Sunday, March 15, 2009

ArtsBuzz: Palm Beach Opera scales back to three operas for 2009-10


By Greg Stepanich

WEST PALM BEACH -- The Palm Beach Opera announced today a season of just three fully staged productions for the 2009-10 season instead of the current four, a concession to tough economic times and also a move toward multi-year fiscal planning that administrators hope will ensure the survival of the company.

"We actually already began discussing this a year ago, before the economy really went down," said Daniel Biaggi, the Opera's general director. "We decided we needed to make a couple adjustments, to be more lean, more flexible, and more adaptable, and then we could assure the long-term health of the program."

That meant being more financially responsible without cutting back on quality, he said.

"We decided we would rather do three operas really well for this coming season, to continue to maintain the level of quality our patrons have come to expect," Biaggi said. "With four full productions, we would have to make too many compromises."

The company has presented four operas since the 1995-96 season.

The first opera of the new season will be Giuseppe Verdi's Otello, his 1887 masterwork and widely regarded as one the finest of all Italian operas. The story of the Moor who loved not wisely but too well, in a production mounted originally at the now-defunct Baltimore Opera, will take the Kravis Center stage from Jan. 22-25, 2010. The company last presented Otello in 2000-01.

In a nod to the success of the current season's Le Nozze di Figaro, the upcoming season will then feature Don Giovanni, the second of Mozart's collaborations with Lorenzo da Ponte. The 1787 story of the unrepentant rake who gets punished by the stone guest, last seen here in the 2002-03 season, will be presented from Feb. 26 through March 1.

The final opera of the season will be George Bizet's Carmen, the 1875 tragedy of the Spanish cigarette girl and her too-controlling soldier beau, last mounted in the 2003-04 season. Carmen will be presented from April 9-12.

Replacing the traditional first opera of the Palm Beach company season in December 2009 will be two presentations of the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven, featuring the Palm Beach Opera orchestra, soloists and local choral groups. The Ninth will be heard at the Kravis Center on Friday, Dec. 11, and Sunday, Dec. 13.

Singers for the three operas, as well as the soloists and choral groups for the Beethoven, have not yet been finalized, Biaggi said. The opera also will present its annual Grand Finals Concert of its vocal competition on Sunday, April 25, 2010.

The three-opera season was chosen in part for audience appeal and also for a change from the all-Italian makeup of the current season, he said.

"We wanted to make sure we choose popular works, but we also wanted to have something French again, to look ahead and make it more international," he said. "With the Beethoven, we have the big German work with the chorus, then the Verdi, and a French one at the end."

Another benefit to the three pieces is that they have "really strong operatic characters," which increases their appeal.

Still, the scaled-back season marks something of a retreat, one shared in the recession by Miami's Florida Grand Opera, which will present only four productions in its next season, down from five this year, and six the year before that, including the world premiere of David Carlson's Anna Karenina.

The Palm Beach Opera's budget for 2009-10 will be about $4.45 million, down from this season's $5.2 million, Biaggi said. Remarkably enough given the downturn, support for this season has been strong.

"We sit there and we say to each other, 'How are we doing it?' It's been really incredible," he said. Although there was a slight downturn in December for Verdi's Rigoletto, the staging that followed of Bellini's Norma sold 78 percent of its tickets, and Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro after that sold about 85 percent, he said.

"In this economic climate, that's astounding," Biaggi said. "We have to say it 's the loyalists, the opera lovers who just don't want to go without their opera."

So far, too, the picture for continued renewals looks promising. "Surprisingly, we're on track," he said, adding that the fraud scandal involving jailed financier Bernard Madoff scandal, which cost the opera two of its board members, did not seriously affect operations.

The opera's current season closes April 3-6 with four presentations of Giacomo Puccini's La Boheme, one of the world's most popular operas. A recent company reading of excerpts from the opera at the Harriet Himmel Theater in CityPlace was standing room only for its more than 400 seats, Biaggi said. The One Opera in One Hour programs will continue in the 2009-10 season, he said, along with the Lunch and Learn events before the operas.

In addition to talking about mounting other kinds of works, "things we know we can't do on the big stage" such as Baroque or chamber opera, in the Himmel, the company also wants to bring back some of the orchestral outreach it did with musical director Bruno Aprea a few years back, Biaggi said. In one of those concerts at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre, the Palm Beach Opera orchestra gave a concert of overtures by Rossini.

The reality for now is that the organizational structure of the company has been retooled for better operations techniques, including management training, and a fiscal outlook that moves away from year-to-year financing to real long-range planning, which is particularly important because the company will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2011.

Biaggi said that while the Palm Beach Opera would like to return to four full productions, he could not say when that would be. And he added that no one should be worried that the company is in danger of failing.

"That's exactly why we're doing what we're doing," he said.

Season tickets for the 2009-10 Palm Beach Opera season go on sale March 25. Single-ticket sales begin Oct. 3. For more information, call 561-833-7888 or visit www.pbopera.org.

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