Similarly, El Cimarron, an opera about a runaway Cuban slave by Hans Werner Henze, is likely to be the second opera in the series, staged in the basement of the Power Plant in Old City, later in the season. Though the Knight Foundation stepped in for Svadba, funding is still up in the air for Henze, as Devan takes a wait-and-see approach toward how the series fares.
A depiction of a bride and her five bridesmaids in various states of anticipation on the eve of a wedding, Svadba will have Opera Philadelphia unmoored from much of what it knows. The vocal style for the cast from Canada isn't operatic but more like Balkan folk singing. All of them sing a capella.
Because of the piece's brevity - roughly an hour - the opera will be followed by a Balkan-flavored post-wedding reception with the West Philadelphia Orchestra, which specializes in Romanian ballads and Macedonian folk songs.
"The only way to collaborate is if you're prepared to toss out some of what you do and leave it behind," Devan said. "There has to be an element of creative destruction. You need to stop holding on to something you hold dear. At least that's the case in the theater."
In the talking stages is a collaboration with the surreal local cabaret group Bearded Ladies.
Such plans could be disturbing to those who simply want more Verdi. No surprise that Devan says he isn't necessarily out to sell more tickets to his subscriber base. The FringeArts partnership (which may be augmented by Bower Bird, which has staged extensive John Cage and Morton Feldman festivals) is clearly aimed at expanding the company's reach.
But even though Svadba is certainly exotic - and sung in Serbian - its track record of performances across Canada over the last two years is not that of a musically difficult work.
In fact, the piece was a breakthrough for 45-year-old composer Ana Sokolovic (born in Belgrade, based in Montreal) who enjoyed the biggest success of her career with a piece that took her deep into her Serbian roots.
"Mood over emotion . . . invention over dramatic . . . brimming with imagination" are some of the phrases Toronto Star critic John Terauds used to describe the 2011 opening night.
One point of reference is the Bulgarian Women's Choir, which enjoyed an international vogue in the 1980s and '90s when marketed as Le Mystere des voix Bulgares, and showed that harmonically adventurous folk-based composition could also exist on the cutting edge.
Devan first encountered the piece without any Bulgarian prerequisite. "You get the authentic artist saying something here. Her essence as an artist is there without producing a big, grand opera with a lot of opera conventions," he says. "It's just her voice."
Alternative, site-specific opera isn't unknown to Philadelphia, having been tried by a number of organizations, such as Center City Opera, though lacking a bit of promotional muscle. ( Svadba tickets, for example, go on sale next week.) It has been embraced by a receptive public that has evolved partly thanks to FringeArts, Bower Bird, and Devan's commitment to new and sometimes difficult works, such as Henze's Elegy for Young Lovers.
The Opera in the City series is also part of Opera Philadelphia's expanding network of co-production arrangements, though instead of working with Santa Fe Opera or Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía in Valencia, the Svadba production originated at the less-glamorous Queen of Puddings music theater in Toronto.
Not everything works out. Tentative overtures from the Tianjin Performing Arts Center in China came to nothing. Though deeply interested, officials in Tianjin didn't have the financial resources or infrastructure to undertake something that big. However, Devan just returned from discussions at Aix-en-Provence regarding a forthcoming opera about jazz icon Charlie Parker by Daniel Schnyder and Bridgette Wimberly for tenor Lawrence Brownlee. That could arrive in June 2015.
Aix is one of the more prestigious festivals in Europe - and not the only one Devan's talking to. "A number of companies are interested in learning about the project," he said.
Contact David Patrick Stearns at firstname.lastname@example.org.