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Despite Obstacles, OperaDelaware Builds Momentum

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Opera is known for its high drama onstage, but it has faced its share of drama offstage, too. One after another, more than 20 opera companies across the country have closed their doors, leaving disheartened fans in their wake. 

OperaDelaware, the 11th-oldest company in the country, 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 general director. “But we had to take a sharp left turn.”

In early 2013, the company was preparing to stage “Il Trovatore” at The Grand Opera House in Wilmington, but with a financial crisis looming, OperaDelaware took the painful step of canceling the last opera of the season, in its place holding several concerts of 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.” 

Since then, OperaDelaware, nearly hidden behind the Wilmington train station, has been building momentum, attracting visitors from across the country as it plans for its spring festival May 14-22.

The festival will feature two mainstage operas at The Grand, including the East Coast premiere of Franco Faccio’s “Amleto” (Hamlet) and Giuseppe Verdi’s “Falstaff.” Both shows are Shakespearean source material adapted by librettist Arrigo Boito. “The fact that composer-conductor Anthony Barrese is willing to let the East Coast premiere be here is something we are super proud of,” says Cooke. “It demonstrates a lot of what we are trying to accomplish here.”

What OperaDelaware is trying to accomplish through the festival is twofold: put the company front and center for opera geeks and for opera newbies, and shine a light on the city of Wilmington as a hub for culture and tourism.

“The train is a very important piece for us,” Cooke says. “Over half of the U.S. population is within a five-hour drive from us.” 

Since the Baltimore Opera Company filed for bankruptcy in 2008, OperaDelaware has relied on its audience, as well as Philadelphia’s. “For 70 years, this company has been trying not to lose our audience to Philadelphia,” says Jason Hardy, managing director. “We can also bring Philadelphia audiences here. We are essentially a suburb of Philadelphia.” 

Cooke and Hardy hope the area’s broader cultural assets will also benefit from the festival.

“The arts scene in Wilmington is really kind of incredible,” says Cooke, noting that visitors can enjoy performances by the Delaware Symphony Orchestra and the First State Ballet Theatre. “Folks will love to go to Winterthur and Longwood Gardens, but they don’t know those places are here,” he says.

OperaDelaware was founded when Chick Laird put together a chorus of amateur singers in 1945. Laird, 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 high quality of its amateur productions. 

By the 1980s the society had transitioned to professional singers and a paid staff and the name was changed to OperaDelaware. In 1985 it bought a large brick building near the Wilmington train station that once housed a shipbuilding operation, and it created an airy rehearsal studio with large windows overlooking the Christina River. The so-called Black Box is now being used for performances.

Financial support from local corporations and banks covered the difference between ticket sales and expenses, though that support was eroded by the economic downturn. 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 of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Cooke became director of OperaDelaware in 2012. Having founded the Baltimore Concert Opera after the collapse of the Baltimore Opera Company, he brings an entrepreneurial approach to Delaware. In 2013 fellow Peabody graduate Jason Hardy, who enjoyed an 18-year career as a leading operatic bass, joined as development director. 

Together their goal is to make Wilmington a destination for opera. With their strong connections in the opera world, Cooke and Hardy have access to top talent. They are also able to stage high-quality productions at The Grand  for far less than it would cost in some surrounding cities. 

“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. “The Grand is home and always will be.”

For now the focus is on making opera a vibrant part of the cultural landscape. 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,” says Cooke, a former opera singer. “It’s frankly not true. I love changing somebody’s mind, especially when it comes to opera.”

“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.

The festival runs over two weekends. OperaDelaware has already seen banner ticket sales from fans across the country. Sixty tickets were sold on Valentine’s Day, the largest number since September, when subscriptions were made available.

Cooke says the festival’s programming is really about OperaDelaware’s permission to dream a little bit. “I knew it was this piece [Amleto] that would put us on the map,” he says.

See Franco Faccio’s “Amleto” (Hamlet) at The Grand Opera House on May 14, 20 and 22; Giuseppe Verdi’s “Falstaff” at The Grand Opera House on May 15 and 21; Shakespeare in Song at OperaDelaware on May 19. Tickets: www.operade.org or 442-7807.

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