Opera Innovator: An Interview with David Devan ahead of the O17 Festival

devantageWhat can opera companies do to remain relevant? That question has been around almost as long as the art form itself, but it’s taken on a new sense of urgency in the 21st century. Costs are up, attendance is down, and the old-guard audience continues to die off, with no ready replacement waiting.

David Devan may hold the answer. At a time when other companies have doubled down on the safe and familiar repertory war horses that tend to put butts in seats, Devan—Opera Philadelphia’s general director since 2011—has radically rebranded his company as a haven for new and challenging work. These efforts have brought about a higher profile in the classical music world, along with a handful of important prizes, including a Pulitzer (for Kevin Putts’ Silent Night, a co-production with Minnesota Opera) and the inaugural Music Critics Association of North America Best New Opera award (for Missy Mazzoli’s Breaking the Waves).

Next month, Opera Philadelphia will embark on arguably the most ambitious project in its 42-year history: the inaugural O17 Festival. Over the course of 12 days, the company will present five operas—including three world premieres—at venues across the city. The festival will also include a recital and master class from world-renowned soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, and a free transmission of last season’s production of The Marriage of Figaro at Independence Park.

I recently spoke with Devan about the genesis of festival, as well as Opera Philadelphia’s future programming goals. Some responses have been edited and condensed.

[O17 Festival; various locations] September 14-25, 2017; operaphila.org

Cameron Kelsall: How did the idea for the O17 festival come into being?

David Devan: It started three years ago, when we started doing some detailed and new market research. We invested heavily in our artistic quality and we were hearing good things from our audience, but we weren’t getting the results at the box office that we were expecting. What we unearthed was that there has been a radical change in how people consume media and buy artistic products. The data were very clear that creating a lot of opportunities to see different works in a short period of time had the potential to be the new subscription for a younger, 21st-century audience. That led us to the idea of a festival, and we were already doing so much progressive artistic work that it was easy to package and amplify what we were already doing into a festival model.

CK: And how does this festival differ from some of the older, more established festival models within opera—like the Salzburg Festival or Bayreuth?

DD: What’s different about our take is that we’ve intentionally made it fairly urban, almost hyper-urban, and everything is in different venues around the city. If you go to most festivals, it’s a lot of the same: Tuesday night you go to Carmen, Wednesday night you go to the world premiere, Thursday night you go to Don Giovanni, etc. With us, it’s all compressed, and every experience is different. We’ve come to understand that the space where you actually produce the work has a deeply meaningful impact on the experience of the audience member, so having different spaces that relate in unique ways to the works creates a broader range of contrasting experiences. We’ve learned that this is something that appeals to new audience members and longtime opera fans.

CK: What kind of planning goes into engaging this many venues?

DD: Our method for venue selection was really about the piece, with one exception. We start developing a piece with a creative team, and then we consider what venue will allow the piece to find its true voice. With We Shall Not Be Moved, for example, we determined that the piece needed to be in a very intimate space. We decided that we didn’t want an orchestra pit, because we wanted the musicians, dancers and singers all to be part of visibly delivering the message. That’s why we picked the Wilma, which is a 250-seat theater that usually houses plays.

david-devan-opera-philadelphiaThe only work that actually started with the space was The Wake World, which we’re presenting at the Barnes Foundation. And that was intentional: we really wanted the Barnes to be part of not just the inaugural festival, but hopefully the first several festivals. It’s a unique Philadelphia jewel, and they are really great partners. So we asked one of our composers-in-residence, David Hertzberg, if he wanted to consider writing something, and as a young composer, he really wanted to explore writing his own libretto—that’s something that isn’t so common these days. But we wanted to give him the chance, and the idea of something scaled intimately at the Barnes seemed like a good fit. In the case of The Wake World and We Shall Not Be Moved, we looked at the artists’ intentions and tried to honor that in choosing the space.

This is something that is going to be an ongoing process. The venues for the 2018 festival haven’t all been sorted out yet, because the pieces are still being written.

CK: Opera Philadelphia has come to be known as an incubator for the new works. What kind of planning went into the festival’s artistic programming?

