Portland Opera transforms into a summer festival

The venerable Portland institution will turn itself into a festival in 2016, and some questions arise.

After many months of hints, negotiations, and planning, Portland Opera’s announced what might be the boldest gamble in its half-century history: It’s transforming itself into a summer festival company. (Our friend David Stabler has the story on OregonLive.) The current season, which delays its opening until November 7 with the return of the popular operetta Die Fledermaus, begins the seasonal scrunch: Carmen runs in February, and the rest of the productions – Show Boat, The Rake’s Progress, The Elixir of Love – are clustered between May and July.

The 2016 season amps up the seasonal action, dropping back down to four productions and squeezing them into the summer months: two shows in the 3,000-seat Keller Auditorium, two in the much more intimate, 900-seat Newmark Theatre. The Newmark has already proven to be a popular venue for the company, and is valuable in several ways. It costs less than the Keller, so the company can be more adventurous in its programming. It doesn’t demand giant voices, so casting becomes easier. It provides excellent opportunities for the company’s flourishing resident artist program of younger singers. And audiences just like the intimacy of the Newmark, especially compared to the Keller, which general director Christopher Mattaliano described to Stabler as “an airport hangar.”

Pop the Champagne: Die Fledermaus is opening soon, and Portland Opera's celebrating more than that.

Pop the Champagne: Die Fledermaus is opening soon, and Portland Opera’s celebrating more than that.

Like symphonic orchestras, opera companies are struggling to keep afloat in a shifting contemporary cultural scene. Once the opera and symphony were almost the only games in town. Now they’re swimming along with hundreds of other opportunities, and battling the perception that they’re simply out of date. Portland Opera has been in the black for several years, but staying there hasn’t been easy. Mattaliano says the move to a festival season will save about eight percent in operating costs – a significant chunk – and stave off what he described to Stabler as “death by a thousand paper cuts.” But it’s not only about money, although that’s a huge consideration. The shakeup could reinvigorate the company artistically, too.

There are dangers, and inevitable questions. How will audiences adapt? How will the opera keep itself in the public mind during its long off-seasons? Is it marginalizing itself, or focusing itself? We’ll be watching. It’s certainly not the same old same old, and that’s good. Places like Santa Fe and Glimmerglass thrive on a festival system. Can Portland do the same? Will the company evolve into something like the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Britt Festivals in southern Oregon, or carve out an identity that’s strictly its own? Will it have the concentration of energy and the variety of attractions that the word “festival” implies? Will it feel like a festival at all without its own grounds? Or will “festival” simply mean business as usual, but only in the summer months? The game’s changing. Can anyone imagine, 20 years from now, a summer season in a beautiful shell in Yamhill County wine country, shared by the opera and the Oregon Symphony, in a more relaxed summer season similar to Boston’s and Chicago’s, and drawing audiences not just from Portland but from the entire West Coast? Well, now we’re just getting ahead of ourselves.

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