A selective guide to arts commentaries in print and websites elsewhere.
Introduction to Broad Street Review, plus biographies and contact points for our editors and contributors.
See a list of coming appearances by BSR's writers.
In search of Robert Driver’s voiceBY: Dan Rottenberg 05.01.2003
Can the Opera Company’s boss attract the same loyalty from critics that he already receives from singers and paying customers?
In search of Robert Driver’s voice
After ten years under the exuberant but erratic leadership of Margaret Anne Everitt, the Opera Company’s primary asset was its portfolio of sublime memories: Bass James Morris as the devil in three different operas based on the Faust story. Mezzo-soprano Victoria Vergara in a Carmen version set during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. Legendary soloists like Jessye Norman, Justino Diaz, Regine Crespin and Sherrill Milnes. Luciano Pavarotti— the world’s greatest living tenor— on stage with tomorrow’s greatest singers: the winners of his International Voice Competition, which Pavarotti and Everitt organized in 1982. National TV audiences for seven different productions, one of which (La Boheme, with Pavarotti in 1983) won an Emmy and reached the largest opera audience ever recorded up to that time on American TV.
But Everitt’s regime was a high-wire act without a safety net, where the large-scale drama often spilled over from the stage into the audience and the boardroom. In the company’s perpetually strapped financial condition, ticket-holders could never be certain that a performance would offer more than minimal sets, that the orchestra would show up (it once waited until 15 minutes before curtain time to settle its contract) or that the company’s latest promising Eastern European soloist would comprehend the Italian lyrics he was singing. Board members could never be certain when Everitt would exhort them (as she did during at least one meeting) to “take out your checkbooks right now!”
Driver, by contrast, is a more anal-retentive type who boasts a solid grounding in both business and opera. A dozen years after his arrival, the Opera Company’s season has gradually expanded to a healthy 35 performances— that is, seven performances each of five different operas. Its budget has quadrupled to $10 million, large enough to rank it among the nation’s dozen largest opera companies. Its subscriber base has at least doubled, to 11,752. Its deficit is a thing of the past. And all of this has been accomplished without the benefit of national TV, Pavarotti, Emmy awards or any performance that has set my heart racing the way so many of Everitt’s productions did— at least, not until this year.
So what is the man’s secret? What is his quality that arouses loyalty from paying customers but indifference from most critics? And is it possible (as I’m beginning to suspect) that Driver’s game plan hasn’t yet entirely unfolded?
Let me put it this way. Unlike Everitt (who appealed to opera connoisseurs like me), and unlike Woody Allen (who once said that 90% of life is showing up), Driver perceives that 90% of life is packaging and promotion. (More than two-fifths of his 48 Opera Company staffers work in marketing, fund-raising or finance.) He recognized that connoisseurs are vastly outnumbered by novices and dilettantes, who will gladly pay big bucks to experience the spectacle of opera at the opulent Academy of Music if you pitch them aggressively with colorful brochures, offer popular productions (like Carmen, La Traviata, La Boheme and The Barber of Seville), and make it as easy as possible for them to purchase tickets. (Incredible as it may seem, prior to Driver’s arrival it was impossible to buy tickets to the Opera Company by credit card or over the phone; all sales were transacted by mail or at the box office, paid for by cash or check, just as they were back in Enrico Caruso’s day.)
Everitt’s strategy sought to cultivate an international reputation that would attract world-class singers, directors and funders who might otherwise bypass Broad and Locust. Driver, by contrast, draws heavily on Philadelphia’s two great voice schools (Curtis Institute and the Academy of Vocal Arts) to showcase great emerging vocal talent— talent that’s likely to remain loyal and continue singing for him once they’ve established themselves as major leaguers just 90 miles away in New York,. “We try to discover talent before the Met does, because the price is better,” Driver explains.
