in: News & Features

October 17, 2013

The Rise of the Opera Singers’ Collective

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Although opera appears gigantic, sparkling, and glamorous on film, the actual opera industry has  been both blessed and fraught with turnover and opportunity. Even in Mozart’s Prague or Donizetti’s Paris, a leading company one season could be bankrupt the next; those that lasted more than a few years before breaking up or going under were exceptional. By this historical metric, the opera scene in Boston today is going through something of a revival despite the demise of Opera Boston last year. One of the vanguard players driving this Renaissance is Boston Opera CollaborativeThis is the first segment in a multi-part feature on Boston Opera Collaborative. The first production in Boston Opera Collaborative’s 2013-2014 season kicks off this Friday and Sunday at Club Oberon in Harvard Square.

BOC is one of several smaller opera companies playing in the Boston area. “Smaller” in this case is a relative term, meaning “smaller than Boston Lyric Opera”, the local grand dame at 27 years of age. Seniority has some advantages: BLO now plays most of its season in the 1,560-seat Schubert Theatre downtown and mounts 18 performances in its core season. BOC, at 8 years of age, is still more nomadic and mounts 12 performances in its main season. While these numbers may seem small compared to BLO’s, they nevertheless establish BOC as one of the most active and older members of Boston’s current opera lineup.

Boston Opera Collaborative’s origins dates back to 2005, when it was formed from a core group of musicians affiliated with Boston Conservatory. The initial founders were Brooke Larimer, a soprano; Katie Drexel, a mezzo-soprano; and Markus Hauck, a musical theatre and choral director. The company that they formed was focused on opera but invited members with a diverse spread of talents: directors, stage managers, conductors, and a lot of singers. Whatever their on-stage expertise, each member was also assigned specific administrative or production duties when they joined. This created a sort of artist’s collective that had much more in common with the small theatre and opera troupes of the 18th and 19th century rather than the large opera companies that now dominate the popular imagination. A performer in one production could be running another’s public relations offstage, writing development grants, running internal operations, or updating the website – but everyone wore more than one hat.

This collective aspect of BOC sets it organizationally apart from its fellows. Another aspect is the size of its season and the selection of repertoire: over the years, its programming has come to include a mix of old and new works that veers away from many of the well-worn names that perennially grace area playbills. Last year’s season included mainstage productions of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking (2010) and Rossini’s La Cenerentola (1817), the former a New England premiere and the latter not seen locally in recent memory. The present season includes Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960) and the Boston premiere of Mohammed Fairouz’s Sumeida’s Song (2009), plus two smaller themed productions. The company’s longevity, expansion in programming, and departure from the traditional “pocket opera” core rep have occasioned an organizational restructuring in recent years, but the collective operations and opera focus remain strong.

One of these changes was a shift to having dedicated administrative personnel in certain roles. The three current staff directors – General Director Chelsea Lewis, Artistic Director Andrew Altenbach, and Managing Director Lindsay Conrad – are appointed to their positions, providing operational continuity and institutional memory. As a practical measure, this helps manage the turnover inherent with a roster of young and early career artists. (More than 150 members have passed through the organization’s doors over the years, many using their experience at Boston Opera Collaborative to springboard to the next stage of their careers.) It also corresponds with the company’s maturation and shift to a singer-only membership; as a result, creative staff such as stage directors and production managers are now engaged only on a per-production, as-needed basis. The original opera artists collective has become an opera singers collective.

This renewed singer focus has shaped the organization’s reaction to the space crunch that every Boston-area performing arts program faces. No local opera company, including the university programs, controls a dedicated theatre; despite the building of the Calderwood Pavilion and the renovation of several shuttered theatres over the past decade, stage time continues to be at a premium and hard to come by. BOC, however, has found several spaces to make its seasonal homes: Club Oberon in Cambridge, the Somerville Theater in Davis Square, and the Strand Theatre in Dorchester. Each is a dramatically different space: Oberon is a flexible 300-seat club cum theatre, the Somerville Theater is a hybrid movie-vaudeville space seating 900, and the Strand is a grand old vaudeville house with room for 1,400. Fortuitously, each was also renovated and returned to life in BOC’s early years, providing crucial capacity for production and audience growth.

These locations invite programming tailored to the venue. Oberon, a magnet venue for experimental programming, plays host to BOC’s first stage production of the season, “Voyage à Paris”. Opening this weekend, the program mixes French cabaret songs with projected images from the MFA’s The Postcard Age exhibition. BOC returns to Oberon in Feburary for “Underlying Rhythms”, a performance mixing Spanish and Russian songs with modern and Flamenco dancing. The intense village drama of Sumeida’s Song (a tale set in rural Egypt during the 20th century, and a noteworthy first opera by an Arab-American composer) unfolds on the stage of the Somerville Theater this May. Finally, the Strand will play host to the merry frolics and antics of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in July. Even better for those seeking a respite from the summer heat and humidity, seeing this last production is entirely free, thanks to the Free for All Concert Fund.

Basil Considine studied music and drama at Boston University and the University of San Diego. A composer-librettist, scholar, and playwright, he was the Artistic Director of the Reduced Spice Opera Company of Brookline from 2006-2012.

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