"Opera isn't dead. It just needs to have a tryst with another art form."
Out of the mouths of saucy drag queens inevitably spill a lot of great lines, but there was a lot of truth to this quip that came midpoint in Opera Philadelphia's 11-day O18 opera festival, which closed Sept. 30.
Visual arts, fashion, video, and operatic singing all entwined at the Barnes in a mashup of Handel and Philip Glass that had "people movers" hoisting listeners from one location to another, seat and all. An established Poulenc one-act opera was augmented — or weighed down, depending on your own critical compass — by a sex-games prologue. A Friday-afternoon recital at the Curtis Institute by two young singers painted a reassuringly humane view of America with a smart set of works by John Musto, Barber, Ives, and others.
And then there was Martha Graham Cracker, who with star mezzo Stephanie Blythe lipsticked and gobsmacked her way through a three-night cabaret drag serial at a South Street rock club in which the two found love.
Not every new piece or production in the fall festival hit the mark for every listener, of course. "Generally, people were mystified" by the newly constructed prologue Opera Philadelphia attached to Poulenc's La voix humaine, said opera company general director and president David B. Devan. "Many felt it was unnecessary. Some felt it was the best thing in the festival."
People arrived this year with an elevated set of expectations, said Opera Philadelphia board chairman Peter Leone, "and from an artistic perspective we did rather well, I think."
For the most part, Festival O18, the second year of Opera Philadelphia's reformatting, was notable for drawing admiring reviews and bringing a burst of national and international attention to the city, and for filling seats to more-than-respectable levels while taking some artistic risks.
"I thought it was a pretty unbelievable undertaking — all that in one extended week! — with virtuoso programming," said New York pianist Jeremy Denk, who heard Lucia di Lammermoor, the new opera Sky on Swings featuring Marietta Simpson and Frederica von Stade, and two nights of the drag cabarets at the Theatre of Living Arts on South Street.
"I guess one of the things I love about opera is that it can be high-minded, can go after the deepest things, ideas, emotions, and then at other moments it can be just campy, delicious fun. It seemed to me the week was a pretty great reflection of that."
It brought some "gorgeous, cathartic singing," too, he said — "which always makes us poor pianists jealous."
It also appears to have burnished Opera Philadelphia's reputation within the industry, strengthening its hand in attracting artists and, perhaps, funding.
"In the business, everybody wants to come here," von Stade said to me as we sat at a table on stage at the TLA awaiting the arrival of Ms. Cracker and Blythely Oratonio (Blythe's drag alter ego).
O18 lured listeners far and wide, from Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Germany, Mexico, the Netherlands, United Arab Emirates, and the U.K.; patron groups came through Houston Grand Opera and Washington National Opera, said an Opera Philadelphia spokesperson. As with last year's O17 festival, 36 percent of O18 ticket buyers attending two or more events came from more than 70 miles outside Philadelphia.
Audiences could also feel part of an artistic community for a few days. Going to the Friday recital at the Curtis Institute of Music meant bumping into von Stade in the audience. On her night off, Blythe showed up to hear Ms. Cracker on South Street. Actor David Hyde Pierce was in the audience for Sky on Swings. (He has been something of a mentor to its composer, Lembit Beecher). General directors and staff from opera companies around the world listened in.
The out-of-town critics were charmed, perplexed, or impressed. Sometimes all three.
"There were times during Opera Philadelphia's Festival O18 last week when you wondered just how weird things were going to get," Ray Mark Rinaldi wrote in the Denver Post. "Philadelphia is reaffirming that classical music has a legit place in 21st-century American art, and anyone who cares about opera ought to pay attention."
Of the new Laurent Pelly production of Lucia, Anne Midgette of the Washington Post praised soprano Brenda Rae as "incandescent, creating a three-dimensional character whose fluid coloratura mirrored the passionate meanderings of her mind. In the mad scene, this was underscored by the use of the glass harmonica Donizetti originally intended, which has the shivery sound of a finger on a wineglass, rather than the more commonly used flute: an effective reflection of an altered mental state."
Altered mental states were the theme of Sky on Swings, in which two characters cling to each other as Alzheimer's unravels their core identities. The more "stylized, pearlescent and unpredictable the text and score" grew, the better it was, Zachary Woolfe wrote in the New York Times. "Banality creeps in whenever things get more naturalistic. But there is quiet nobility to the duets near the melancholy end for the two leading ladies, who sing with sensitivity and grace."
My colleague David Patrick Stearns found Lucia to be a "charisma-impaired heroine" at the start but wrote that finally, in the mad scene, "Rae's voice burst forth in all of its technically accurate and theatrically adept glory, reminding you she is among the finest Lucias out there."
For me, too, charisma was at the heart of the matter. O18 was at its strongest when it let the vocal individualism shine: in the deep well of emotion in Simpson's voice for Sky on Swings and von Stade's deft acting, in Patricia Racette's carefully calibrated desperation in La voix humaine, in Anthony Roth Costanzo's expressive arcs in Handel and Glass, and in the polished mezzo glow of Curtis fellow Siena Licht Miller in that Friday-afternoon recital of songs of America.
Opera Philadelphia made a splash last season in its new barbell-shaped season of a fall festival and, in spring, a small handful of productions. This year, the festival was slightly more modest — with 24 performances as opposed to 31 in 2017. With fewer performances, tickets sales were down: 23,700 against 32,200 in 2017.
Ticket revenue was $1,029,000 for O18, a dip from $1,290,000 for O17.
But Devan says earned revenue plus philanthropy allowed Opera Philadelphia to meet all its financial obligations for the festival.
One disappointment this year: single ticket sales for Lucia.
The opera was "one of the things we are most proud of that we've ever done in the Academy of Music," said Devan. But the hope that a festival format could lift demand for a somewhat lesser-known classic title didn't materialize, he said.
For its five performances of Lucia, Opera Philadelphia sold on average 70 percent of what it counts as the Academy's 1,800 full-view seats.
"There is a sea change in taste, and we can't cheat that. You need a big title," he says. "There is no longer a top 10. It's more like a top six or seven."
Carmen, La bohème, Aida, Turandot, La traviata, Tosca, and The Marriage of Figaro are now the A-title operas that can fill big houses. "But that's it. That is what America at large wants to see."
Devan, his staff and board will comb through data, surveys, and sales figures and take into account other considerations to help make decisions about Festival O19.
What will that sound and look like? Who will sing? What's certain is that there will be a big, popular title in the Academy of Music and ambitious commissioned work elsewhere in the city.
Beyond that: "I literally don't know what O19 in its entirety looks like," Devan said, pointing out that until February, Glass Handel wasn't even on the docket of ideas for Opera Philadelphia planners.
"Which is ridiculous on the one hand, and completely in the vibe of the festival on the other."