By Barb Van Atta
Tri-Cities Opera’s transformational efforts, begun this season by General Director Susan S. Ashbaker, will continue and expand in the 2016-2017 season.
For the 2015-2016 season, productions have been evenly divided between The Forum, 236 Washington St., Binghamton, and the Opera Center, 315 Clinton St., Binghamton. Next season, only one of the four productions will be at the 1,500-seat, Broome County-owned performing arts center. Three will be in TCO’s newly revamped “black box theater” at the Opera Center, which holds approximately 200 people.
At a press conference this morning (March 22) at the Opera Center, Ashbaker made the public announcement of TCO’s 67th season:
• 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 16 – Staged and costumed concert performance (no scenery) of Verdi’s La Traviata at The Forum.
• 7:30 p.m. Fridays and 3 p.m. Sundays, Nov. 11-20 – Full (with scenery) production of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel in the Opera Center’s Savoca Hibbitt Theater.
• 7:30 p.m. Fridays and 3 p.m. Sundays, Feb. 17-26, 2017 – Double bill at the Opera Center of a full production of Ravel’s L’Heure Espagnole, and a performance by 2016-17 soprano Resident Artist Stacey Geyer of Schoenberg’s Brettl-Lieder (Cabaret Songs).
• 7:30 p.m. Fridays and 3 p.m. Sundays, April 21-30 – Full production at the Opera Center of Hydrogen Jukebox, Philip Glass’ 1990 setting of Allen Ginsberg’s poetry.
In an interview with BAMirror, Ashbaker said TCO is “not really moving away from The Forum,” the company’s mainstage home since 1975, but “the stark reality” is that ticket prices don’t cover the costs of production, and TCO “loses a lot less money” utilizing a building that it owns, rather than rents. TCO values its relationship with The Forum but values its relationship with the community more, she said, emphasizing her obligation to the “sustainability” of an opera company in Broome County.
“We want to be around for 67 more years,” said Ashbaker, who stressed her dual goals of financial responsibility and artistic excellence.
Would she like to be doing more in the bigger theater? Sure. “Give me a bucket-load of cash, and I would do two shows at The Forum and three here (the Opera Center),” she said.
At the press conference, Ashbaker pointed out that ticket sales pay for only 21 percent of a production at The Forum, leaving an average gap of $114,000. Even at the Opera Center, the box office covers only 40 percent, or a gap of about $30,000 for each show. Thus, despite generosity of many foundations, businesses and individuals in the community, TCO is still trying to avoid “crippling debt.” This season’s shortfall is projected to be $265,000.
Financial considerations are behind the choice to eliminate scenery from the Traviata production even though the company owns sets for the four-act opera, Ashbaker explained during her conversation with BAMirror. TCO will save an estimated $60,000 in productions costs, some of which can instead will be directed to the creation and construction of three new sets – for the Opera Center productions — by TCO scenic designer/artist AmArA.
Performances this season have been Friday night and Sunday afternoon at The Forum, and a mixture of evening and matinee performances Thursday through Sunday of one weekend at the Opera Center. Next season, Traviata will have only a Sunday matinee, because Sunday traditionally has been the bigger day for season subscribers, explained TCO Community Engagement Manager John Rozzoni. The Opera Center productions now will be spread over two weekends, and additional daytime, weekday performances for schools may be scheduled of the family-friendly Hansel and Gretel.
Ashbaker said audiences this year have responded very favorably to the Opera Center productions, both for the newness of the repertoire (company premieres of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta and Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti) and the more intimate staging. (Iolanta was presented on the Opera Center’s existing stage; Tahiti and Menoti’s The Telephone positioned the orchestra on the stage and were presented on a built-out platform that was “in the horseshoe,” if not in the round.)
Ashbaker, who began at TCO in August 2014, referred to the board of directors’ years of trying to be “responsible stewards of the money given us” and expressed hope that the community would support the current effort, both in location and repertoire, to sustain TCO’s legacy.
She spoke enthusiastically about her choices for the lesser-known works. “I wanted a bubbly show for February,” she said of the Ravel’s 50-minute comedy. Anticipating concern about the melodic aspects of the Schoenberg cabaret songs, she pointed out that they are “tonal and beautiful and naughty in a 1901 way.”
An opera by minimalist Philip Glass is, Ashbaker acknowledged, a “new thing for this community.” Hydrogen Jukebox has a non-linear construction, featuring poems and reflections on themes from the 1950s to the 1980s — war, sex, drugs, the environment — that remain relevant today and create a “portrait of America.”
Ticket information about next year’s season, as well as the upcoming production of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: Demon Barber of Fleet Street, is available at www.tricitiesopera.com.
Production who’s who
The 2016-17 season will see the return of several guest conductors and stage directors. Vlad Iftinca (2015’s Barber of Seville), will be on the podium for Traviata and Hansel. The Verdi, sung in Italian with English supertitles, will star former Resident Artist Meroë Adeeb, guest artist Johnathan Reisen and longtime TCO favorite Timothy LeFebvre,and will be directed by David Lefkowich (2014’s Rigoletto). Hansel, directed by Dave Toulson (2015’s Speed Dating Tonight!) will feature a new English translation and a reduced orchestration.
Pianist William Hobbs (2015’s L’Italiana in Algeri) and James Kenon Mitchell (2015’s Iolanta) will be the production team for the double bill. The Ravel will be sung in French and the cabaret songs in German; both will have supertitles. Alan O. Johnson, who will conduct Hydrogen Jukebox’s five-piece chamber orchestra, has collaborated with Glass on several occasions including preparing the premiere cast of Jukebox for the 1990 premiere at Charleston, S.C.’s Spoleto Festival USA.
All three Opera Center productions will feature the 2016-2017 Resident Artists in leading roles: Geyer, Jordan Schreiner, Jake Stamatis, Mary Beth Nelson and Scott Purcell (last fall’s guest artist as Figaro in Barber of Seville).