I enjoyed reading about Baltimore Concert Opera. I like what they are doing, and I like why they are doing it. It’s great for opera fans and potential fans, and it’s good for opera. What are they doing? This year they are performing four operas in concert and offering a very enticing musical event called Thirsty Thursdays. But first, let’s talk a bit about why they are doing it.
The raison d’etre for concert opera is the focus on the singing and the music. I just had an experience that brought home how this makes a difference. I started watching a dvd of a Royal Opera production (2008) of Don Giovanni. The overture by Mozart is one of my favorites. What do the dvd producers do while the overture is playing? They show video clips of the major performers, listing them by role and name. Maybe you can look at faces, associate them with a role, and gather in the performer’s real name while maintaining your focus on and enjoyment of the music, but I can’t. Arrrgh, what were they thinking! I mention this only as an example of how the action you are viewing on stage can affect what you hear. Ok, I also mention it to vent a little. Of course there are compelling reasons to attend staged opera. Live staged productions are what the art form was intended to be, but I suspect that when you hear a staged opera for your initial listening of an opera, you are not hearing all that the music has to offer. At any rate, I now have a hypothesis – if you attend a concert performance of an opera and then go to the staged version, your experience of the staged version will be enhanced. Your familiarity with the music will free you up to enjoy the other aspects more as well. I’m still a scientist at heart and can’t resist formulating hypotheses, especially when the experimental testing looks like such fun.
BCO has other good reasons to do this form of opera. Here is a quote from the BCO website: “Baltimore Concert Opera welcomes opera enthusiasts and future opera fans to experience timeless music and stories which bring us together. Discover our up close and personal operatic format - spectacular singers, piano, and projected English translations, just a few feet from your seat in the gilded ballroom of the Engineers Club in Mount Vernon, Baltimore. Grab a beer or a glass of wine and treat yourself to the unfiltered beauty of the human voice.” No orchestra, but they do include a chorus. They also offer free pre-performance talks. You can learn and enjoy music too. They are striving to make opera accessible to everyone. BCO distinguishes itself by aiming for a smaller audience and venue (220 seats). Bringing the audience and performers closer together has impact, immersing the audience in the art form, as it was intended to be. And frankly, the ballroom looks worth a visit by itself. Company manager, Courtney Kalbacker, in the BCO blog, sums it up poetically: “We are a vocabulary builder, a gateway drug, a community, and a dynamic option for a lovely night of live music.”
There are also very practical reasons for doing opera this way. Again, quoting Ms. Kalbacker: “Besides the obvious appeal of hearing fantastic singers perform gorgeous music in our own neighborhood, the concert format has an important place in the operatic scene at large. 1.) BCO can produce roughly four operas in concert form for less than the cost of one grand opera. 2.) Because of this cost structure, concert opera can afford to take chances on rarely-heard works and rising young singers. 3.) Concert opera can give full productions a head start on cast cohesion through collaborative co-productions. 4.) Most importantly, Baltimore Concert Opera gives Baltimore more opera. More singing. More operatic options. More chances to connect with audiences.” Now you know why I like why they are doing what they are doing.
And I am not the only one offering praise. Tim Smith, classical music critic of the Baltimore Sun, reviews BCO productions routinely. Last year he praised BCO’s goal of collaborating with opera companies doing staged productions of their selected operas. He said, “It's a sensible arrangement that can give the Baltimore organization the advantage of singers with an extra degree of stage-readiness and immersion in their characters.” He also praised a BCO performance of Edgar last year, a lesser known opera of the great Giacomo Puccini. He viewed the opera as flawed for staging because of the plot, but still offering a chance to experience the beginnings of greatness in Puccini’s music. Good intentions are fine, but unless high quality is there, opera doesn’t work. Eight years of sustained success and Mr. Smith’s reviews provide confidence that the quality is there and that BCO is a company that knows its role and is appreciated by its community.
