In a bold move aimed at making Philadelphia a compelling stop on the opera-lover circuit, Opera Philadelphia is restructuring its season to create an opera festival each September that would draw tens of thousands not just to the Academy of Music but to other venues around the city as well.
The first festival, in 2017, will mount six productions over 12 days, giving listeners a chance to package experiences traditional and/or edgy - including Komische Oper Berlin's innovative production of The Magic Flute that immerses live singers in fields of animation, newly created works that test the definition of the genre, and a recital by much-adored American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky that promises to be a particularly hot ticket.
The first iteration of the festival in 2017 is to be called O17 - the "O" for "opera" - with some details already falling into place for O18, O19, O20, and O21.
Planning for the festival coincided with several years' worth of highly detailed market research into what opera-lovers want, their buying patterns and demographic trends, and how far they are willing to travel to hear and see offerings they can't get elsewhere.
The research, started several years ago after the company recovered from a near-death financial crisis, uncovered a disturbing underlying trend: Tickets are selling, but often to a small number of people buying a lot of them. This group is shrinking and being replaced by another group that, though large, buys fewer tickets.
"People love us," says opera general director/president David B. Devan, "but our subscription family is eroding." About the subscription model that has sustained Opera Philadelphia and most other groups, Devan says: "As much as we want that to continue, it's not."
If it did not change the diversity of its offerings and the way it packages them, the opera company figured it would be back in crisis within several years.
So, starting in 2017-18, it will bunch together many of its productions for the September festival, with three additional productions between February and April 2018. Planned are a new American production of George Benjamin's Written on Skin, a coproduction with the Curtis Institute of Leonard Bernstein's A Quiet Place, and Carmen.
The rationale is to cater to two types of arts consumers: festivalgoers who may want to binge on several productions within a short span, and traditional subscribers who can still assemble a package of festival offerings along with operas later in the season.
Opera Philadelphia, a short train ride from the Metropolitan Opera and its 30-times-bigger budget, decided it had to be something other than a traditional four-masterpieces-per-year company - "turning into a mini-Met was not a strategy that was going to hold water," says managing director Annie Burridge - and was encouraged when market research revealed that 20 percent of listeners for works like last spring's world premiere of Charlie Parker's Yardbird came to Philadelphia from more than 70 miles away.
Burridge says she expects O17's 25 performances to draw as many as 35,000 people (including an estimated 15,000 who will hear The Magic Flute free on Independence Mall). The festival is aimed at an opportune time in the city, just as the Fringe Festival is ending but before the traditional concert season is underway around the beginning of October.
Packaging productions in a festival format allows the company to raise money around the idea of innovation, and the strategy appears to be working. The first several years will require a festival fund plus a reserve of $15 million - $10 million of which is already committed from individuals and foundations.
For all its market-research data and resulting strategies, the festival also achieves a number of artistic goals and innovations, says music director Corrado Rovaris. "The fact that we are going to use many different venues allows us to give the audience the possibility to have completely different experiences. Even when you attend a standard repertoire opera like The Magic Flute at the Academy of Music," he says, "you will experience something unexpected, as Barrie Kosky's production [in its East Coast premiere] is completely different from what we have seen so far."
A double bill at the Philadelphia Museum of Art dubbed "War Stories" pairs Monteverdi with a new work by Lembit Beecher, but, intriguingly, both works use period instruments. "In one project, how many crossing worlds," says Rovaris. Using students in the writing of We Shall Not Be Moved shows that "opera is not old and dusty, but it is something which is fresh, alive, and connected directly with their world."
It's a matter of balance, this question of how to meet audiences where they are while doing something artistically viable, says board chairman Daniel K. Meyer. "Opera is something you can't do in a vacuum," he says. "The audience is the final part of the equation."
Mozart's The Magic Flute Barrie Kosky's Komische Oper Berlin production that juxtaposes live singers and animation, at the Academy of Music and in a free, outdoor live Opera on the Mall screening at Independence Mall.
Elizabeth Cree A world premiere by composer Kevin Puts and writer Mark Campbell, based on
The Trial of Elizabeth Cree by Peter Ackroyd, at the Perelman Theater.
We Shall Not Be Moved A hip-hop opera world premiere by composer Daniel Bernard Roumain and writer Marc Bamuthi Joseph, directed by Bill T. Jones. At the Wilma Theater, a co-commission with Art Sanctuary.
War Stories A double bill in the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Great Stair Hall of Monteverdi's Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda and I Have No Stories to Tell You (Philadelphia premiere) by composer Lembit Beecher and writer Hannah Moscovitch.
Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky In recital at the Perelman Theater.
A newly commissioned work for voice that will "interact" with the collection of the Barnes Foundation in performance after hours.