Opera is known for its high drama onstage but in recent years there’s been lots of drama offstage as well. One after another, more than 20 opera companies across the country have closed their doors, leaving disheartened fans in their wake.
OperaDelaware skirted a similar fate in 2013. “We have stayed alive when a lot of communities have lost their opera companies,” says Brendan Cooke, OperaDelaware’s youthful General Director. “But we had to take a sharp left turn.”
In early 2013, the company was preparing to stage Il Trovatore at Wilmington’s Grand Opera House when a financial crisis loomed. They took the painful step of canceling the last opera of that season and in its place held several concerts featuring highlights from the Verdi classic.
“We probably would have survived it but just barely,” Cooke says. “Staging an opera with orchestra, costumes and sets at the Grand Opera House costs $180,000 to $220,000. It’s a pretty expensive endeavor.”
What makes opera so expensive is also what makes it so unforgettable: singers, a chorus, costumes, stage sets, an orchestra, plus an appropriate venue all combine to create the classic operatic experience. But for the time being OperaDelaware, the country’s 11th-oldest company, is not performing at the Grand. This season is about making opera viable for the future.The company is taking opera off the main stage and out into the community. In May the company will put on a weeklong Spring Festival designed to attract a regional audience. The centerpiece is an abridged version of Bizet’s Carmen written for Broadway that will be performed at The Tatnall School’s 500-seat auditorium. Sung in French, the adaptation features all the celebrated arias and is fully staged and costumed. “It’s ninety minutes of action-packed love, death and murder,” Cooke says.
Also featured is an operatic celebration of “Wine, Women and Food in Song.” The highlight will be a 20-minute tribute to Julia Child where the diva whips up Julia’s chocolate cake recipe as she creates the persona of the French chef in song. The audience will be seated at café tables at the OperaDelaware studio.
The goal of this season is to expose new potential patrons to opera and overcome stereotypes. Cooke is well aware of how opera is perceived. “It’s too expensive, it’s too long, I won’t understand it, it’s fat ladies in horns. It’s frankly not true,” says Cooke, a former opera singer himself. “I love changing somebody’s mind, especially when it comes to opera.”
Most opera lovers remember the moment their minds were changed about opera. OperaDelaware board president Tony Winchester grew up hearing opera at home. “But I really didn’t get opera until the first time I saw it. On my 21st birthday my parents gave me tickets to the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. I saw Gounod’s Faust and I was hooked,” he says.
OperaDelaware’s founder, Chick Laird, wanted to offer this live opera experience to Wilmington residents when he put together a chorus of amateur singers in 1945. Laird, who was a member of the du Pont family, drummed up support for what would be called the Wilmington Opera Society. The group became known for the quality of its amateur productions.
By the 1980s they had transitioned to professional singers and a paid staff. The company’s name was changed to OperaDelaware. In 1985 they bought a large brick building near the Wilmington train station that once housed a shipbuilding operation. They created an airy rehearsal studio with large windows overlooking the Christina River—a space now being used for performances.
Financial support from local corporations and banks made up the difference between ticket sales and expenses. That support was eroded by the economic downturn and like all opera companies, OperaDelaware is adapting to this new reality. “In the last 10 years we’ve seen an 87- percent collapse in corporate support,” Cooke says.
A graduate of The Peabody Conservatory, Cooke was appointed Director in 2012. He brings an entrepreneurial approach, having founded Baltimore Concert Opera following the collapse of the Baltimore Opera Company. In 2013 fellow Peabody graduate Jason Hardy, who enjoyed an 18-year career as a leading operatic bass, came on as development director.
Together their goal is to put Wilmington on the map as an opera destination. With their strong connections to the opera world, Cooke and Hardy have access to top talent. They are also able to put on a high-quality production in Wilmington at a much lower cost than in some surrounding cities. And though not performing there at the moment, OperaDelaware has a unique asset in “the Grand.”
“It is a truly singular experience on the East Coast. I don’t know of another theater like it. The sound is just remarkable,” says Cooke of Wilmington’s opulent 1871 opera house. “The Grand is home and always will be.”
For now the focus is on making opera a vibrant part of the cultural landscape. “The reality is this art form has been around for 420 years and I’m not OK with it dying on our watch,” Cooke says with conviction.
For program and ticket information, visit www.operaDE.org or phone 302.442.7807.