The David Devan era at Opera Philadelphia is over. What now?

The David Devan era at Opera Philadelphia is over. What now?

The David Devan era at Opera Philadelphia is over. What now?

If there’s one Philadelphia arts group that has earned recognition for innovating its way to success, it’s Opera Philadelphia. For more than a decade, the company has projected the image of a company on the move, adopting corporate tools like sophisticated market research and the language of venture capital to support a four-centuries-old art form.

The approach has brought international awards to the company and great media coverage to the city.

So it’s hard to reconcile Opera Philadelphia’s bold image with its current struggles, which include a shrinking budget and the suspension (at least for the 2024-25 season) of an annual festival that became the company’s great hallmark.

If the Philadelphia Opera were the definition of success and he If stability can’t be achieved, who can?

And if visionary former CEO and president David B. Devan — whose tenure ended May 31 — was unable to woo funders and audiences to a new model for opera after more than 13 years at the helm, then what happened?

Yes, COVID-19 came, but the pandemic simply accelerated demographic trends that were already underway. Opera Philadelphia now faces the same mathematical predicament it would have faced in the past: it’s becoming harder to muster large audiences for traditional works in the operatic canon, while audiences who might be interested in new works aren’t showing up in large numbers or committing to subscriptions the way the base once did.

Of course, Devan couldn’t change any of those demographic factors. And here’s another: Opera doesn’t have the stars it once had. Who’s today’s Pavarotti? Or our Jessye Norman? Those names used to be all you needed to sell tickets. Opera singers used to appear on TV talk shows, commercials, and other pop culture mediums. Today, they exist (can we still call them stars?) in a discrete subculture.

And yet, in many ways, the joyful and energetic Devan has connected opera to the broader culture of the time more firmly than his recent predecessors. Drag queens appear regularly at shows and social events. Black professionals have taken on important roles in the company, both on stage and in the front office. Opera Philadelphia has brought opera to nontraditional venues like TLA on South Street and city parks.

And by embracing new works, Devan has infused the company with a certain air of freshness. But has it become too cold for Philadelphia?

Devan attempted to increase audiences by moving the repertoire from opera to operatic. The company presented fewer traditional works for the main stage and more vocal and theatrical pieces, such as The RavenToshio Hosokawa’s work at the Miller Theatre as part of the O22 festival. A daring, but not traditional, opera.

The Raven Tickets for four nights were sold out, but capacity for the production was minimal: it did not fill the Miller Theatre, but only 220 seats on the stage.

What’s important to understand is that all arts groups develop relationships with specific audiences over time. Chamber Music Society of Philadelphia listeners have attended enough exciting and insightful concerts that, even when they see a piece or artist on a future program they don’t know, they are confident that they will likely be glad they were there. And in the recent past, Opera Philadelphia has projected its more progressive side, perhaps overcoming its reputation for making good, traditional opera.

It must also be said that the Philadelphia Opera has not always produced traditional opera of the highest standard. I found the sets for the company’s latest works Madame Butterfly So rare that it’s depressing. Opera doesn’t always have to be a spectacle, but when it is, it’s an almost spiritual experience. Last season La Boheme It had no spectacle, and it didn’t have uniformly great voices either.

It is important to note that the titles are among the most popular in the repertoire and both operas sold extraordinarily well.

What happens when the Philadelphia Opera is running at full capacity? Last season Simon Boccanegra It couldn’t have been more wonderful: the cast, the visual effects, the orchestra and the conductor Corrado Rovaris. And yet, the Academy of Music was only half full.

It’s not one of Verdi’s great titles, and no doubt that was part of the reason. But it’s also possible that a certain portion of the opera-loving public doesn’t perceive Opera Philadelphia as a top-tier company. Leaders should think of this as an opportunity: to invest energy and resources in high-quality productions of standard repertoire. Philadelphians lean toward the traditional. Will the new leader, Anthony Roth Costanzo, understand that?

The Devan era had its flaws. The choice of composers for new works was sometimes less ambitious than it might have been. And the company has never presented a major theatrical production aimed at children: a major, sumptuous, individualistic production with good music that would awaken new generations to the art form. In ballet, that initiation piece is The NutcrackerThe Philadelphia Opera has not produced any fabulous novelties. Hansel and Gretelno fantastic and abbreviated production of The magic FluteThat was a missed opportunity.

But these points should not overshadow Devan’s central achievement: he took an undernourished traditional opera company, kick-started a period of artistic experimentation and financial growth, learned some important lessons, weathered the pandemic and handed it all over to his successor in one piece.

And he did this while some deep-pocketed Philadelphians were writing big checks to the Metropolitan Opera.

The prevailing axiom in the arts today is that groups simply need to find a sustainable business model. But Opera Philadelphia has shown us that there is no such destination. The habits of the public and society at large are changing so rapidly that all groups can do is keep evolving.

That’s the business model in the arts: invest, experiment, learn, invest again. That’s exactly what David Devan did day in and day out for over 13 years. He kept it going. And that’s a lot.