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OperaThe Berkshire Review in Boston

Opera Boston to Close January 1, 2012.

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A Scene from Shostakovich's The Nose at Opera Boston
A Scene from Shostakovich's The Nose at Opera Boston

With no advance warning, Opera Boston board chair Winifred P. Gray and board president Gregory E. Bulger have issued a statement that Opera Boston faces “an insurmountable budget deficit” of $500,000 and will cease operations on Jan. 1, 2012.

The announcement cited “lackluster fundraising in a tough economic climate” as the main reason for the closure. The staff was notified yesterday.

“The Board realizes that this development will come as a shock to the Boston arts community, and it is not a decision we made lightly,” Gray said in this morning’s statement. “The Company has had many artistic triumphs in its recent history, and has many fans. However, as the end of the year approaches, we find ourselves in a financially untenable situation, and the responsible thing is to work with our creditors and cease operations.”

We are indeed shocked and saddened to learn of Opera Boston’s closure after seven and a half seasons. Founded in 2003, the company rapidly built up a stellar reputation and an enthusiastic following for their ambitious programming, with fully-staged performances of rarely-performed works and innovative productions of the classics. In recent years especially commendable initiatives have been Hindemith’s Cardillac, Shostakovich’s The Nose, John Adams’ Nixon in China, Weill’s The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, Peter Eötvös’ Angels in America. Among the neglected classics were Berlioz’ Béatrice et Bénédict, Rossini’s Tancredi, Weber’s Der Freischütz, Handel’s Semele, Verdi’s Macbeth, Ernani, and Luisa Miller, Gluck’s Alceste, Chabrier’s L’étoile, and Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers.

In 2010, Opera Boston co-commissioned a world premiere of Madame White Snake, with which composer Zhou Long won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize. As the performance was under preparation, Music Director Gil Rose discussed the project with the present author. (Click here for the interview.)

Not every production was entirely successful. The musical side was usually admirable, with a fine small orchestra led by Artistic Director Gil Rose, and generally excellent casts consisting of young American singers and outstanding international stars, like Sanford Sylvan and Ewa Podles. The productions were generally weaker, often marred by Regieoper treatments by rising American directors. As flawed as they were, the productions were distinguished by intelligence and courage. In my experience Opera Boston’s finest moment was The Nose, in which both the musical elements and the production were on a high level. Their program notes, often written by Richard Dyer, and their educational materials were exemplary. Even if Charles Warren, who has also reviewed Opera Boston performances on The Berkshire Review, and I could not praise everything we heard and especially saw at Opera Boston, we agreed that the Opera Boston was an important and exciting enterprise. More companies should follow their example.

Opera Boston’s productions were always, in my experience, extremely well attended. There was a special atmosphere of enthusiasm among the near-capacity audiences, who were fully aware that they were part of something special. Boston audiences were in an especially fortunate position, with two complimentary opera companies, of which the Boston Lyric Opera offers more traditional repertoire and approaches, recently enlivened by a more adventurous trend.

Carol Chernow, Opera Boston’s founding General Director (who was replaced just a few months ago by Lesley Koenig.) has been quoted in The Boston Globe as saying that Boston is “not an opera town.” Judging by the work of these two general repertory companies, the biennial Baroque opera productions of the Boston Early Music Festival, the operatic work of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (also under Gil Rose’s direction), and the success of Emmanuel Music’s opera productions, nothing could be further from the truth. Bostonians love opera in all forms. New York, with its failing City Opera, cannot boast the adventurous repertory and serious taste of the Boston companies. One can only mourn the passing of this brave and outstanding company. It is a great loss for Boston and for the world of opera as a whole.

According to The Globe, there was bitter dissension among the board and staff of Opera Boston over this decision. The will and the talent are still there, and we can only hope that a way will be found to bring them back together into a working whole.

About Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

3 comments
  1. William Fregosi

    The chill of shock that ran through all the Opera Boston fans I know is still with us. The company was a great resource to the true opera lover, one who, like me, embraced the art form whole from Monteverdi to what was written last week. Yes, some production concepts failed but the risk had been taken and risk in the arts is essential to their progress. I think the audience here understood that — Boston is a musically very sophisticated town, and its opera lovers still speak of Sarah Caldwell’s repertory exploration as of a golden age.

    And not all the updated or re-investigated productions were failures by any means: when the first body in Mahagonny was picked up and almost casually tossed in the dumpster stage right, I remember saying to myself, “they got it absolutely right.”

    I believe that Boston Lyric was jolted out if its complacency by OB’s successful repertory choices. BLO’s current approach to repertory and the new series of contemporary works done in appropriate venues all around the city would not have happened, in my opinion, if not for Opera Boston’s success.

    Like you, I hope that the company might be reorganized financially and revived. Subscribers have not yet received any letter informing us of the closure (and we assume no reimbursement for our ticket expenditure for the canceled part of the season) — we know only what we got from the press. However you look at it, this is all very bad news for music and opera in Boston.

  2. Therry Neilsen-Steinhardt

    Like you, I was horrified to read of Opera Boston seemingly closing without a fight. Can the adherents request that the board be dismissed and reconstituted with a governing body that knows how to ask for help?

  3. The Editor

    When I was surveying American opera companies for the Grove earlier this year I came to the conclusion that companies that were well-managed and in good financial condition before 2008 continued to survive, while those that had weaknesses went under, or close to it. That may have been naive.

    While the ca. $720,000 deficit in Opera Boston’s budget does not seem to be insurmountable, the departure of the General Director, Carole Charnow, leaving the company with a $220,000 deficit in early 2011 and its increase by $500,000 under the new General Director, Lesley Koenig, in the ensuing months is striking. There seems to have been a general unwillingness among the board, foundations, and others to help out in this situation, and the board seems to have been ready act fast in scuttling the organization. While Koenig feels strongly that the situation could have been remedied, Music Director Gil Rose, as reported in the Boston Globe, seemed settled in referring to Opera Boston in the past tense. There is more to this than money.

    Another local case of aggressive behavior in a board, or the Chairman thereof is the firing of the administrators of Monadnock Music, discussed in the Boston Musical Intelligencer: click here.

    A Globe editorial on Opera Boston’s demise complained of the lack of transparency in the decision. That is true in both cases. Part of the function of boards comes from the fact that not all institutional business should be conducted in public, but both of these situations are in truth mystifying. And in the case of Opera Boston, they city is being deprived of one of its glories.

    It was a marvelous achievement to have produced great operas not in the extremely limited basic repertory we know today as well as Opera Boston did, and to have aroused such enthusiasm for them. Knowledgeable opera-lovers travelled to Boston to see productions like Der Freischütz, The Nose, Tancredi, and Cardillac.

    American regional operas have come a long way in the past twenty-years, but Bostonians should be immensely proud to have been the home of OB, a worthy successor to Sarah Caldwell’s initiatives, and perhaps a more successful one in some ways. If that is true, then it should also be true that Bostonians should be ashamed of having failed to support it, but we can’t include those enthusiastic ticket-buyers among them. It would be more accurate to say that some Bostonians should be ashamed of themselves.

    In retrospect I remember fondly productions I didn’t like at the time, like Tancredi and the second half of Der Freischütz. Even when things didn’t work out, Opera Boston was on the right track.

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