OK, you’ve been waiting patiently to hear about Thirsty Thursdays. BCO recognizes, like Wolf Trap Opera and too few others, the value of adding a dash of fun to opera. In Thirsty Thursdays, “Top-flight professional opera singers will perform operatic highlights paired with energetic and informative commentary and fun facts about themselves. At the same time, each performance will feature beer, wine or spirit tastings interspersed throughout the evening specially planned to go with the music.” Three such events (should I say parties?) are planned for the season. The first will occur on Sept 15: “Arias, Ambers, and IPAs,” followed by "Vino and Verdi" on Nov 10, and "Love Potions" on Feb 9, suspiciously close to Valentine's Day. Six beers and four singers are paired for the first event. For potential effects of sound/taste pairings (tongue in cheek), check my blog post, “Want Fries With That Aria.”
Let's talk about the lineup of operas for the BCO 2016-2017 season:
- Tancredi by Gioachino Rossini…..Sep 30, Oct 2
- Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi…..Nov 18, 20
- Susannah by Carlisle Floyd…..Feb 24, 26
- Semiramide by Gioachino Rossini…..Apr 7, 9
All but Rigoletto are in the rarely performed category. I did not spot any of the other three in the top 200 operas in Operabase.com’s list for the 2014-2015 season. However, they are reasonably well-known. Opera Philadelphia will be staging Tancredi next February, a great chance to hear the music first at BCO and see the stage version in Philly. Tancredi was Rossini’s first attempt at serious opera. In my report on OP’s upcoming season I noted “Tancredi is based on a play, "Tancrede," by Voltaire; it tells the story of star-crossed lovers caught in family and historical conflict between Syracuse (Sicily, not NY) and the Saracens. Rossini actually wrote two endings, a happy one and a sad one. The opera seria form of the day required a happy ending, but keeping true to Voltaire’s play required a tragic ending. The tragic one seems to have survived the test of time.” Personally, I wish somebody would give us the happy one. In reading, I found this interesting nugget about Tancredi in the Milton Cross Encyclopedia of Great Composers and Their Music: “It’s principal aria, “Di tanti palpiti” (the finest love song he was to write) spread like a contagious disease. On one occasion the Venetian law court had to order its citizens to desist from singing, humming, and whistling it continually!”. Nice tune, but also says a lot about the popularity of opera and Rossini in Venice in his day. Rossini’s Semiramide bears a relationship with Tancredi; both had the same librettist, Gaetano Rossi and both were based on a play by Voltaire and both involve royal love turned tragic. In Semiramide, murder most foul must be avenged leading to the thrilling climax. Rossini uses dramatic singing to project the drama, which makes it an especially good fit for concert opera.
Susannah by Carlisle Floyd is an American opera, the first presented by BCO, that deals with the difficulty of beauty and innocence surviving in a world where evil lurks in the hearts of men. Floyd wrote the libretto himself and based the plot on the biblical story of Susanna and the Elders. It takes place in backwoods Tennessee and involves a licentious preacher. Having grown up in Georgia, this touches close to home, and I can’t wait to hear opera sung with a southern accent (I’m joking).
Rigoletto, the most famous of BCO’s season of four tragedies makes just about all top ten opera lists. It’s in my top three. A philandering duke, a sheltered young daughter, what could go wrong? Power, lust, innocence, and mistaken identity once again prove to be a deadly mix, but on the way you get to hear the tenor sing “Donne e mobile” (hear leading tenor Jonas Kaufman sing it here) and the soprano sing “Caro nome“ (hear young soprano Nadine Sierra have a go at it here. Rigoletto provides some of my favorite music in opera.
Each opera is performed on Friday at 7:30 pm and at Sunday at 3:00 pm on the dates given above. Individual tickets are $27.50 to 71.50; three and four opera packages are available at discounts. The seats are not tiered and the price depends mainly on how close the seat is to the stage. Note that their new website just went live and a 2016-2017 season Study Guide is promised on this page by Sep 5. You are advised that before the performance, you may come early for a meal in the Engineers Club dining room (by reservation only, please). Then move upstairs to the Grand Ballroom for an expert lecture on the great operatic work to follow (included in your ticket price). A section will soon be added to the Your Visit section of the website describing dining options in the Engineer's Club. A First Time at the Opera section provides helpful info for newbies and maybe more seasoned fans as well. Recommended attire is business casual. I had hoped T-shirts and cutoffs would be ok, but they are not. You have to remember this is a night out at a Grand Ballroom, not the lawn seats at Wolf Trap.
P.S. - In a comment received after this report was posted (see below), Ms. Kalbacker adds that BCO will perform both endings of Tancredi.