This incubator has produced such Metropolitan Opera soloists as mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, sopranos Maureen O’Flynn, Mary Dunleavy, Patricia Racette and Anna Netrebko, baritone Nathan Gunn, bass-baritone Richard Bernstein and tenor Richard Leech, all of whom frequently make the New Jersey Turnpike commute as a way of thanking Driver for his early support. Driver’s loyal vocal cadre also includes such internationally acclaimed Curtis and AVA grads as the 30-year-old Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flòrez, tenors Thomas Studebaker and Hugh Smith, bass John Relyea and baritone John Packard. If you believe, as I do, that the most exquisite of all instruments is the human voice, this Met-quality vocal stable constitutes a remarkable resource that Driver has made available to Philadelphians at a fraction of the Met’s ticket prices (not to mention the cost of getting there).
The Opera Company’s current favorite poster girl/alumna is the Met diva Denyce Graves, a mezzo-soprano whose celebrated charms, I must confess, have eluded me. Graves is a beautiful woman with a beautiful voice, to be sure; but for my money she lacks the intangible “star quality” that seizes my attention by the throat. More often, she demonstrates an uncanny knack for blending into the chorus or the scenery.
Consider one small example, from last year’s OCP production of Offenbach’s La Perichole. This is a farce about a poor but beautiful street singer who accepts an offer to live in splendor as the viceroy’s mistress, even though doing so means abandoning Piquillo, her sweetheart and singing partner. When Piquillo shows up at the viceroy’s palace to publicly denounce this arrangement, the viceroy orders him thrown in the dungeon. Perichole is of course conflicted by this turn of events: Although she loves Piquillo and wishes him well, she’s also furious at him for jeopardizing her potentially cushy palace deal. But Graves’s interpretation betrayed no conflict whatsoever; instead she simply joined in the chorus of courtiers taunting Piquillo as he was dragged away. You could say that Graves epitomizes the Driver regime in Philadelphia, at least so far: capable, reliable and professional but unlikely to send any adoring swains stampeding off the Ben Franklin Bridge in paroxysms of ecstasy.
But having said that, I must tell you that this spring’s OCP production of Verdi’s La Traviata— the third Traviata in Driver’s 12 years, and directed by Driver himself— moved this wizened old opera buff as few Traviatas have in many moons. When Maureen O’Flynn, in the title role as Violetta, learned from her lover’s father Germont that she must abandon her only chance to know true love, I could swear she shed real tears. Her death scene in the fourth act was as gripping as anything I’ve seen at the Met or anywhere else.
This Traviata also reflected, in the best sense, Driver’s keen grasp of his audience. As the first act normally ends, Violetta hears Alfredo’s voice offstage, realizes she’s in love with him and exults in the knowledge that she’ll see him again the next day. But this nuance doesn’t suffice for Driver, who understands his crowd’s need for instant gratification. So in Driver’s version, as the curtain came down, Alfredo rushed back onstage to embrace her— which is actually not a bad innovation. One of La Traviata’s weaknesses as an opera is that, while we are told that Violetta and Alfredo spend three months of idyllic happiness together prior to their painful breakup, we never actually see them happy together. In this case, Driver solved that problem, if only for a moment.
Traviata was the high point of a spring season that also included Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte (a thin and silly comedy with great music, halfheartedly staged) and Verdi’s Macbeth (an awesome drama, impressively staged, with great music that doesn’t quite suit the story: Some of the most melodic passages describe conspiracies, torture and murder.) But all three productions contained the common thread that’s become the OCP’s hallmark: Exceptionally strong singing voices (especially those of Gregg Baker and Lauren Flanigan in Macbeth).
Now we learn that, after a dozen years of playing it safe, next season Driver will expose his subscribers to a modern opera (Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah) and two less-well-traveled works (Bizet’s Pearl Fishers and Offenbach’s comic The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein) along with the reliable Verdi crowd-pleasers Il Trovatore and Don Carlo. The following year’s roster includes such heavyweights as Gounod’s Faust, Verdi’s Aida (which calls for a chorus of more than 60 singers), and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin (which involves not only a chorus but extensive dancing as well).
Respond to this Article