Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Opera: split and difference

Seven weeks after his ouster from the Virginia Opera, Peter Mark has launched Lyric Opera Virginia, which will produce three staples of the opera repertory, "La Traviata" and abridged versions of "Carmen" and "The Magic Flute," plus the musical "The King and I," in a debut season beginning in the fall. A similar mix is planned in two subsequent seasons.

The new company will perform in Hampton Roads, Richmond and Northern Virginia, where the Virginia Opera already stages four productions per season.

This is good news for those who didn't want to lose the impresario-conductor responsible for establishing professional opera in these parts. (The Richmond Times-Dispatch quoted Mark as saying, "I'm the one people look to for opera in the state of Virginia.") It's also good news for fans of classic Broadway, professional-grade productions of which are not plentiful. Devotees of the art form will welcome the prospect of more opera – assuming there will be more operas, as opposed to rival productions of the same operas.

Anne Midgette of The Washington Post characterized Mark's new venture as "revenge" on his former company. Whatever satisfaction he gets from not being run out of town, there's no good to come of an organizational grudge match.

It already promises to be a scramble for dollars. Covering the projected first-year budget of Lyric Opera Virginia while sustaining the Virginia Opera's current budget adds up to something like $8 million. That's not an implausible sum – the orchestras of Richmond, Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia collectively raise and spend more; but it's a lot more money than opera has generated here in the past.

In the short term, both opera companies will be dependent for ticket sales and contributions on the same pool of patrons. Will they be more generous? Split the difference? Vote for or against Mark with their checkbooks?

Can Virginia's three population centers muster audiences for music-theater as conceived by Peter Mark and for music-theater as not conceived by him? Hard to say: His productions haven't faced much competition. The nearest alternatives, the Washington National Opera and visiting troupes at the Kennedy Center, are pricey and require a long, hard drive of downstate Virginia patrons. More than a few Virginia operaphiles regularly attend the Metropolitan Opera, at the cineplex if not at Lincoln Center, and some travel to the major European houses; they presumably have different expectations of "Tosca" at La Scala and "Tosca" at home.

I would like to think that there's an audience here for repertory that Mark has rarely produced: pre-Mozart (and historically informed Mozart); Slavic (Dvořák, Mussorgsky, et al.); 20th-century European (Janáček, Berg, Shostakovich, Britten); American opera other than "Porgy and Bess."

Much of that would be a tough sell to Virginia's "traditional" opera audience, conditioned for 36 years to Mark's repertory choices.

A company, however, could mount several seasons of familiar works that Mark has not done – Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov," Verdi's "Aïda" and "Falstaff," Dvořák's "Rusalka," Smetana's "The Bartered Bride," Wagner's "Tannhäuser" and "Die Meistersinger," Tchaikovsky's "Queen of Spades," Richard Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier," Leonard Bernstein's "Candide" – without taxing the ears and sensibilities of even the most conservative patrons.

In time, and with smart productions, those patrons might be responsive to modern works such as Janáček's "The Cunning Little Vixen" and "Jenůfa," Britten's "Peter Grimes" and Samuel Barber's "Vanessa," and to early opera, especially comedies such as Handel's "Xerxes," Rameau's "Platée" and "The Beggar's Opera." They might be pleasantly surprised by some contemporary American fare: Mark Adamo's "Little Women," Tobias Picker's "Emmeline," André Previn's "A Streetcar Named Desire," Jake Heggie's "Moby-Dick."

No question, there's plenty for two opera companies to do.

Shortly after the Virginia Opera fired Mark, the company's general director, Gus Stuhlreyer, said it would spend the next 18 months exploring artistic and organizational options. It hired as its artistic advisor Robin Thompson, formerly with the New York City Opera, a troupe known for exploratory rep. Some City Opera vibes could be just what the Virginia Opera needs. Mark's continued presence on the scene could reinforce perceptions that his old haunt needs a new sound and look.

If there's a satisfactory answer to the $8 million question, if the two companies can avoid duplicating repertory, if they behave collegially rather than antagonistically . . . the ifs keep on coming . . . then this split could significantly widen the vista, and perhaps enlarge the audience, of opera and musical theater in Virginia.