Saturday, November 20, 2010


Having dismissed Peter Mark, its founding artistic director, a year and a half before his contract was to expire, the Virginia Opera has shortened the time frame for making some decisions that will profoundly affect its future.

Will it appoint a new artistic director who is expected to conduct most performances, or engage conductors production by production? Alan D. Albert, the opera board’s president-elect, has hinted that the company may take the latter course, as it already does with stage directors and designers.

Who, then, would cast the productions, and how?

Mark has been the selector, and has made a practice of auditioning and engaging young singers of high promise, as well as some artists who have built careers outside the Euro-American opera mainstream. Will that practice continue, and with one or several auditors? Would the conductors on a rotating roster cast his or her own shows, or would an administrative staffer or some other resident figure(s) take charge of casting?

Might a post-Mark Virginia Opera reconfigure itself as an ensemble company, with a roster of singers filling principal roles in all of a season’s productions? (Singers in the company’s existing resident-artists program already rotate through subsidiary roles.) Hiring a group of complementary voices for a season’s work could be logistically simpler, and could be an artistic plus in operas, such as Mozart’s, with many ensemble scenes. Versatility would be an issue: A fine Mozart singer may be a deficient Verdi singer, and vice versa. So would timing: Ensemble opera companies, in this country at least, tend to work intensively for shorter seasons (usually summers) rather than on fall-to-spring calendars.

Artistic directors generally select, or at least have dominant influence in selecting, directors, designers and other creative production staff. A company without an artistic director would have to apportion those hiring decisions – bearing in mind, one hopes, that the choices an opera company makes on production values are at least as important as its choices of voices.

The absence of a resident artistic chief could further empower stage directors. "Director's opera" (Regieoper, as the Europeans call it) has a very checkered history, some of which has played out at the Virginia Opera. I doubt that a steady diet of it would prove palatable to this company's patrons and audiences.

Companies with non-performing or infrequently performing artistic chiefs often partially fill that void with music directors, conductors who run the orchestra and maintain musical standards generally but don’t lead all productions. George Manahan plays such a role at the New York City Opera. That model, however, may be more suitable for companies that, like City Opera and the Washington National Opera, maintain their own orchestras. The Virginia Opera hires groups of musicians from the Virginia and Richmond symphonies.

All those questions coalesce into one: Who, singular or plural, will have the last word on artistic matters?

The answer to that one will in large part determine the answer to the other big question: How will the Virginia Opera restore its fiscal health? Its has been seriously stressed financially for several years, forcing it to cut its operating budget, reduce its performance schedule, recycle sets, cut staff and otherwise economize.

Opera companies are rarely flush – "the human mind has not yet conceived a way to spend money faster than sponsoring a season of opera," as Harold Schonberg remarked in "The Great Conductors" – and they have been especially hard hit in this economic downturn. Some big ones, with longer histories than the Virginia Opera’s, have gone under.

Whatever the future state of the economy, this and other regional companies still will have to cope with new competition: Movie-theater screenings of productions from the Metropolitan Opera and other first-tier houses; tickets for these shows are much cheaper than a good seat at a live performance. (This could be an over-hyped challenge, though. DVDs are generally cheaper, too, and they haven't killed live opera.)

Most of the money that sustains U.S. performing-arts troupes comes from fund-raising, which can be more difficult if the organization lacks a "face," an artistically authoritative, persuasive, ideally charismatic, figure who represents the company and its art form to the community. (Communities, in this case: The Virginia Opera performs and raises funds in Hampton Roads, Richmond and Northern Virginia.) Who will speak at club luncheons and public hearings, mingle and chat constructively at fund-raisers, interact with media, and so on?

Whether cutting the cost of an artistic director – Mark was paid about $185,000 in the Virginia Opera’s most recently disclosed accounting – would make an appreciable dent in expenditures, or whether as much or more would be parceled out to a roster of conductors, is one money consideration. Another is how the absence of a public artistic face would affect fund-raising, audience loyalty and other development and marketing issues.

Big questions, all of those – and especially challenging ones for a company that has looked to one man for artistic decision-making for its entire history. Having to pick one or more new decision-makers, sooner rather than later, compounds the challenge.

ADDENDUM: Virginia Opera CEO Gus Stuhlreyer says all options are on the table and will remain so for some time. The company’s deadline: May 31, 2012, when Mark’s contract would have expired.