Opera Philadelphia is not your average opera company.
This year’s season opener wasn’t some Italian love story that put you to sleep before you could figure out the plot — it was a new work based on the life of Andy Warhol. The production, directed by John Jarboe, the bohemian leader of the experimental performance art group the Bearded Ladies, was staged in the middle of an abandoned warehouse in Northern Liberties.
“We think of Philadelphia as the nexus of sophistication and grit, so we’ve created a company that is at the intersection of sophistication and grit,” said general director David Devan, who’s been overseeing the unorthodox production group since 2011.
His troupe provides something of a unique juncture between the conventional and the unpredicted for fans of the art form. Take the company’s production of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, which opened last week at the Academy of Music. It stars up-and-coming soprano Sarah Shafer, a State College native making her role debut as the leading lady, Adina. Most opera companies wouldn’t take these kinds of casting chances: It’s a risk to invest in new talent if they haven’t had a demonstrated ability to perform a certain repertoire. Opera companies often book talent years in advance, so casting someone like Shafer in this role three or four years ago shows an unusual faith in an artist’s potential.
But it isn’t just new talent that Opera Philadelphia ushers on stage. By offering up choice roles, the company has enticed several established artists to the city, people who probably wouldn’t otherwise be here.
For instance, last season’s Don Carlo cast superstar bass Eric Owens as King Philip II — the talented Philadelphia native had never before performed with his hometown company. This September, world-renowned soprano Christine Goerke will lead the company’s production of Puccini’s Turandot, a role that she was supposed to debut in Philly…before the Metropolitan Opera tapped her for the part in 2015.
“We’re not a rep house,” Devan said. “We don’t have slots to fill, and we’re not a star house for the sake of being a star house.”
What Devan and his creative team are able to do is approach artists and ask them what they want to perform. He called this process “bespoke tailoring” for singers.
“There’s no modeling for what we do,” he said. “We’re drawn to disruption naturally, but disruption creates kinetic energy. Our artistic planning process is really that organic.”
However, the company’s recent announcement of their massive (and somewhat financially risky) O17 opera festival planned for fall 2017 wasn’t the result of random “kinetic energy.” Instead, the organization spent over a half-million dollars in market research to determine what opera-goers wanted.
They discovered more than a quarter of their single-ticket audience was between ages 25 and 34 — and 18 percent were under 24. Realizing people in these age groups were accustomed to on-demand media consumption, Devan decided to create a kind of opera/Netflix situation. At O17, visitors can choose from a large number of performances — there are 25 shows over the course of 12 days. It’s almost like an opera Sundance Fest.
“We had to change the way we packaged opera and how we presented information,” Devan said. “[Opera is actually] a growth market — if we move with the market. Performing arts organizations haven’t moved with it. Customers want more variety.”
And what will those customers get in September 2017? A barrage of opera, everything from a world-premiere of We Shall Not Be Moved, directed by Tony-winner Bill T. Jones, to the lavish critically-acclaimed staging of Komishe Oper Berlin’s The Magic Flute, to a recital featuring the distinguished soprano Sondra Radvanovsky.
“It’s going to be hyper, urban, high-energy, and you’ll leave exhausted,” Devan said. “The festival is right for Philly. It’s back at that nexus of sophistication and grit. It celebrates Philadelphia. It literally can’t happen anywhere else.”
Opera Philadelphia’s production of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore runs April 29 to May 8 at the Academy of Music; tickets are available online.