You've seen the banners along Broad Street and the 15-second opera commercials on network TV. But that's only the iceberg tip of the monster opera festival, elegantly named O17, that will bring five cutting-edge productions to five Philadelphia venues next month, along with some ancillary events.
Singers are literally fastening their seat belts for the ultra-high-tech velocity of The Magic Flute, for one. They have to.
Mozart's fantastical 18th-century fairy-tale opera so intricately melds live singers and 21st-century computer imagery that animated birds and bees alight perfectly on the cast. Somebody starts weeping, and huge comic book tears spew everywhere — thanks to 647 video cues swirling around singers who are strapped into the scenery to make sure they're in exactly the right spot. Sometimes they will seem to hang in midair on the Academy of Music stage.
"The whole artistic ethos of this festival … is the future of opera," said Opera Philadelphia general director David Devan. "Opera will continue to be viable … but the package will change." The Magic Flute, especially.
"It's so choreographed I feel like I'm putting on a ballet rather than an opera." said baritone Jarrott Ott, who plays Papageno. "I was warned that I needed to come more prepared than I've ever been for anything."
And this production, from Berlin's Komische Opera, is the easy one: It's Mozart, after all. The four others that open on successive days starting Sept. 14 — at venues all over Center City — have more daunting wild cards.
A catwalk is being built in the Barnes Foundation atrium for another fairy tale opera, The Wake World — a world premiere that's also out to create a dream world. War Stories — which pairs a 17th-century Monteverdi drama and a newish work by Lembit Beecher — has been done before but not on the stage apparatus that's being built on the Philadelphia Museum of Art grand stairway.
The Dickens-era murder-mystery opera Elizabeth Cree, a world premiere by Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell (whose Silent Night won a Pulitzer Prize), is devouring costumes with its 29 fast-moving scenes in 90 minutes that will unfold in the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater.
Most confrontational is likely to be the opera We Shall Not Be Moved, which looks back at the MOVE bombing of 1985. But in terms of production, it's the easiest: The set moved into the off-season Wilma Theater last week, giving esteemed director/choreographer Bill T. Jones the luxury of rehearsing on it from day one.
The idea of O17, partly, is to bring a NetFlix binge mentality to opera, making Philadelphia an operatic destination — an idea as old as the great European festivals of Salzburg and Aix-en-Provence. But none of those predecessors had O17's high proportion of new work.
Ticket buyers are responding. We Shall Not Be Moved, War Stories, and The Wake World are sold out or nearly so (but you can sign up at www.operaphila.org/alert for notifications when returned tickets become available). The Magic Flute and Elizabeth Cree, two of the more mainstream attractions but in theaters with the highest seating capacity, still have good availability.
More than 10,000 tickets out of a potential 30,000 were sold as of Aug. 22. Hopes are particularly high for sales to out-of-towners. Visit Philadelphia ad campaigns have dominated train stations in New York and Washington. Partnerships with Philadelphia hotels are offered, and, at the moment, 30 percent of those who bought festival packages (two or more operas) live more than 70 miles outside Philadelphia.
On the production side, new operas mean new ideas are hatching constantly around town right now. "We just discovered the dancers will be on stilts [in We Shall Not Be Moved]," said one worker in the costume shop, where 300-plus costumes are being created. "I can't really picture it."
But they're trying. Barnes Foundation president Thom Collins speaks for many of the O17 partners when he says, "It's a big commitment, but by no means an impossible one."
Two of the most appealing ancillary events prompt the least worry. Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky sings a conventional solo recital at the Perelman Theater Sept. 17, and there's a free opera-on-the-mall videocast of The Marriage of Figaro Sept. 23. That one is already in the can, having been captured last spring at the Academy of Music.
Least worrying of all are the Philadelphia Orchestra's live-music presentations of the film Amadeus Sept. 21-23 and Renée Fleming's Oct. 15 recital at the Kimmel Center. They may seem like part of the festival buzz, but they're actually presented by other institutions.
Among the highly mobilized backstage personnel, nobody seems manically stressed. They go from task to task without considering the overall enormity of it all. From Devan to costume director Millie Hiibel, they reply to questions about extra personnel — or extra anything that's needed for the festival — with a faraway look. Then they utter the same words: "A lot."
Surprisingly, the festival's $8 million budget is fairly trim, considering that most new opera productions cost $1.5 million to $2 million, and that the typical Broadway musical is at least $10 million. Roughly 50 employees came aboard the Opera Philadelphia staff for O17. That plus singers, choristers, and instrumentalists brings the festival's operatic army up to 400.
Amid all the opera traffic, you might wonder what might get the short shrift, not just from audiences but on the production front. The Cree collaborators worried about that, too. "But Opera Philadelphia is not allowing that to happen," said librettist Campbell.
"The team we have is so committed to it," added composer Puts.
The festival setting in particular may work to their opera's advantage: On its own, the concise chamber opera that is Elizabeth Cree — with its rapid-fire courtroom scenes that Puts loved writing — could suffer from comparison to Silent Night, the heroic World War I grand opera by the same authors that won a Pulitzer and that had a successful Opera Philadelphia run in 2013. But in the large, diverse menu of O17, "we hope the opera challenges the audience to be with the story the way a great film does," said Puts.
We Shall Not Be Moved hits so close to home that Osage Avenue rowhouses will be seen on the Wilma stage. And that opera stands to benefit from the kind of intellectual atmosphere fostered by O17. Obviously, the festival isn't meant as an escape into an operatic never-never land. "I don't know how you can't engage in a conversation about race in the U.S. If there's pain around that subject, I need to face it," said Devan, "and others seem to feel the same way because it's sold out." Of all the O17 operas, this is the one to which he feels closest.
Opera people aren't used to working so fast. All of the costume designers missed their deadlines. Composer David Hertzberg, a recent Curtis Institute graduate and Opera Philadelphia composer-in-residence, barely slept in early 2017 while composing The Wake World in less than a year (three years is standard). But he was hot to collaborate with cutting-edge director R.B. Schlather on this eccentric tale by Aleister Crowley about a girl taking a magical Oz-like journey.
Atmospheric effects that might normally be portrayed with scenery will be conjured by highly unorthodox choral sounds. Obviously, the super-tight deadline didn't inhibit Hertzberg: "You only live once, and I want this music to be wild, ecstatic, and do something transcendent."
The point is not to just get it done. Devan is bringing together artists from all five O17 productions for a feel-good pre-opening night party. "My ultimate goal is for our artists and technicians to tell their colleagues in the industry … that this is where they can come and do their best work," said Devan. "That's the path to sustainability."