How Do You Create An Opera Renaissance? Ask Opera Philadelphia's David Devan!

Sep 22, 2019

Opera Philadelphia is creating vital new works and interpreting traditional pieces with a contemporary lens. This year's Festival O19 is an example of how the company's innovative approach is fueling an exciting opera renaissance, and redefining the genre for the 21st century.

In recent years, Opera Philadelphia has developed 21 new operas. After their premieres, they've had continued life on many other stages; collectively totalling over 260 performances in 62 independent production runs in eight countries.

“We’re getting pretty good at developing new works; and there’s an appetite for it around the world,” says David Devan, Opera Philadelphia's General Director since 2011. “At the same time, people are holding onto the traditions of opera and [we're] using our 21st-century talents and technology to breathe contemporary life into the traditional pieces.”

Devan himself didn’t catch the opera bug until, as a young business school graduate, he landed in the analytical marketing department of the Canadian Opera Company. There, he fell in love with the art form. 

In 2006, he joined Opera Philadelphia; five years later he became General Director, and has been leading the organization with passion, humor and strategic vision that has earned the company international acclaim and praise from the New York Times as “a hotbed of operatic innovation.”

Festival O19, running September 18 to 29, embodies that innovation in both content and scheduling. 

In a break from the normal way operas are presented over a calendar year, Festival O19, in under two weeks, juxtaposes four productions that illustrate a range of styles.

“We created a festival that kind of 'Netflixes' the opera experience," he says, grinning, "by allowing people to binge watch lots of different experiences.”

Those different experiences include Prokofiev’s 1919 comedy The Love for Three Oranges and Handel’s 1743 work based on myth, Semele. There are also two premieres. Denis and Katya, by Philip Venables and Ted Huffman, which just won the Fedora Generali prize for Opera, is a tragedy set in the internet age.  Let Me Die, is Joseph Keckler’s satirical look at opera’s fascination with death. 

Opera Philadelphia's goal, says Devan, is to be responsible authors of the future of opera. To do that, "you need to democratize it, and write, produce, and reach for everybody in the community." 

Opera on the Mall returns to Independence National Park for the ninth year with a screening of Spring 2019’s La bohème.
Credit Kelly & Massa

In that spirit, Festival O19 kicks off with a free public event: Opera on the Mall, a screening of its production of La bohème from earlier this year, takes place at Independence National Historical Park on Saturday, September 14th, at 7 pm.  Free tickets available here.

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WRTI's Susan Lewis sat down with David Devan to talk about Festival O19, its variety, and why he believes this classic art form is so contemporary. Here’s an edited transcript of excerpts from the interview: 

Susan Lewis:  Opera Philadelphia's bright, contemporary materials about Festival O describe the staged works as new kinds of comedy, tragedy, myth and satire. 

The comedy, The Love for Three Oranges, was composed in 1919! 

David Devan: Right? But we bring the 21st century director and design lens to it. It’s still set in the time of its writing, but it's made by our hands today. And the piece is rarely performed. It's going to be a fresh new comedy for everyone in the theater, because out of 2,700 people, probably five, will have seen it before.

I'm so excited about this. So our music director, Maestro Rovaris; this was his idea. He thought that this  was the perfect festival piece, because it's a comedy; it's insightful; it's fantastical; it's other worldly.

And it has a really big cast, which allows us to really celebrate all the great musical places of Philadelphia with the Academy of Vocal Arts, the Curtis Institute. We have a lot of graduates from there.  We also have some people from the opera world coming who haven't been on our stage. 

And so it's like a colony of artists, a big chorus, doing this journey that involves three oranges. And if you pay attention, you might see some oranges taking over our city as a lead-up to this, to get everyone rolling into the theater! 

And the second work, a new kind of myth for Semele?

Right.  Again, it's the first time we've produced a Handel opera.  It's by a really amazing contemporary design and directing team, led by James Darrah, who did our Breaking the Waves. So it has a completely stylized realization to mythology. And early music, in many ways, feels very contemporary.

And the third opera is actually a new work, a new kind of tragedy.

It is a new kind of tragedy based on some life experiences that we may recognize from history. It's called Denise and Katya.  They're two 15 year olds who run from their families to be in love. Sound familiar?

Well, unfortunately, the story continues in the familiarity of Romeo and Juliet, and they do choose to end their lives, because the family and Russian special forces are closing in on them.

But that's only the first half of the opera, because they document everything leading up to their death on social media. And this opera is about what happens to our stories when heartless algorithms pump stories out into the Internet.

So it's about not only the events that happened, but the way we take those events, and observe them, and disseminate information about them.

And that's for anybody. It could be you, through your children or your grandchildren, or young people that we know. Their lives are being informed -  and in some ways, hijacked - by the amount of public scrutiny.

So this opera asks as many questions as it solves.

It's really interesting because the three different [operas] you describe involve compelling, engaging storytelling. Do you think there are misconceptions about what opera is?

I think most people don't think it's going to be as compelling as it is. I've told you about the storylines, but music is what is going to have the greatest effect on us. In all of our greatest moments of joy and sorrow, we sing! We sing at funerals, we sing at weddings. Music has an ability for us to find joy. And we don't fear things when we're fully in music.

Opera is special because it's virtuosic; these singers take this little muscle in their throat and they do these Olympic athletic [feats] of singing. And why I think opera is so contemporary is because in everything in our lives, we're looking for those virtuosic performanances, the virtuosic painting, the virtuosic TV series with unbelievable writing ...

Opera is so virtuosic in its ability to tell stories through an emotional space that we can't access every day ,because we don't walk around singing;  [that's what] makes it feel special. And that's what people don't understand, until they actually walk into a place where this is happening.

Well, you've had amazing success, and Opera Philadelphia's profile has just risen and risen and risen. Do you attribute that to anything in particular? Any particular philosophy?

I think what's caught on is that at Opera Philadelphia we've wanted to be the responsible authors of the future of the form. That has been our guiding principle -- when you look at this festival, our range of repertoire, our commissioning program, our residency program, what we do in the schools. I think if you're going to be the authors of the future of opera, you need to democratize it and that means you need to write, produce and reach for everybody in the community.

And we've also had an unwavering commitment to excellence. So we don't do things just because it's new. It has to be of the highest quality. We know that people today have a much deeper and wider aesthetic understanding of the world than they did 50 years ago, and what they accept has to be done at a higher level.

And the fourth opera, the new kind of satire that you're doing -  

Let Me Die.  We are doing that with the Fringe Arts, a partner with our festival. Our festivals actually touch up against each other every year. It’s from the mind of Joseph Keckler, who is a performance artist who's classically trained, and he has an inquiry.  His inquiry is that, in real life, death is very horrible. It's truly horrible. So why in an opera, do we sit and wait for two hours for it to happen, and think it's beautiful? 

So he is going to explore a range of death from the standard opera canon. It has humor. It has camp. And like any good camp, it has really poignant, insightful moments

And you're introducing the whole festival with Opera on the Mall.

Last year we did this amazing production of La Boheme, and it features the artwork from the Barnes Foundation and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, all the impressionists and post-impressionist paintings. We  taped that on HD, and we will broadcast it free for the community as the kickoff pre-festival warmup on September 14th on Independence Mall. Bring your blankets, your picnic baskets, your lawn chairs. It’s literally one of the most feel good evenings in Philadelphia, right in front of the Liberty Bell!