On Wednesday night the Boston Lyric Opera (BLO) opens "In the Penal Colony" by famed composer Philip Glass. But audiences won't experience the dark, Kafka-infused tale in a theater. Instead it’s being staged at the Cyclorama in Boston's South End as part of the BLO's on-going series of smaller-scale works set in unconventional venues.
It’s also the company’s first production since announcing it would stop performing its larger operas at the Shubert Theatre, where it’s been for 18 years. It made us wonder what this new show says about the future of New England’s largest opera company.
A Dark, Mechanical Scene That's Not Your Usual Opera House
The BLO’s "In the Penal Colony" unfolds on a large, black stage inside the cavernous, industrial-looking Cyclorama. Director R.B. Schlather says the brick-and-steel building — with its exposed heating ducts and huge Buckminster Fuller ceiling sculpture — represents the giant punishment machine at the center of this dystopic work. He says doing "In the Penal Colony" here, in this space, does not deliver your usual opera house experience.
“There isn’t a proscenium, there aren’t a bunch of big costumes and big lighting or big sets,” Schlather explained, referencing the lack of a stage arch that typically protrudes in front of a curtain.
Composer Philip Glass refers to "In the Penal Colony" as a “pocket opera,” with one act, five musicians and three vocalists. It’s designed to be relatively nimble so it can be staged in storefronts, vacant buildings — even on staircases. And Schlather gels with the idea. The 29-year-old director has been creating his own stripped-down installations of Handel operas in New York City art galleries.
“What I’m interested in doing is making site specific theater, by which I mean theater that really responds to what it means to be doing the piece in the space that you’re doing it in,” Schlather said during a break in rehearsal. “And hopefully, you come up with something that you couldn’t see anywhere else.”
A Theater That Moves Amid Distress Over Where To Stay Put
This concept isn’t new to the BLO. For the past five seasons the company has experimented with smaller, roving productions as more accessible alternatives to its bigger operas at the Shubert Theatre.
The BLO has transformed places in the city like the Castle At Park Plaza and John F. Kennedy Presidential Library into venues for its “Opera Annex” series. These locales have largely been seen as successes, giving the BLO fodder and confidence to experiment with bigger changes.
But the nomadic model isn’t a long-term solution for the BLO’s current dilemma. After this season wraps in the spring, the company will — by choice — no longer have a permanent place to call home.
“Boston needs a theater for opera,” according to David McFerrin, a baritone who’s singing in "In the Penal Colony." “It hasn’t really had one that’s worthy of the artistic product," he confessed, adding that he hopes saying so won't get him in trouble.
For McFerrin, the Shubert has never been a good fit for opera. He's critical of the theater's acoustics and the audience experience.
“It’s worse than a subway car trying to move around in the hallways during intermissions,” McFerrin, a supporter of the arts in Boston, said, recalling some of his experiences as a Shubert audience member.
“And there’s only one male and female restroom in the whole complex,” he added.
Esther Nelson, the BLO's general and artistic director, told me that a re-assessment of financial priorities and production needs ultimately played into her decision not renew the company’s lease with the Shubert. But she agrees that, eventually, the theater will need a permanent place.
“You do need a home — and an infrastructure — and an environment in which you can blossom,” she said.
Nelson elaborated, saying, “you do need a larger facility ultimately that can accommodate an orchestra up to 120, that accommodates up to 20 soloists, maybe a chorus of 60 to 80, and there is no such facility here in Boston."
For Some, Boston's Arts Scene Is At Critical Point Of Change
Josiah Spaulding, president and CEO of the Citi Performing Arts Center disagrees about the acoustics and facility. The Wang and Shubert Theatres operate under the Citi Center umbrella. Like Nelson, Spaulding described the break with the BLO as amicable, and said he understands the financial pressures that are bearing down on the opera world.
“Opera is one of the most expensive musical genres — in fact in the last recent months other opera companies in North America have actually closed — including San Diego, New York and Ontario,” he said.
But it’s not just opera that’s reeling here. In Boston, there's a disruptive shift happening throughout the performing arts ecosystem. Citibank announced its pulling sponsorship from the Citi Performing Arts Center (Spaulding said that represents about 4 percent of his operating budget), Boston University recently split with the Huntington Theatre Company, and Emerson College is talking about repurposing the Colonial Theatre.
It’s an understatement to say people are concerned.
Julie Burros, the chief of arts and culture for the City of Boston said she's commissioned a study assessing the state of the performing arts infrastructure and the needs in the community. At a recent public, cultural planning meeting Mayor Marty Walsh said he's open to exploring creative solutions, including a new hybrid space that could include opera.
“I’m hearing scuttlebutt that there are other organizations looking to build a performing arts center in the city of Boston that would incorporate ballet and incorporate an opera house,” Walsh said, adding, “and my question is how do we do that? An opera house is very creative acoustics, and how do you mix the two? But people are saying they can do it.”
Pat Hollenbeck, president of the Boston Musicians' Association and longtime Boston Pops percussionist, has been lobbying for a new venue for years.
“Here’s the big news,” he said, “Boston is not a world-class city unless they have world-class arts facilities for performing arts.”
At the same time, Hollenbeck laments the loss of Boston’s historic theaters and wants them to be preserved.
“The Opera House that was on Huntington Avenue, it was an amazing building,” he said, speaking of the building that was demolished in the 1950s. “We need to learn our lesson from that. We can’t lose these things that have some spiritual connection to the arts. I mean, Gerswhin was walking across Boston Common with tunes in his head that he was putting into the Colonial Theatre — and the first time anybody in the world heard those things were Boston audiences. That’s meaningful.”
MIT professor, opera composer and BLO patron Tod Machover says newer purposes to built opera houses in Dallas and Oslo, Norway are inspiring, even if they might not be financially realistic for Boston.
“I think if you had a facility that was exciting on its own, had a strong personality, had the BLO and maybe some other people sharing it as a permanent home — it would be a win for everybody,” he said.
Whether its renovating an existing space or building a new one, Machover believes the BLO has to move forward.
“I think part of growing in vision in size, in boldness, and in moving to the future really requires taking some risks,” he mused, adding, “and I think this is the right one. So for me as a patron I think this is one of the things they have to do.”
“Well, if you can’t go forward you might as well go backward,” Philip Glass told me on a recent visit to Boston.
He wrote the music for "In the Penal Colony," along with 24 other operas. He says organizations like the BLO have to evolve the genre, even if it means stepping into a period of uncertainty.
“We want our children, our children’s children to discover it for themselves. We don’t want people to do what we did,” he said. “And I think it sounds like the Boston opera company are welcoming a new period for themselves, which is probably going to be very interesting and exciting.”
The company has two more big operas at the Shubert Theatre this spring. It plans to have a new temporary home in time for its 40th anniversary season next fall. Bostonians will just need to stay tuned to see what happens after that, though.
The Boston Lyric Opera's "Opera Annex" production of Philip Glass' "In the Penal Colony" opens Wednesday, Nov. 11 and runs through Sunday, Nov. 15 at the Cyclorama in the South End.