Kentucky Opera Makes Bold Move to Focus on New, Rare, Unfamiliar Works

Many opera companies anchor their programming with a handful of crowd-pleasing, time-tested operas, like “La Traviata,” “Carmen” and “Don Giovanni” — the guaranteed blockbusters. And for years, the Kentucky Opera has been no exception. But general director David Roth says playing it safe isn’t working for the company any longer, so starting with its 2014-15 season, the company will focus on rare and new operas instead

It started with the Great Recession — in times of economic uncertainty, many companies opted for safer programming, offerings that would appeal like comfort food for audiences weathering uncomfortable times. And then the Louisville Orchestra’s bankruptcy and prolonged labor dispute hit, and the opera, traditionally accompanied by the orchestra, was also affected. So the company stocked its seasons with the beloved favorites, hoping that the classics would keep the audiences coming. 

“We consciously chose very safe repertory,” says Roth. “But coming out of this, with the orchestra back up and running and the economy flowing once again, our ticket sales did not increase in the way we expected them to.”

Last season’s “Tosca,” one of the tried-and-true, didn’t draw the sales he expected.

“The research was telling us ‘well, we’ve seen that, and we’re more interested in some things we haven’t seen,’” he says.

And so the recent production of “La Boheme” could be the company’s last for a good while. Roth says the emphasis for the next five years will be on operas that are rarely produced, brand new, or new to the company. 

“We’ve been in existence for now 62 seasons, and we’ve had very adventurous programming in the past, from programs Moritz Bomhard, our founder, put together, as well as Thomson Smillie, but lately, we’ve been playing it a little too safe,” he says. “It’s time to get back to those roots and begin to present again works that this region wants to see for the first time.” 

That regional appeal is important — Roth says his audience base comes from eight states and 129 zip codes, and he wants to ensure that the Kentucky Opera remains a draw for serious opera fans who can get their fill of the traditional standards in larger cities or even through the Metropolitan Opera’s live high-definition cinema program, which makes sumptuous productions (think: “Aida” with full elephant parade) more accessible than ever.

Enter the re-imagined repertoire, an emphasis on operas that are unfamiliar, rare or new to the Kentucky Opera audience. The ambitious plan starts this fall with Beethoven’s sole opera Fidelio (September 19-21) and Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West,” (November 14-16) an opera set during the Gold Rush in the American West that will be a company premiere.

A re-orchestrated, re-staged version of Andre Previn’s adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” (February 13-15)  will be a co-production with San Francisco’s Merola Opera and Opera Santa Barbara. 

“We  want to produce works by the great masters that have never been produced by Kentucky Opera,” says Roth. ”And we want to produce new works, but specifically we want the focus on works that speak to the American experience — operas that tell the American story.”

None of this has happened overnight – in creating its own recent productions of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” and Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra,” the company has learned how to put an entire show together that’s right-sized for the Brown Theatre, and so programming-wise is no longer bound by the shows available for rent (scenery, costumes) from other companies. And the five-year-old composer workshop, which this season brought in librettist Terry Teachout and composer Paul Moravec to develop and premiere their opera about Benjamin Franklin, “The King’s Man,” has whetted the audience’s appetite for new work. 

“The composer workshop has taught us how to build a program that librettists and composers can learn from as they’re developing their work,” says Roth. “As artistic performing arts organizations, we all have a role to play in the development of new works. We’ve done that in the development of new work in the composer workshop, but what about taking works to the next level?”

Next season, that role will be played by Daron Hagen’s “A Woman in Morocco.” This operatic adaptation of Barbara Grecki’s play premiered at the University of Texas’s Butler Opera Center after development at Philadelphia’s Center City Opera Theatre. Hagen previously premiered his “New York Stories” in 2010 as part of the composer workshop program. 

Subscriptions for the 2014-15 season go on sale today. 

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