DD: There really isn’t a thematic through-line. I would say that it feels highly curated, but the driver behind that curation is trying to engage who we think the most exciting and important artists are today, and giving them the agency to create. They are all unique artists, and they’re all bringing a diverse array of ideas to their works. I think the one thing that ties everything together is that they speak to our experience, because they’re written today. And they really speak from the artists’ points of view, and I hope that speaks to the audience. But the festival doesn’t have a narrative: Elizabeth Cree is set in Victorian London, and We Shall Not Be Moved is about now.

CK: We Shall Not Be Moved indirectly engages the MOVE bombing. Has there been any controversy surrounding the opera or Opera Philadelphia’s decision to produce it?

DD: We Shall Not Be Moved is not a documentary, or even a commentary, on the MOVE bombing. It’s an exploration of the world through the realities of four young men who identify as Black and live in an inner-city, and how their view of the world has evolved because of voices they hear from the past. And those voices they hear are from MOVE. I will be honest: when we first started developing this project, I think there was some hesitation about the piece within various parts of the community. But this is not just Philadelphia’s story. There are active racial tensions in this country, and I think that by being specific about one of those events, you bring a richer conversation than presenting something from a generic point of view. We’ve really tried to honor that, and we’ve given voice to the artists.

At the end of the day, there are going to be some people who don’t want to come see it. That’s true of any work that deals with a potentially controversial topic. But there are also going to be some people who come see it and experience something they didn’t expect. My hope for this piece is that it has the power to bring people together. That’s something I really believe. I think a piece like this has the capacity to bring people together who come from different walks of life for one moment in time, to share a meaningful experience. And if We Shall Not Be Moved can do that, it’s a home run.

CK: How does a festival like this appeal to a first-time or nascent operagoer?

DD: We continue to develop a new opera audience for the 21st century, and what we’ve learned is that taste is not homogenous. There will be many people who come to Magic Flute because it’s Mozart, and there are people who will come to We Shall Not Be Moved because of Bill T. Jones. There will be art lovers who will seek out the works at the Barnes or Philadelphia Museum of Art. It’s a multi-channel universe, and our festival has multiple channels.

What I hope happens is that those people, when they come to that one new thing, will also try one other new thing. And out of that, they will self-curate their own idea of what opera is for them. The way they’ll do that is through informed experience. That’s what we hope the compression of the festival can provide: that the possibility of being able to see three new operas in short succession would motivate people to do so. People don’t become film buffs by going to see one film, and it’s the same drill with the classic arts.

CK: How did Sondra Radvanovsky become involved as the inaugural Festival Artist?

DD: We are working on a future staged project with Sondra, and she has a very close relationship with our music director, Corrado Rovaris. We wanted to do something to denote the specialness of this inaugural festival, so we approached her about becoming a Festival Artist. And happily she said yes. And I can say with confidence that audiences will see her at a future festival, in a staged role.

CK: How is Opera Philadelphia partnering with the Philadelphia community at large? Will there be sponsorships and festival tie-ins?

DD: We’re fortunate to have so many producing partners, including the Barnes and PMA. The Wilma and FringeArts are co-producing We Shall Not Be Moved. We also have deep relationships with Art Sanctuary and other cultural organizations that we are participating in for outreach. We’re also trying to infiltrate various places in the city with opera-related activities, and we hope that plays a role in animating the larger community. And we’re also doing Opera on the Mall again, where we’re broadcasting our production of The Marriage of Figaro for free. That’s an event that grows every year. We really see ourselves as partnering with the city at large and showing that Philadelphia is a place where culture happens.

CK: It sounds like there are already plans underway for future festivals. Is there anything you can share about that?

DD: Our intention is for this to be an annual festival, and we have artist commitments for O18, O19 and O20. If we’re successful, this will definitely become a regular part of how Opera Philadelphia functions: a fall festival, followed by a more traditional Winter/Spring season with two operas at the Academy. It’s a great time to be a classical music lover in Philadelphia, and the festival is getting a lot of attention both inside and outside the city. Our tracking has shown that we’re reaching locals and out-of-town attendees. That’s part of our goal. We are trying to make Philadelphia a destination where audiences can touch the future of opera.

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About the author

Cameron Kelsall

Cameron Kelsall has been writing about theater, classical music and the arts for more than ten years. He currently contributes to several Philadelphia-based publications, including Phindie, Broad Street Review and Talkin' Broadway, and reviews Broadway and Off-Broadway productions for Exeunt Magazine. Cameron also serves as a judge for the Barrymore Awards. You can follow him on Twitter @CameronPKelsall.