Opera Philadelphia announces its 40th-anniversary season

Posted: February 19, 2014

Though Opera Philadelphia has gone in obvious new directions for several years, the full imprint of David Devan's general directorship, begun in 2011, is only apparent in the 2014-2015 season, announced Tuesday with new productions of Don Carlo, The Barber of Seville, Ariadne auf Naxos, and the already-announced commissioned new operas Oscar and Charlie Parker's Yardbird.  

Though the standard-repertoire operas are by no means new to the company, Verdi's Don Carlo (April 24-May 3, 2015) particularly represents current priorities: The starting point for producing this imposing work about the Spanish Inquisition was tapping selected singers keen to sing roles outside their perceived specialties, starting with Philadelphia-born bass-baritone Eric Owens as King Philip II. The cast also came to include the acclaimed mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung (best known for Wagner) as Princess Eboli. The stage director will be Tim Albery (also known for his Wagner Ring cycle in Scotland).

"We're turning 40," said Devan, of the company, which officially began in a 1975 merger of existing organizations, "and as with adults in the life cycle . . . certain things have coalesced . . . . We're gaining traction with audiences, and internally, with our ability to cast certain singers."

Much of his negotiating position was shored up by creating various reserve funds in the budget - including a board-restricted $2.7 million - that assure the industry the company won't back out of announced plans amid a bumpy economy, important since Opera Philadelphia still lacks an endowment (a matter he terms "high on our agenda").

The season's configuration remains fairly standard: Ariadne (a collaboration with the Curtis Institute) and Yardbird will be the two "Aurora Series" works staged in the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater. The others will be at the Academy of Music.

Increasing the number of productions and performances isn't a priority. The current budget is $10 million; next season's is $10.8 million. "For me, it's about deepening," Devan said. "I want to do amazing work that blows people away when they walk in the door."

Attendance - 84 percent for the 2012-2013 season - has fallen from previous decades, when nearly all full-view seats at the Academy were sold out on subscription. By way of comparison, the Metropolitan Opera admitted to 79 percent attendance in its 2012-2013 season - and it cut ticket prices by approximately 15 percent.

Devan's version of that is making certain slow weekday-night performances available with Philly Fun Saver discounts, a move he characterizes as more about outreach to a different demographic ("a product trial," in his words) than selling more seats. The annual fall outdoor simulcast, the comedy The Barber of Seville on Sept. 27, represents outreach in more populist directions.

"There is no one opera audience," he said. "There are 12 or 15. We try to speak to a large number of audiences and hope there's as much overlap as possible."

Two fail-safe events are sure to be the season-opening Sept. 12 gala concert with local favorites tenor Stephen Costello and soprano Ailyn Pérez and The Barber of Seville (Sept. 26-Oct. 5), starring the in-demand Academy of Vocal Arts graduate Taylor Stayton and directed by Michael Shell in the spirit of films by the Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar.

The two new operas represent dangers of different sorts. Theodore Morrison's Oscar (Feb. 6-15), about Oscar Wilde, received mixed reviews at its Santa Fe premiere last summer. It's currently being significantly revised. Charlie Parker's Yardbird, by Daniel Schnyder, was announced last month and will hatch June 5-14, 2015 - an extremely fast gestation, and, curiously, one that Devan may pursue in the future.

"We spent a lot of time in exploration. That speeded up the creation process," he said, referring to two libretto workshops. "Daniel Schnyder said that now he knows the whole opera in his head and just needs time to write it down."

Temporarily missing is the Opera in the City series that began this season with Svadba, produced at FringeArts rather than at the Academy or Perelman. Further planning was needed before its continuation could be announced. "The production machinery was a lot more than any of us anticipated," said Devan. But while it went 20 percent over budget and "was as much effort as Don Carlo," he said the company regards it as a success.


dstearns@phillynews.com.

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