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Lyric Opera Baltimore Performs La Traviata

After a three-year absence, grand opera returns to Baltimore

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Deanna Staffo


Lyric Opera Baltimore performs la Traviata

Nov. 4 at 7:30 p.m. and Nov. 6 at 3 p.m.

For more information visit lyricoperahouse.com.

If there could be a contest for purveyors of the most complete art form, a soprano could win a smackdown with Lady Gaga any day. You might even call opera, as some do, the gateway drug to a beautiful life.

Imagine being 14 years old. You put on your best vintage rags hoping to compete with the ladies drenched in diamonds. You take your place among them in a side box seat. The hall sparkles white; the faces around you glow with anticipation as the pit orchestra strikes up the overture. The red velvet curtain rises, revealing a drunken stupor of a party. In its midst, a courtesan emerges, Violetta. You follow her as she sings, downs champagne, and flits from partner to partner. She flees love, and though you have never known it, you know she’ll not succeed. Though she sings “sempre libera”—always free—she’s lying to herself. Her lover calls to her with his own aria from offstage. She laughs. Her “sempre libera” rises higher. Soon she will cough, and the real drama begins.

That’s La Traviata as one young opera virgin experienced it. And thanks to recent developments at the Modell Center for Performing Arts, aka the Lyric Opera House, more opera virgins may well be ensnared again. Another soprano will once again take the stage as the doomed Violetta Valéry.

It wasn’t always like this. In November 1939, a former Metropolitan Opera diva moved to Baltimore, forever changing the city’s musical landscape. Sixty-nine years later, in November 2008, the Baltimore Opera Company she shaped lowered the curtain on its final performance because of financial issues. Today, a new company, forged for collaboration, rises once more. Lyric Opera Baltimore kicks off its 2011-2012 season this weekend.

Ask any fan why he or she keeps coming back: The stories are great. In Baltimore, grand opera’s behind-the-scenes stories are just as good, knitting together unlikely characters in odd plots. None tops that of the larger-than-life Rosa Ponselle.

Imagine being a 21-year-old vaudeville player in 1918 when suddenly the great Italian tenor Enrico Caruso swoops into your life and asks you, no, tells you, you shall perform with him at the Metropolitan Opera. That’s Ponselle’s story. Until Caruso planted her next to him in Verdi’s La Forza del Destino, she had only ever seen one opera in her life.

The destiny of her star was Baltimore. On tour here in 1936, while singing the title role of Carmen, she fell in love at first sight with the mayor’s son, Carle A. Jackson, horseman and playboy. They married months later and soon he brought Ponselle to Baltimore to settle in Green Spring Valley at Villa Pace.

In 1949, her husband walked out on her during cocktails one night at home with guests. Ponselle recovered the only way a diva can: She went to work. She took the role as Baltimore Civic Opera Company’s first artistic director. She was soul, talent, and a PR dream rolled into one.

Ponselle drew big names and she also cultivated performers. “Ponselle’s chicks” flocked to Villa Pace to be coached. She brought greats Placido Domingo and Beverly Sills to the Lyric stage.

Today, that job belongs to Lyric Opera Baltimore’s new artistic director, James “Jim” Harp. All of the opera’s board members interviewed said some variation of the same thing: “This guy is so great, why is he not in New York?”

It was not “fate” that brought this Georgia native here and not New York. He said his “parents didn’t think the big bad city was a place for their son to go to school.” So he went to the Peabody Institute, and then just couldn’t leave. “I have so many friends and colleagues here,” he says in an interview in his Lyric office. “Baltimore is so diverse, and having grand opera here is my moral imperative.”

To find Harp, also the former chorus master and artistic administrator at the Baltimore Opera Company, you need only take the Lyric’s elevator up and head to the source of the music. The day I found him, it was a boisterous exhalation of a soprano he’s considering for a lead role. He’s eager to exalt homegrown American talent, something of which Baltimore has plenty—as evidenced by the many small opera companies, such as Baltimore Concert Opera (performing at Mount Vernon’s Engineer’s Club), which considers itself “the gateway drug” to Harp’s grand opera, at least according to Brendan Cooke, the Concert Opera’s general director.

After Baltimore Opera Company folded, the trustees of the Lyric Foundation, which administers the building itself, sought out Harp right away. They knew he was the man to bring back the grand opera. Harp’s first gig at the Lyric was a performance of Don Carlo in 1978. He fell in love with the hall, the singers, everything. For the next three seasons, he auditioned for the chorus and didn’t get in. For the fourth season, he was welcomed into the fold.

