Opera Philadelphia Cuts Its Budget, but Not Its Ambition

Opera Philadelphia, like many arts organizations worldwide, is experiencing something of a hangover from the darkest days of the pandemic.

When companies returned to live performance, it was common — and necessary — for them to broadcast to their audiences that they had come back strong. In Europe, a proliferation of Wagner productions signified a return to grandeur; at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the first work by a Black composer ushered in a new era for a bastion of staid tradition; and last year, Opera Philadelphia resumed its hulking, adventurous and essential season-opening festival.

By then, the company was merely adding a live component to its busy lockdown output, which featured innovative video operas that kept the art form going, while also asking where else it could go. Few houses have been such a haven for new, truly groundbreaking work, in good times and bad.

But the financial reality of the pandemic has set in for opera: the cost of keeping up appearances without ticket sales; the slow return of live audiences; the ruthlessly increasing, inflated expenses behind this most extravagant of performing arts. This season, the Met has fewer productions and more dark nights. In places like San Diego and Tulsa, Okla., programming has been choked off by floundering budgets.

In August, Opera Philadelphia announced that in each of the past two fiscal years, it had operated at a deficit of more than $800,000. So it has reduced its budget by about $2 million — or 20 percent — by postponing a production of Joseph Boulogne’s “The Anonymous Lover,” originally planned for early 2024, cutting jobs from its administration and shutting down its pandemic-era streaming platform.

And this year’s edition of its Festival O, founded in 2017, is also a bit smaller than in the past. Crucially, though, Opera Philadelphia has not backed down from its ambition for the festival, which opened on Thursday and continues through Sunday.

There is still, praise be, a world premiere: Rene Orth and Hannah Moscovitch’s harrowing, breathless “10 Days in a Madhouse.” Where Festival O was once exhaustingly dense, however, it is now easier to take in, with “10 Days” joined by a large-scale offering in Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” and a staged recital, “Unholy Wars.” I saw all three within just over 24 rainy hours over the weekend.

Quinn Kelsey, left, and Christian Van Horn in Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra.”Credit…Steven Pisano

As long as Opera Philadelphia continues to commit to premieres — especially those with the range in style and compositional voices of “10 Days” and previous creations like Daniel Bernard Roumain and Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s “We Shall Not Be Moved” or the finest of the festival’s commissions, Philip Venables and Ted Huffman’s “Denis & Katya” — it will continue to reign as a destination for those seeking something new.

And opera needs works like “10 Days,” which treats the medium with affection and respect while also chafing at its tropes throughout history. This adaptation of Nelly Bly’s 19th-century journalistic report of the same name questions the nature of madness — and who has the authority to identify it — in an art form that subjects its heroines to many of the same horrors that Bly witnessed on Randall’s Island, where she was undercover, feigning mental illness to be briefly institutionalized.

Orth’s score has its problems. Its use of electronics can come off as dated, and its musical shorthand for insanity and dread — jittery phrasing, ghostly choruses — verges on the parodic and cliché. At its best, though, it captures a tension that has long made opera unsettling, the way in which, say, a mad scene can be a thing of shattering beauty and breathtaking athleticism, but also one of undeniable misogyny.

For this is an opera that jerks between beauty and terror — seamlessly under the baton of Daniela Candillari, leading an ensemble of about a dozen instrumentalists. The patients (members of Opera Philadelphia Chorus, led by Elizabeth Braden) can sing the same hymn with serenity in one scene and chaotic dissonance in the next, with few indications of which is the truer rendition. The villain, Dr. Josiah Blackwell, performed by the baritone Will Liverman with frightening warmth, is given a gentle melody over an unstable waltz that shifts from 3/2 to 2/2 time and back again.

Joanna Settle’s production at the Wilma Theater unfolds around a unit set by Andrew Lieberman, a cylinder cut into quadrants by two intersecting hallways, which over the opera’s 90 minutes begins to feel appropriately unvarying and confined. In this space, Bly — the soprano Kiera Duffy, her bright sound adding alarm to her role’s lyricism — encounters women who are less insane than their diagnoses, and a nurse (Lauren Pearl, an indelible presence with limited vocal material) who seems just as agonized as them.

The most tragic of the patients is Lizzie (the mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis, who sings with a lush and moving elegance that would make her ideal for mid-20th century American opera). Her repetitive ramblings come into logical focus with a long, crushing aria about the death of her daughter. You come to realize, frustratingly, that, like the Chinese woman declaring her sanity in a language no one else can understand, or like Bly herself, Lizzie doesn’t belong there. She’s only grieving.

In a score of dance-beat non sequiturs and eclecticism, her aria was a testament to the power of a directly pleading, flowing melody — the kind of music you get out of more traditional fare like Verdi’s “Boccanegra,” which opened at the Academy of Music on Friday evening.

Laurence Dale’s production, dressed up in Italian modernism in Gary McCann’s set design, was best as a straightforward vehicle for the strong cast, led by the baritone Quinn Kelsey in the title role, alongside the bass-baritone Christian Van Horn as Fiesco. The two men — introduced in the prologue following an autumnal overture conducted by Corrado Rovaris, Opera Philadelphia’s music director — were immediately commanding, in voice and stature.

But what makes them remarkable is the heart behind their mighty sounds: Van Horn’s convincing grief, Kelsey’s sympathetic ambivalence and longing. And they were well supported by the soprano Ana María Martínez, who settled into the role of Boccanegra’s daughter after an unsteady start, and by the tenor Richard Trey Smagur as an aching yet sturdy Adorno.

From left, Coral Dolphin, Karim Sulayman, John Taylor Ward and Raha Mirzadegan in “Unholy Wars.”Credit…Ray Bailey

Somewhere in between Orth’s world premiere and Verdi’s classic was “Unholy Wars” at the Suzanne Roberts Theater, created by the tenor Karim Sulayman. First performed at Spoleto Festival USA last year, it explores works of the late Renaissance and Baroque about the Middle East and the Crusades, with the aim of having the “other” — Sulayman, the child of Lebanese immigrants — embody othering music.

It’s an interesting idea, one that succeeds more musically than theatrically. The individual elements of “Unholy Wars” — Sulayman’s selection of works, which includes newly composed interludes by Mary Kouyoumdjian; Ebony Williams’s choreography, danced by Coral Dolphin; Kevin Newbury’s production of pouring water and sand; Kevork Mourad’s illustrative projections — assemble rather than cohere. And the performances tend to outshine everything else.

Julie Andrijeski directs the music: selections from Caccini, Monteverdi and more, ending with Handel and featuring, at its heart, the scena “Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda.” Sulayman, his voice angelic and affecting, intelligent and sincere, is joined, with equal commitment, by the soprano Raha Mirzadegan and the bass-baritone John Taylor Ward.

If “Unholy Wars” doesn’t always land, it always challenges — its 70 minutes worth experiencing, and especially worth hearing. And that, more than the safety of a season’s standard programming, is what we should want out of any festival, even in lean times.

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