Opera Philadelphia’s O17 announcement

An announcement of operatic scale

Opera Philadelphia has laid out bold plans for its future.

O17 (for Opera 2017) will be a 12-day mid-September festival with seven innovative productions in multiple locations. The company is planning to stage a festival every year after that.

Sondra Radvanovsky will be the Festival Artist at Opera Philly’s O17. (Photo by Pavel Antonov via operaphilly.org)

In 2017, a modern staging of Mozart’s Magic Flute that uses cartoon bubbles instead of spoken recitative will be imported from Komische Oper Berlin. The East Coast premiere will be performed in the Academy of Music with an HD simulcast on Independence Mall. A new chamber opera, Elizabeth Cree, by the composer and librettist of the successful Silent Night, Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell, will use the smaller Perelman Theater.

A double bill of Monteverdi’s Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda and a new work composed by Lembit Beecher using the same instrumentation as Monteverdi will be presented on the grand interior staircase of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Combattimento is set during the First Crusade, and Beecher’s piece will share its warlike theme.

A new work for voice is in development for performance inside the Barnes Foundation. Since that museum is a superb repository for Impressionist and Postimpressionist art, expect music of that type. A hip-hop opera using teenagers, directed by Bill T. Jones, will be produced at the Wilma Theater on South Broad Street. Traditionalists shouldn’t be afraid of that genre — Lin-Manuel Miranda uses rap and hip-hop elements in his immensely crowd-pleasing Hamilton and In the Heights.

An added attraction for aficionados will be a recital and a master class by leading soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, the inaugural Festival Artist. There’s buzz that she will appear here in an opera at a later date.

Admirably, the company seems focused on artistic merit rather than audience size. The new venues can’t accommodate large crowds: The Art Museum staircase holds no more than 300 people, even when you add seating in the balcony; the Barnes Gallery holds even fewer. Clearly Opera Philly is placing artistry ahead of box office.

Creating a new audience

The idea of concentrated festivals has been growing among opera companies that are looking to operate more economically. Vancouver and Wilmington are among the most recent to announce festival plans, taking this path because of financial problems. Vancouver says it will save money by not having to maintain a year-round staff, instead using seasonal hiring and investing in a focused marketing campaign.

That’s not the case in Philly, for whom this is a preemptive move. Opera Philly’s chairman, Daniel Meyer, said that research indicates an erosion of attendance unless younger patrons could be attracted to replace older ones as they die off. It’s not that attendance is dropping yet, but that planners expect it will unless the company gets ahead of the demographic curve.

Already, however, 27 percent of the company’s single-ticket buyers — the largest demographic slice — are between the ages of 25 and 34, said Opera Philadelphia’s general director and president, David Devan. Clearly, at least some of the scheduled works are aimed at a younger audience, yet the 2017 festival looks appealing to music lovers of any age. And, unlike Vancouver, Wilmington, Fort Worth and Cincinnati, there will be a regular season after the excitement of the fall festival. 

A long, cold winter

But how much of a season? Three operas, yet unnamed, will be staged in the spring of 2018, but there’s concern about momentum and continuity. How will Philadelphians get their opera fix during the five-month gap in the fall and winter?

Other cities are bridging the schedule gap by staging recitals by young artists, but Philly has plenty of recitals already, and opera productions by the AVA, Curtis, Temple University, and more. How will this company maintain interest year-round?

Opera lovers are used to a routine of Met radio broadcasts every Saturday and Met HD telecasts at least once a month, and they’re aware that the Philadelphia Orchestra plays every weekend. They used to expect Philadelphia operas about once a month.

These audiences span all ages. Seniors line up early, with bagged lunches, to pack the movie theaters; teenagers stand in line at the Kimmel Center for rush tickets to the orchestra concerts.

Regularity translates into loyalty, and that should be treasured. Clearly, no one wants to abandon those devotees. Nor should they even feel that they’re being abandoned. It remains to be seen what will replace Opera Philly’s previous schedule of operas spaced relatively evenly throughout the calendar.


For Dan Rottenberg’s reaction to the O17 announcement, click here.

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