, with tenor Luciano Pavarotti in 1991. "We had knock-down, drag-out fights," Driver says.
Robert B. Driver, ex-chief at Opera Philadelphia, with tenor Luciano Pavarotti in 1991. "We had knock-down, drag-out fights," Driver says. (Opera Company of Philadelphia)
Posted: March 17, 2013

On this February day, the longtime operatic czar of Philadelphia is in a place nobody could ever have expected to find him.

Robert B. Driver, who stepped down as director of Opera Philadelphia last year, is desperately seeking decay to enhance the industrial realism of Hans Werner Henze's El Cimarron (The Runaway Slave), which he'll produce next year - not in a conventional theater, but in the bowels of Old City's Power Plant.

" Cosi fan tutte is not where I'm at these days," he mutters, referring to Mozart's classic comedy. "I think you have to get away from this notion of what opera must be. When people tell me it has to be done a certain way, I want to say, 'Oh come on!' "

Odd words from a man who embodied fiscal and artistic conservatism for most of his 21 years running Opera Company of Philadelphia, recently redubbed Opera Philadelphia. This current project, a little-known work about corrupt society, staged in a practicality-defying 300-seat venue, would have been unthinkable during much of his tenure.

Now a guest director in the company he once ran, Driver, at 70, is no longer burdened by what he was expected to be and is picking up where he left off - first in 1960s Munich when he worked on such ultramodernist operas as Die Soldaten, and later in 1980s Memphis, where he started a new-works development program before heeding the call to save Philadelphia's opera company from ruin.

Which he did, by producing core repertoire with low-budget scenery, fewer choristers, and less rehearsal time. "Robert was holding up what was, at the time, a dying art here. You might even say at one point it died on the ER table and [he] stubbornly refused to believe it," says ex-chorus master Donald Nally. "In a way, they were putting on opera in the basement till the war is over. . . . That's why you have an opera company in Philadelphia today."

Getting there meant surviving more than one war and a few attempted coups - not to mention Philadelphia's opinionated opera public. One disgruntled patron followed him down the street, whacking him with a newspaper. His disastrously innovative 2002 Carmen production unleashed floods of e-mails and letters. "I stopped counting after 150," he says with more amusement than bitterness. "I thought it was nice that people were that passionate about opera."

Even though Driver came to Philadelphia having salvaged troubled opera companies in Syracuse (1974-87), Indianapolis (1981-91), and Memphis (1984-91), he didn't realize what he was in for. Though the company had enjoyed critical prestige with Jessye Norman in Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex and connoisseur repertoire such as Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice, each production had only two performances, and the accumulated debt, $800,000, was so daunting the board was ready to quit.

Instead, Driver proposed increased performances. "I said, 'Excuse me. We have to make a statement now and move to three performances and sell them," he said.

Part of what drew him to the job was the majestic Academy of Music, but before the 2001 opening of the Kimmel Center, the theater's schedule was so dense productions had to be put up and struck in three hours, limiting stagecraft possibilities. "It's great to bring in a Lyric Opera of Chicago production," he says, "but a third of it was onstage, and the rest was . . . in the truck."

Driver was initially dazzled by the company's involvement in the Luciano Pavarotti International Voice Competition. But when the expansive tenor chose dozens of winners - with the prize being an onstage role with the company - Driver faced such casting conundrums he declined to continue with it.

"I loved working with Pavarotti, but we had knock-down, drag-out fights. Oh God, the stress! It was just impossible," he says. "We would never be able to rebuild the company." The public saw him as dismissive of the world's greatest tenor. But success is measured differently in the belly of the beast.

Driver's 1994 Salome, for example: Though serviceable by outside standards, it was, from the inside, a triumph over disaster. Driver bought into a coproduction with revered German director Dieter Dorn, with strict instructions that the scenery must be portable - which Dorn ignored.

"Moving this production would've taken three days," Driver recalls. So he built his own from scratch, one so viable that the production was widely rented by other companies. It eventually paid for itself.

Some disappointments, however, can't be positioned any other way. One was the lovely, elegiac Richard Wargo opera Ballymore, a 1999 coproduction with Milwaukee's Skylight Opera Theater. Its scheduled premiere in Philadelphia had to be canceled when a grant fell through, and it instead premiered to national attention in Milwaukee. "Then," Driver says, sighing, "we ended that season with a budget surplus."

You'd think he would have developed a battle-scarred psyche, but his breezy attitude while scouting El Cimarron sites belies that. He has made a seamless transition from predominantly urban Philadelphia life to one now spent with his wife, Monica, in a rural home in southern Indiana and another near Saratoga, N.Y.

All that quiet. So little tension. Will he go out of his mind? "Oh, I've done that already!"


Contact David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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