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Opera Philadelphia pushes forward amid financial uncertainty


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: We have been hearing it in many places and many ways. In the wake of the pandemic and other changes, arts organizations are struggling.

Opera, one of the most expensive of all art forms, is especially feeling the pinch and looking for new ways to move forward in its music, business model and audience outreach.

Jeffrey Brown visits Philadelphia's opera for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: The power, beauty and ambition of opera, old and new.

The economic struggles of opera companies hit with budget cuts, layoffs, postponements. In that sense, Opera Philadelphia has it all, a ground zero of the forces and challenges facing numerous arts organizations around the country.

David Devan has led the company for 12 years.

David Devan, General Director and President, Opera Philadelphia: We're at a moment of a shift that is as significant as the move from the Silent Generation to the Baby Boomers. I think COVID advanced the end of a world that was built by and for Baby Boomers.

But then now the Gen X, Y, Z, that world's not built for them.

Jeffrey Brown: Is that an existential problem?

David Devan: It could be, yes. I mean, it's either a problem or an opportunity.

Jeffrey Brown: Opera Philadelphia's Festival O, first put on in 2017, has been a leader in both presenting new works and offering them in new ways. Rather than the traditional subscription model, in which patrons buy tickets for an entire season, festival audiences can pick and choose individual works they want to attend.

David Devan: So, the idea was, could we put together a festival that had a binge opportunity, that had a lot of different experiences, that people could self-select and self-curate their experience? And could we also bake into that work that was built by these hands today in this time, so that it had a contemporary relevance?

And all that is baked into the stew we call Festival O.

Jeffrey Brown: It's been successful and much-acclaimed. Once again this year, there was a range of offerings, traditional Verdi in the traditional setting of the Academy of Music.

But the festival extends to other kinds of venues and productions. For sheer fun, a cabaret called "Late Night Snacks." From hearing older music and stories in fresh ways, "Unholy Wars," a reframing of the Crusades. And for something completely new in an alternative setting, "10 Days in a Madhouse," presented in the small scale Wilma Theater.

Sarah Williams, Director of New Works and Creative Producer, Opera Philadelphia: What is opera for you? What does that look like for you? I want to celebrate that.

Jeffrey Brown: Sarah Williams is the company's director of new works and creative producer, helping composers take opera in new directions.

Sarah Williams: Well, rather than what you often get, I feel like, in the field, which is telling you what opera is or dictating to you what opera is, the field can do that or it feels that way often to artists.

And I think what I'm interested in is talking to artists about, what does opera look like for you? What are you interested in doing? Can we support that? Do I and we think you're ready and we can help get you there? That's the starting point, and then building, slowly, really building a very trusting relationship, so we can collaborate and work our best together to get to the finish line.

Jeffrey Brown: Will the audience come along, some part of it, even better, a new audience?

Sarah Williams: It's changed, and change can be bristly. I think there's a massive world of people that are very excited about it. And they don't have to be separate worlds. And it doesn't mean we're choosing one over another.

I think there's a way to do balanced program and there be space and opportunity and varied experiences for everyone and to be even more inclusive of companies, inclusive of different audiences and beyond.

Jeffrey Brown: The composer of this year's new opera was 38-year-old Rene Orth, who lives in Philadelphia and was previously a composer-in-residence with the company. "10 Days in a Madhouse," with a libretto by Hannah Moscovitch, is based on the groundbreaking, if horrifying, true life undercover journalism of Nellie Bly in the 19th century.

For Orth, it continues her efforts to bring women's stories forward in a traditionally male-centered art form and also to bring in different sounds and instrumentation.

Rene Orth, Composer, "10 Days in a Madhouse": To me, it's important to impact as many people as possible. That's why I throw in dubstep beats or I throw in electronic dance music, but I also include a traditional string quartet waltz.

And I really do believe that if we write music that's relevant and doesn't feel archaic, you know, I really believe I can move a lot of people that way.

Jeffrey Brown: This is small opera, purposely so, smaller cast, orchestra and set, which keeps costs down. It's also shorter, 90 minutes' long. For Orth, that's both practical and personal.

Rene Orth: Because I hated opera for most of my life, because I hated sitting in a small theater — I'm tall, I'm 6 feet — like all scrunched up, and for three hours, about a story that I didn't care about.

So, for me, when I said, when it's time for me to write opera, I'm going to write opera that I think is interesting; 90 minutes or less is a great amount of time, stories that are relevant to people, to society., and interesting sound worlds.

Jeffrey Brown: Sarah Williams puts it this way:

Sarah Williams: We're still learning a ton of how to do it, not only how to develop work, produce it and present it well. And I think that's — you have to give space for that.

Jeffrey Brown: And the audience is learning too.

Sarah Williams: We all are.

Jeffrey Brown: For his part, David Devan believes a festival like this offers clues to a way forward. But he himself won't be at the helm.

When the company announced its layoffs and cutbacks this summer, Devan said he, though just 60, would leave Opera Philadelphia in favor of a new generation of leaders.

David Devan: The fundamental problem is, our institutions need to be in relationship and responsive to a younger generation. And if the younger generation is not running them, it's going to be kind of hard to do that, isn't it?

Jeffrey Brown: A bittersweet ending, for now, for an opera company and its festival working to keep an art form alive.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Philadelphia.

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