Maryland Opera: Keeping an art form relevant in the 21st Century

September 13, 2019

It was late 2008, and James Harp was where he usually was: at the Lyric Opera House.

Harp was the chorus master and artistic administrator of the Baltimore Opera Company - which for over half a century had been attracting international opera stars to the city - and he was preparing the chorus for a production of Bellini’s Norma, a tragedy set in Gaul during Roman times. 

Three weeks later, BOC’s board filed for chapter eleven bankruptcy. The remaining two shows of the season were cancelled.

“We were all in a state of shock. This was our opera company. This was our souls. This was our lives. This was unthinkable that this would have happened to us,” Harp remembers thinking.

Harp, a practicing Lutheran, considered cloistering himself in a monastery. Opera, like ascetic Christianity, appeals to Harp for its totalizing effect – both on the performer and audience. 

“To me music and God are one in the same. I have spent time in a monastery, and a life of contemplation and adoration and sacrament, I was very much thinking about that.”

It was opera, however – which Harp calls “the culmination of the arts” – where he felt his efforts were most needed. A few years later, he helped form a new company that would perform “grand operas” in the BOC tradition - meaning full sets, props, costumes, a pit orchestra – and most importantly, staged in the historic Lyric Opera House.

The company’s five seasons were critically successful, but Harp found it tough to fill the 2500 seat Lyric. The Sun’s opera critic began his positive review of 2016’s Romeo et Juliet by chiding the city’s music lovers for all “the empty seats Friday night.”

“They were absolutely world class performances, but they were not well attended at all,” Harp said.

They would also be their last in the Lyric. The company went on a hiatus that quickly turned permanent. One of the side effects of the end of Baltimore Opera Company was that it affected two BCF funds designated to support it. These funds included the S. James Campbell Fund and the Lyric Opera Ticket Endowment Fund. The Campbell Fund, an endowed designated fund created more than 20 years ago, supported the BOC, while the ticket endowment provided free tickets to students in Baltimore City Public Schools. When the organization designated in such a fund ceases to exist, BCF determines the best way to honor the original donor intention. 

While the original BOC no longer existed, opera wasn’t gone from Baltimore forever, largely due to Harp’s efforts. And the two funds at BCF could be used to support opera in Baltimore in accordance with the intentions of the original donors. 

It became clear to Harp that to continue producing opera, he’d have to scale it back. He worked out of an office at St. Mark’s Church in Station North, where he has been the organist for 32 years. In early 2019, Harp re-emerged with the reconfigured Maryland Opera. Its first performance, “Verdi in the Valley,” offered a smattering of greatest hits by the Italian composer and was held at Stevenson University in Baltimore County. In April, they performed selections of Puccini’s La Boheme, Tosca, and others at the Sagamore Pendry Hotel in Fells Point. 

The two shows were staged for crowds of a few hundred rather than 2,500. Free tickets were provided to students from city schools through the ticket endowment fund at BCF. 

Despite swapping full pit orchestras for more nimble string quartets, the shows maintain a “grand opera” feeling by way of costumes, sets, and projected text translations of the lyrics, which are sung in Italian. 

It’s somewhere in between what’s known as “concert opera” (intimate performances where a singer and pianist do selections) and the grand opera that Harp is itching to produce again. He stresses the need to be careful with finances.

“We’re taking our cue from our funders and our audience,” Harp says. “Whatever we have the resources to do, we’ll do.”

Right now Harp, who teaches at Peabody, is focused on the free summer camp Maryland Opera offers to local high-schoolers. Along with a composer and handful of vocal teachers, Harp coaches students through writing their own 45-minute opera, which they perform at the end of the summer.

“We bring together kids who have no other place to express themselves,” Harp said. “A singer is unlike any other instrumentalist musician because their body is their voice. So when they are singing and expressing, it is just about as total an expression as you can possibly have.”

Many of the campers are drawn from city schools, where BCF funding supports an array of one-day workshops on the music of George Gershwin and Rogers & Hammerstein, as well as the celebrated African-American singer Marian Anderson. 

Compared to its predecessors, Maryland Opera is a humble enterprise. Harp’s operating budget is a fraction of what it was before, when he had 30 full-time staff and a marketing department. Now he refers to himself as a “one-man opera company.” The funds at BCF that designated for the original company are important resources for Maryland Opera. 

“It is no secret that opera and the arts are going through challenging times. Every effort is made to plan and produce according to fiscal parameters, but being dependent upon projections of revenue there are uneasy elements of uncertainty,” says Harp. “The great blessing of gifts from the BCF is that organizations know that these funds will be available and can be used as the basis of budgeting and projection, especially in the much-needed areas of education and outreach. For years these vital funds have supported the Opera programming in Baltimore, first as Baltimore Opera, then as Lyric Opera Baltimore and now Maryland Opera.”

 

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