Nothing succeeds like a successor, or: Philadelphia opera history, rewritten

Who saved the Opera Company?

5 minute read
Driver: Savior or beneficiary?
Driver: Savior or beneficiary?
Shame on you, David Patrick Stearns, for failing to do research before writing the article about Robert Driver that appeared in the March 17 Philadelphia Inquirer. (Click here).

Driver most certainly did not "heed the call to save Philadelphia's opera company from ruin." As the acting general director of the Opera Company of Philadelphia (now Opera Philadelphia) when he was hired in 1992, I can attest that by the time Driver arrived as general director, that feat had been well accomplished by the Opera Company of Philadelphia's board of directors and its dedicated staff members, who had reduced the deficit almost completely, instituted many money-saving policies (without sacrificing artistic sensibilities), while at the same time looking to the future by introducing super-titles and approving the start of the Fourth Luciano Pavarotti International Voice Competition.

The Opera Company had been for ten years a small but exciting organization that had always focused on the musical experience— not only by presenting Oedipus Rex with Jessye Norman, as you mentioned in your article, but also a new production of Dido and Aeneas (also with Norman), Rossini's Mosè with the late Jerome Hines and Julia Hamari, and original productions of Death in Venice, Fidelio and La Gazza Ladra, not to mention some unconventional productions, such as a Carmen set in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s.

Marquee singers

In those days, international artists like James Morris, Diana Soviero, Barbara Frittoli, Paata Burchuladze, Ghena Dimitrova, Anna Caterina Antonacci, John Del Carlo, Mark Delavan, Renato Capecchi, Susan Dunn, Nuccia Focile, Ildiko Komlosi, Marcello Giordani, Gordon Hawkins, Cristina Gallardo-Domas, and Fiorenza Cedolins, to name a few, graced the Opera Company's stage. During these ten or so years, the Opera Company also produced telecasts (not all of them associated with Pavarotti), that were broadcast nationally on PBS (La Bohème with Pavarotti won a national Emmy Award).

To say that Driver didn't realize what he was in for when he arrived is absolutely false. He had been given all the company's financial statistics long before he accepted the position, and I have copies of the very long, pleading letters he wrote, begging to be chosen as the new director. He knew exactly what he was walking into, and he appeared absolutely thrilled with his good fortune.

Romancing Pavarotti

As for the Pavarotti Competition, Driver was so excited to be a part of such an international project with such a superstar (on a scale he couldn't have begun to even dream about in his former positions) that he eagerly became an active participant, attending several audition cycles to South America, New York and Europe. He often remarked that the singers we found through the competition (who would later be cast in Opera Company performances) were far superior than any that New York agents sent to him.

He never had "knock-down, drag-out fights" with Pavarotti (I know, because there was never a moment when the two of them were together when I was not present as well). The real reason Driver dropped the competition was because Pavarotti had to cancel (due to illness) his directorial debut and performances in the operas that culminated the fourth competition in 1993, to Driver's fury.

When it was pointed out to him that Pavarotti, in all the 13 years he was associated with the Opera Company, had never once cancelled a single commitment (which included 17 performances, three telecasts, countless rehearsals, dozens of preliminary and final auditions, master classes, press conferences, fund-raising galas and private parties, all with absolutely no fee), Driver petulantly retorted, "Well, this is on my watch and I don't care what happened in the past!"

Attracting donors

To imply that the Pavarotti Competition was a financial burden is also erroneous. For the second and third competitions, the fund-raising that was done directly because of Pavarotti's association with the Opera Company completely wiped out the company's deficits. Not only were the seasons sold out when Pavarotti performed, but money was raised from donors who were not normally interested in opera but were attracted by the great tenor and his association with Philadelphia.

The Pavarotti Competition's budget wasn't small, but when fund-raising by the staff and board was properly accomplished, the competition not only paid for itself but put the company in the black.

Riding a wave

Driver began his tenure at a time— 1992— when opera was riding a gigantic wave of popularity, due mostly to the cross-over success of "The Three Tenors" concerts (fearing Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and José Carreras), followed by other commercial cross-over successes like the blind tenor Andrea Bocelli. Opera houses all over the world were enjoying great increases in attendance.

Driver not only rode that wave, but he walked into a company that was very much on its feet both financially and artistically. What he did with it thereafter is for subscribers and critics like you to judge.

Jane Grey Nemeth was assistant general director of the Opera Company of Philadelphia from 1980 to 1991 and its acting general director from 1991 to 1992. She was concurrently director of the Luciano Pavarotti International Voice Competition.

To read a response, click here.

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