With A Bold Choice, Boston Upstart Steps Into The Risky Opera Business
BOSTON — A new opera company debuts in Boston this Sunday with a single performance of a rare, five-hour work by Richard Wagner.
That’s right, five hours.
The conductor behind Odyssey Opera used to lead the now-defunct Opera Boston, which folded abruptly about 20 months ago. I dropped by a rehearsal to find out more about this new company’s mission — and discovered why it’s such a risky proposition.
Wagner’s “Rienzi” has all the juicy enticements opera fans expect — conflict, lust, blood — and of course those powerful, resonant voices. Odyssey Opera’s production includes Lithuanian tenor Kristian Benedikt in the title role. Local baritone David Kravitz sings baritone.
“There are two dueling bad guy families — the Orsinis and the Colognas — and so I’m the head of the Orsini family,” he explained during a break.
Kravitz calls Odyssey Opera’s debut a bold move.
“There hasn’t been anything like a five-hour Wagner blowout in Boston really for a long time,” he said. “But you know, as a singer in Boston for one thing, it’s always just fantastic to have more opportunities, and also for the Boston arts community to have another place to see opera.”
That’s especially after Kravitz, and so many opera lovers, were shocked and heartbroken when Opera Boston, then the city’s second-largest company, drew the curtain dramatically two Decembers ago. Kravitz used to perform with that group under Gil Rose, now the founder and conductor of Odyssey Opera.
“He’s a real musical entrepreneur. If anybody can pull it off, I think he can,” Kravitz predicted with a laugh.
“You only get to do your first performance once, so you might as well go in with a bang,” Rose said before heading back into the theater.
“It’s exciting to be building a company with many similarities — some differences — but dedicated to presenting repertoire that isn’t the top 10 ‘Don Giovannis’ and ‘La Traviatas’,” Rose said. “Although those are fantastic pieces. The reason I called it Odyssey Opera was because I wanted to project that we were going to go on a journey, and I wanted to take the audience on a journey, maybe to ports of call they haven’t been to before.”
Graham Wright is more than happy to go along. “It’s very rare that you can say a performance really is a once-in-a-lifetime performance, and this is absolutely something that falls into that category,” he said.
Wright is the founder and host of Opus Affair, a Boston-based arts and music social group, and an opera singer himself. He says Rose’s choice to perform “Rienzi” — with its 200 musicians and singers — is ambitious and wild, especially for a “lean and mean” upstart company. Odyssey’s budget is $200,000. Large companies can and do spend millions. Much of Odyssey’s funding comes from millionaire and Opera Boston co-founder Randolph Fuller.
Risk And The Business Of Opera
But high-end or scrappy, Wright told me the opera business is inherently risky.
“That’s definitely part of the excitement,” he said. “We’re in this age right now where arts organizations are going bankrupt left and right and there’s all these lockdowns and struggles, so it’s really exciting to hear an organization that’s willing to take some calculated risk.”
Smaller opera companies around town — such as Guerilla Opera and Opera Hub — are freer to take more risks, according to Wright.
But then there’s Boston’s largest opera company: the Boston Lyric Opera.
“Well it’s a risky business because it’s extremely expensive,” Esther Nelson said. And she would know. She’s been the BLO’s general artistic director for five years and knows full-well how of all the performing arts, opera is the most costly to produce.
Nelson said her company employs 500-600 people a year and operates with a budget between $7 and $8 million. The BLO is gearing up to stage Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” in October. Nelson and her staff are going to the new opera company’s “Rienzi.”
As for the idea of competition — healthy and otherwise — she made a distinction: Odyssey is doing a much more nimble concert production, with plans to do more in the future, while the BLO stages elaborate, full-on operas.
“The mix of the two is of great benefit ultimately to the community,” Nelson said, “so I’m very glad to see a company like Odyssey spring up again and do something we probably would not tackle.”
Competition And Cost
But competition underscores the business of opera. Just this week the New York City Opera announced it’s on the verge of financial collapse. Longtime classical critic Lloyd Schwartz attributes that to the current environment and what he calls “the New York Opera Wars.”
“And we have them in Boston too, although we prefer not to call them wars,” he said. “Everyone is angling for an audience, every company is angling for donations, which is a big part of it because even the high price of tickets doesn’t pay for an opera production.”
The tickets for the one-time-only “Rienzi” are $50-$200. Not cheap, Schwartz pointed out, but he calls it a “must-see” event. And he believes there’s room for even more opera in Boston.
“The history of opera in Boston is really, you know, a history of little groups kind of springing up and either taking root, or not succeeding,” the devout opera lover said, adding that if they don’t succeed, someone else most probably will.
Odyssey Opera’s production of Richard Wagner’s “Rienzi” is at Jordan Hall this Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m. Here’s the trailer:
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