By Mike Greenberg
SAN ANTONIO — Not least of the obstacles to starting a new opera company in San Antonio is the question of what to call it. So many of the good names are already engraved on tombstones.
A new start-up, however, has emerged with a degree of credibility that most of its predecessors lacked. The Opera San Antonio begins life with an important composer, Tobias Picker, as its artistic director. Its interim general director is Plato Karayanis, who was general director of Dallas Opera from 1977 to 2000. The board chairman and cofounder, Mel Weingart, is also chairman and president of the Tobin Theatre Arts Fund, part of the philanthropic legacy of the late Robert L.B. Tobin, a major supporter and board member of both Santa Fe Opera and the Metropolitan Opera.
This month, the new company will collaborate with the San Antonio Symphony in a semi-staged concert version of Dvořák’s Rusalka conducted by the orchestra’s music director, Sebastian Lang-Lessing. The upmarket cast includes soprano Joyce El-Khoury in the title role and the rising young tenor Brian Jagde as the Prince; James Robinson, artistic director of Opera Theatre of St. Louis, is the stage director.
The Opera San Antonio is still running in beta mode on a path of “measured progress,” in the words of Karayanis. The company made its first public splash with a concert last May featuring a raft of luminous singers – soprano Patricia Racette, mezzo Dolora Zajick, tenor Jay Hunter Morris, and bass-baritone Eric Owens, among others – backed by the San Antonio Symphony under Lang-Lessing.
“The very expensive gala (last May) was totally funded, and we were left with money in the bank,” Weingart said. “The money in reserve enables us to do Rusalka. From a financial standpoint we are extremely healthy.”
The company’s leaders say they are likely to stage a contemporary chamber opera in a non-traditional venue next spring. They expect to begin fully staged, large-scale production in January 2015 in a new performing arts center (due to open in the fall of 2014) bearing the Tobin name.
“We’re building stepping stones,” Karayanis said from the company’ offices in a restored 19th-century house near downtown San Antonio. “This collaboration [Rusalka] with the Symphony is a lot less expensive than a full production, but it gets our name out. Then [we will be] doing a chamber opera that we hope will have a lot of media attention. By that time we will have announced what we’re doing in the Tobin Center. These are all stepping stones to building a brand.”
They are also steps toward building credibility in a city where the word “opera” has too often been associated, in recent decades, with bankruptcy, artistic disappointment, and administrative ineptitude.
Picker took the job “for the challenge,” he said by phone from San Francisco, where he was overseeing rehearsals for the world premiere of his Dolores Claiborne with San Francisco Opera in September.
“I want to see whether, as a composer, I can bring to a company what others can’t do,” he says. “I want to see whether it makes a difference and helps to turn around the trend (of declining opera attendance). I hope to inject life into something that is supposed to be a living art form, but that is dying. There are very few companies where it’s not dropping off. Companies are trying to figure out a way to get people to come back. I don’t think repeating Carmen, Bohème, and Butterfly will bring them back.
“Older familiar works – yes, we have to do some of that, but we have to do fresh new productions, not stale, old, mediocre productions, so old works come off as though they were new. But (I would) emphasize new and recent operas and market them in a way that will bring in a new audience.”
Picker believes that, being a composer himself, he is well placed to commission new works for the company: “I know what my colleagues are up to. I don’t want to give an example of people I’m considering commissioning, but they’ll be much more interesting than what the average opera company is doing.”
Although the new company will have access to the small black-box theater at the Tobin Center, Picker said he also will be looking for alternative venues, comparable to those used by Vertical Player Repertory in New York, for chamber operas. Picker acknowledged that “it’s going to require a very brilliant marketing campaign” to draw a sufficient audience. “What remains to be seen,” he adds, “is whether the community, and the people who can afford it, want it.”
As recently as five years ago, the artistic vision shared by Picker, Karayanis, and Weingart could have been justly dismissed as quixotic for demographic and geographic reasons, to say nothing of the record of failure by other companies. Most of the San Antonio’s traditional opera audience had moved to the distant suburbs or the cemeteries, and the potential young-hipster audience for innovative, contemporary fare was scattered and sparse.
But the very rapid emergence of large, high-density apartment projects has brought thousands of young professionals (and a good number of empty-nesters) to reborn neighborhoods immediately north and south of downtown. The former Pearl Brewery, a mile north of the Tobin Center, has been redeveloped as an urban neighborhood and the epicenter of the city’s explosive growth in ambitious restaurants. (The Culinary Institute of America operates a school at the Pearl.) A proposed streetcar line would link the Tobin Center with the Pearl and other new residential concentrations nearby.
So the city may be ready for the kind of company envisioned by the leaders of The Opera San Antonio.
Thus far, at least, the company has its act together.
Emblematic of the company’s conservative approach to financial planning, Weingart said he expects earned income to account for only 20-25 percent of the budget in its first season. Growth in the number of productions is likely to be slow. “There’s nothing we would like more than having people be angry with us for not doing enough,” he said.
Karayanis concurred: “We’re not in a quantity business, we’re in a quality business.”
Rusalka and the Dvořák festival
The Opera San Antonio’s collaboration with the San Antonio Symphony in a semi-staged production of Antonín Dvořák’s Rusalka is part of a Dvořák Festival initiated by the orchestra and involving several other musical organizations.
The single-composer focus began in 2011 when Sebastian Lang-Lessing, newly ensconced as the orchestra’s music director, devoted concerts to symphonies and piano concertos of Tchaikovsky. Local chamber groups tagged along, and additional presenters joined the party in 2012 (Beethoven) and 2013 (Brahms.)
This year, through Feb. 8, Lang-Lessing conducts the last five of Dvořák’s nine symphonies, the Cello Concerto (Jian Wang), the Violin Concerto (Nancy Zhou), the Piano Concerto (Michel Dalberto), and Rusalka.
Zhou and Dalberto join Camerata San Antonio in Dvořák chamber music, including the Piano Quintet, Op. 81, on Jan. 19. The same work appears in David Jolley’s arrangement for piano and wind quintet on a concert by the Olmos Ensemble with pianist Warren Jones on Feb. 17. That concert includes works by Dvořák’s countryman Leoš Janáček and American composer John Novacek. Single works by Dvořák are included on concerts by the Tempest Trio on Jan. 26 and the Escher String Quartet on March 2 presented by the San Antonio Chamber Music Society.
And something for the kids: In Young People’s Concerts Jan. 22-24, the symphony’s associate conductor, Akiko Fujimoto, leads the orchestra and voice students from the University of Texas-San Antonio in excerpts from Rusalka.
Mike Greenberg is an independent critic and photographer living in San Antonio, Texas. He is the author of The Poetics of Cities (Ohio State University Press, 1995). He was a Knight Fellow at Stanford University in 1986-87. He served as managing editor of Chicago Magazine and was a critic and columnist for a daily newspaper for 28 years.