Baltimore Concert Opera’s seasons are built around four operas presented in concert and three events called ‘Thirsty Thursdays at the Opera’. The Thursday events feature professional opera singers in a program of arias selected to complement the evening’s libations. Each season, BCO strives to present to the Baltimore audience they know well a balanced offering of both traditional and newer works, heavier and lighter pieces, and well known and lesser known works. The BCO experience is focused on opera singing in an intimate setting; it is not offered as an alternative to fully-staged opera; it is meant to be its own thing. BCO succinctly and amusingly describes the upcoming 2018-2019 season of four operas as Lust, Love, Legend, and Laughs. The theme for the first Thirsty Thursday has just been set as Madness, Malbecs, and More. Personally, I would label the BCO experience as Friendly Folks and Fun. In fact, Executive Director of BCO Julia Cooke graciously agreed to chat with me about their new season and also reviewed some of BCO’s history with me. But first, let’s get right to the season’s agenda.
Baltimore Concert Opera’s 2018-2019 Season:
September 28, 30 (Lust)
Don Giovanni (1787)
Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Librettist: Lorenzo Da Ponte
October 18 (Madness, Malbecs, and More)
Thirsty Thursdays at the Opera
November 9, 11 (Love)
L’amico Fritz (1891)
Composer: Pietro Mascagni
Librettist: P. Suardon
January 31 (TBA)
Thirsty Thursdays at the Opera
March 1,3 (Legend)
The Flying Dutchman (1843)
Composer: Richard Wagner
Librettist: Richard Wagner
April 5, 7 (Laughs)
Composer: Derrick Wang
Librettist: Derrick Wang
Trial by Jury (1875)
Composer: Arthur Sullivan
Librettist: W. S. Gilbert
May 23 (TBA)
Thirsty Thursdays at the Opera
The BCO story began in the Fall of 2008 when word circulated that the 58 year-old Baltimore Opera Company was in financial distress and had canceled the second half of the season. A group of performers, including Ms. Cooke, a soprano, and her husband bass-baritone Brendan Cooke, banded together with the idea of producing a concert opera in the Spring to keep the opera momentum going in Baltimore for the sake of performers and patrons. The venue selected was the Engineers Club of Baltimore, where the Cookes had been married, and the opera selected was Don Giovanni. This was intended to be a one-time event, but when the Baltimore Opera Company then filed for bankruptcy, it was decided to continue producing concert operas in the Engineers Club and BCO was born as a continuing presence.
Ms. Cooke reports that it was difficult going initially, but now moving into its tenth season, it is thriving. They are proud of their subscription rate of 42% among their attendees and that they are showing an increasing number of first time attendees and attendees under 45 years of age. I myself have been impressed with the number of young people who attend. They are pleased to be able to offer employment opportunities to opera singers in the Baltimore area. And BCO remains firmly committed to their format of presenting concert operas with piano accompaniment, and to their venue, the Engineers Club, and to their mission of service to opera in Baltimore and the cultivation of the next generation of opera-goers.
First up in their tenth season will be a celebration of their first season by presenting Don Giovanni in concert, the very first BCO offering. Giovanni, a contender for the most popular opera on the planet, is Mozart and Da Ponte’s classic tale of an unrestrained seducer (rapist?) who is starting to lose the race to stay one step ahead of the anger and turmoil of broken lives he has created, a comedy that grows darker as the evening progresses. This production will be different from seeing Giovanni fully staged or presented in concert with a full orchestra. BCO productions are a stand alone products with their own advantages. Opera in concert allows singers and the audience to focus on the singing and music. In BCO’s case, accompaniment is by piano only. Opera aficionados not only find the focus on the singing enjoyable, but that it causes the emotional relationships between the characters to stand out more. According to Ms. Cooke, the performers also benefit in that they are given considerable autonomy in their interpretation of the role compared to fully staged opera, and they have only the relationship with the pianist to develop compared to a large orchestra. She also notes and I have pointed out in previous blog reports that BCO performances are a good way for newbies to try opera for the first time for a relatively small price. It would be interesting to know how many BCO newbies go on to attend a fully-staged performance. Perhaps the crowning advantage of opera by BCO for the audience is the performance site. The Engineers Club is cozy; wherever you sit you will be close to the singers, and I can assure you that being in close proximity to a professional opera singer in full voice will impress, if not blow your socks off.