What’s to ensure the new opera succeeds, avoiding the fate of its predecessor? Hopefully success comes from tightened budgets. New electronic sets allow fewer operators and less borrowing of equipment and sets from other opera companies, like Lyric Opera of Chicago. Also, Lyric Opera Baltimore no longer needs separate warehouse/rehearsal space, storage, or administrative costs now that it is an autonomous arm of the Lyric. Its costs of doing business have declined dramatically, according to Harp.

He says he’ll build success on the back of collaboration. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will be back in the pit—as it was under Ponselle’s tenure—for the first time since 1989. (The BSO left due to scheduling difficulties and increasing booking fees.) The BSO will be in the pit for the first two productions of the season, including La Traviata, while Concert Artists of Baltimore will provide the orchestra for Faust, premiering next April.

Growing up in Jacksonville, Fla., Harp says he “had to find my own opera world”—an eccentric lady down the street introduced him. Now he’s able to provide that world with Opera Camp, the Lyric’s summer camp program for area high school students.

Kiev-born soprano Stefania Dovhan was once a student just down the road from the Lyric at Baltimore School for the Arts. Now she’ll take center stage as Marguerite in Faust. For her, seeing Baltimore opera at the Baltimore Opera Company for the first time in general rehearsals created a lasting impression. When she auditioned for School for the Arts, she could have as easily won a spot for piano. She’d had no classical voice training and sang only her native Ukrainian folk songs. When asked which she wanted more, she said “voice” and then thought to herself, “Oh my god, what did I just say?” she recalls in a phone interview.

To Dovhan, having an opera in town is as important as having libraries, museums, or gorgeous boutiques. “We need to make life more beautiful,” she says, “to take us away from the gross and disgusting. We don’t watch what we do in everyday life. Opera is made for live experience.” She emphasizes that singers aren’t amplified. She cheerfully admits to being “like a freak of nature” for how her voice can cut across an orchestra and fill the hall.

After Baltimore, she has even bigger things afoot, such as London’s Royal Opera House for the 2012-2013 season. But one of her earlier big breaks in the United States came from the New York City Opera. She took the newly renovated Lincoln Center stage with great hope, but even in NYC, opera isn’t safe from the fiscal kiss of death. Now, just two years after that grand opening, City Opera is homeless. It’ll haunt cheaper quarters at various locations throughout the city.

“It breaks my heart to think about,” Dovhan says, “but look at Baltimore! There’s a renaissance.” It’s encouraging to think that Baltimore may have gotten something right—ahead of New York. We will enjoy our opera, if opera fan Allan Jensen has anything to do with it.

Jensen didn’t grow up on opera. He only found it through a friend at a screening of La Bohème at the Charles Theatre. His wife, Claire, found opera the way many have. Her grandfather would sing along to the Saturday Met Opera radio broadcasts. Together, they’re committed to the city’s musical life.

Back when Baltimore Opera Company was in full swing, Jensen convened a posse of Johns Hopkins physicians, aka “Opera Docs,” at a nearby restaurant—usually the Brass Elephant. For 10 years, the Opera Docs also gave straight-ahead talks before BOC dress rehearsals. La Bohème’s talk was “Mimi and TB.” They covered personality disorders, eternal virility, and the psychology of revenge. A particularly good one was the success rate of arranged marriages as inspired by Bedrich Smetana’s The Bartered Bride.

Jensen believes in the leadership of Jim Harp (and admits that Harp is the reason he and his wife have a piano in the house—for Harp to play). Jensen is the man responsible for the Lyric/Peabody partnership. You’ve benefited from Jensen’s support if you saw last year’s excellent Manon put on by Peabody Opera. The talents were so big they were about to burst from the stage. Now they’ll have a bigger stage.

So opera in Baltimore has come full circle. There’s an excellent performer guiding young talent on the stage, a world-class orchestra in the pit, a devoted cadre of music lovers on the board, and, as of last check, very few tickets remaining for the November performances.

Harp says he’ll visit about 30,000 schoolchildren this year, often bringing along operatic puppet shows tailored for younger opera-goers. “At the end of a puppet show, when you ask them, ‘Who wants to be an opera singer when they grow up?’ nearly every hand shoots up,” he says.

That’s promising. Eight cities lost opera in the recession beginning in 2008. Only one came back.

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