The 1980s were an exciting time for opera in Philadelphia. Luciano Pavarotti was here, singing at the Academy of Music and hosting his vocal competition. The great soprano Jessye Norman made her American opera debut in a stunning double bill of Stravinsky and Purcell. Big and innovative productions of offbeat repertoire, including Death in Venice and Boris Godunov, graced the stage of the grand old lady of Broad Street.
Problem was, nobody had actually figured out how to pay for it all. By the time Robert Driver took over the Opera Company of Philadelphia in 1991, the institution teetered on an artistic fiscal cliff. Driver regrouped, putting the budget on a diet and offering a steady stream of play-it-safe material that readily filled the seats. It worked, and today OCP is again a robust and vital element in this city’s cultural life.
Driver, while still involved in production work (he is an acclaimed stage director), has handed over leadership to David Devan, and next season, that transition enters a new phase with a re-branding of OCP, both aesthetically and literally, as the company is renamed Opera Philadelphia.
Devan has officially been the general director for two years, and has skillfully steered the company back to a more adventuresome style while retaining Driver’s prudent management sense. It is a terrific formula, and bodes well for attracting a newer and younger audience. The signature program for this new direction has been the Aurora Series at the Perelman, which has included a highly successful co-production with the Curtis Opera Theatre, and has presented engaging, even edgy new works as well as modern classics from Berg and Henze.
In the first season of Opera Philadelphia, some of that small-stage spunkiness migrates up to Broad and Locust with a new production of Ainadamar, Osvaldo Golijov’s take on the life and work of the great Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, who was murdered by the Fascists in 1936. And for a taste of the future, check out the East Coast premiere this week of Silent Night, by Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell, set in the trenches of World War I. You may just want to come back for more.