With L’amico Fritz (Friend Fritz), Lust is followed up by Love, a desirable progression, is it not? The composer is Pietro Mascagni who has one big hit in the modern repertoire, Cavalleria rusticana, which helped introduce verismo opera in Italy. L’amico Fritz is much lighter in tone and outcome; this time the guy gets the girl and doesn’t have an angry husband coming after him. This is a love story that qualifies as a good date opera. Mascagni chose a simple story because he wanted to showcase his music; he was peeved that some critics claimed Cavalleria’s success was mainly due to the libretto. I am also curious to hear the music; the “cherry duet” is a famous piece from it. L’amico Fritz had a substantial following in Italy during his life but is very rarely performed today. BCO can afford to produce these little known gems because they will be welcomed by their audience; the Met and the Kennedy Center can’t afford to take such chances. I sort of crave the opportunities to see something new.
The Flying Dutchman (Der fliegende Holländer) is what I call “introductory Wagner”. It’s what I practiced on to get ready for Wagner’s The Ring Cycle. But I warn you; once you get hooked on Wagner, you are looking at 20 hours of The Ring. But fear not the Dutchman, for BCO has a commitment to three hours or less for all performances. The Legend is that a sea captain is cursed to ride the seas forever unless he finds salvation, which he can go ashore to seek once every seven years. The opera begins with once such stopover in a storm; the music was reportedly inspired by Wagner getting tossed about in a stormy boat trip to England. Ashore, he meets Senta whose true love and sacrifice break the spell, at no small cost to her. This truly is Wagner music anyone can like; very likely you will go home humming a tune or two.
The Dutchman has a large cast and chorus and is on the more expensive side for Baltimore Concert Opera. One way to balance that out and sustain quality is to have a collaboration. BCO has been involved in two collaborations the last few years, one with Delaware Opera, including last year’s Gianni Schicchi/Buoso’s Ghost combo, and the other with Opera Southwest, including last year’s Guillame Tell. In these cases, the same cast does the opera in concert at BCO and then fully-staged at the collaborating venue.
This is where Laughs come in. Opera Delaware takes another turn as collaborator on the timely and entertaing close-out twin bill of Derrick Wang’s Scalia/Ginsburg and Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury. Both operas are both funny and poignant and have legal themes. Scalia/Ginsburg was first a special presentation to the Supreme Court in 2013 and was then produced at the Caselton and Glimmerglass festivals. Mr. Wang has modified the libretto somewhat post Justice Scalia’s death. The libretto uses some of the justices own language and the music is playful, incorporating themes from other operas – see how many you can pick out. It is tonal, melodic, and clever and not to be missed. Trial by Jury gives BCO a companion to Scalia/Ginsburg that is also lighter and legal and provides an opportunity for BCO to present Gilbert and Sullivan. You and I think “operetta”, but Gilbert and Sullivan called their works “comic opera”. Its story is an outrageous satire, funny and prickly with barbs directed at England’s judicial system. If you are interested and I bet you are, act quickly; Ms. Cooke reports that this event is already half sold.
Baltimore Concert Opera’s 2018-2019 season means many things to many people: For the newbie, it’s gateway opera; for the opera aficionado, it’s a deeper dive. For the younger opera goers, it’s a cool (and inexpensive) night out for entertainment mixed in with a serving of culture. For opera singers, it’s a gig with a chance to develop a role their way. For staff and board members, it is a continued commitment to deliver quality art to a community that has come to depend on them and to grow that community both for themselves and opera in general. For me, it is another chance to enjoy pleasant afternoons/evenings in the cozy, welcoming confines of the posh Engineers Club of Baltimore, listening to opera up close and personal. For Baltimore, it is a success story for opera in a great city that needs it.
The Fan Experience: Tickets, both individual and discounted packages, can be purchased online. Prices for operas range from $27.50 to $71.50; tickets for the Thirsty Thursday are $29 and the tastings are included in the price of admission. On street (read the signs carefully) parking and parking lots are close by and valet parking is offered for Sunday performances. For photos of the Engineers Club and area, see the Fan Experience Section of my blog report on Guillaume Tell at this link.