Thinking Big by Thinking Small: Chamber Opera at the Opera Company of Philadelphia and Boston Lyric Opera

Boston Lyric Opera
Boston Lyric Opera performs Peter Maxwell Davies’ The Lighthouse at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum in 2012 as part of its Opera Annex Series. Photo by Erik Jacobs for the BLO.

“Bigger is better” is generally the rule in opera. But what’s an opera company to do in the wake of a recession, facing the long-term trends of declining audiences and donations amidst a technological revolution that puts opera in cinemas and on phones? Some organizations today are discovering that thinking big means thinking small. From Nashville to New York, opera companies have begun integrating chamber productions into their regular seasons as a means of diversifying programming and making a grab for new audiences and donors with something different and often more affordable for both ticket buyers and producers.

As these two prominent examples show, when chamber productions become more than just an “add on” to a season, exciting things can happen, and the implications for adaptive capacity and sustainability in the long run are significant.

The Opera Company of Philadelphia, founded in 1975, saw its offerings peak in 2003 with five full productions in the 2,800-seat Academy of Music. That number fell until three productions became the only realistic possibility at the Academy. Starting in 2008, however, the company began to fortify its season with chamber productions. The Aurora Series for Chamber Opera features an additional two productions each year at the 550-seat Perelman Theater, including one produced in partnership with the Curtis Institute of Music.

A scene from the Opera Company of Philadelphia’s Aurora Series at the Perelman U.S. Premiere of Hans Werner Henze’s Phaedra in 2011, starring William Burden as Hippolyt. Photo by Kelly & Massa Photography.

According to General Director David Devan, the Aurora Chamber Opera Series was contemplated pre-recession, initially for pure artistic reasons to address the changes in audience expectations. Devan says, “Intimate, visceral productions appeal to a younger audience and allow us to explore a new canon of repertoire, and to experiment in a far more aggressive way in terms of new aesthetics because of the smaller space.” Since the launch of the series, Devan has observed two “consumer classes” in Philadelphia for chamber works: “existing opera patrons thirsty for new experiences,” and the “new-to-opera client who is less tied to a genre and just wanting to experience creativity.”

The story in Boston is remarkably similar. The Boston Lyric Opera, founded in 1976, peaked in 2002-2003 with five full productions at the 1500-seat Schubert Theater. By the 2008-2009 season, the company was down to three. The next season, the BLO launched its Opera Annex series, which produces chamber opera in unique spaces around Boston.

General Director Esther Nelson says there were three reasons for starting the Opera Annex series. First, after the economic downturn, the company needed to expand, but on a modest scale. Second, she saw this as a chance to put opera back into the context of the mainstream performing arts by bringing it out of the “temple” of the theater. And third, Nelson simply felt that as the largest opera company in New England, three productions per season was not enough.

In both Philadelphia and Boston, the chamber productions are selling out and attracting significant local and national buzz, satisfying subscribers’ needs for a richer season, tapping younger, art-curious audiences, and winning over critics with new and adventurous works. But is producing on a smaller scale viable? What does it mean for organizations previously defined by grand spectacle?

Producing chamber works is inherently lower-risk because there are fewer seats to fill. But according to both Nelson and Devan, the revenue/cost ratio is often the same as with larger productions. This makes sense: any savings from working on a smaller scale (e.g. lower orchestra costs, fewer principal singer fees) are negated by the diminished revenue potential of a smaller space with lower ticket prices. In some cases, with starry casts, technologically inventive designs, and the added rehearsal time for a non-standard work, a chamber opera could cost almost as much as a traditional production and still face the limited revenue potential of the smaller space. For this reason, companies may hesitate to invest in chamber opera.

But in Philadelphia and Boston, innovating is paying off. While OCP and BLO still produce grand opera in a traditional context, their chamber series have given them a new edge and relevancy in their communities, and both Nelson and Devan point to increased foundation and donor support as a result. Devan says that the “Aurora series is the single largest factor for people perceiving OCP differently. We’ve been very clear that moving forward, we’ll be consistently committed to innovation.” Furthermore, there’s a Halo effect. As their chamber productions have generated national press and capacity crowds, sales for their mainstage productions have seen an uptick.

Looking to the future, Nelson believes that the Opera Annex series will remain an important component of the BLO, one she hopes will continue to gain momentum as the company explores new venues and works. However, she is quick to point out that Annex productions are not the solution to the broader problems facing the BLO and other companies. She cites the rising fixed costs of producing opera as the greatest economic challenge facing the industry, which has forced most companies to raise ticket prices and cling to producing classics in the largest possible venue.

In Philadelphia, Devan says that “opera will be better if it can embrace a full scale of experiences.” He cites museums as an example: by presenting photography, installation, and contemporary art along with classic paintings, they create a larger footprint. In a recent interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, he put it this way: “Going forward, we’re thinking about product lines rather than single operas. Investing in a 200-year-old opera house as the only place opera can happen is perhaps shortsighted. We can be nimble and entrepreneurial artistically.”

In other words, an opera company that commits to producing a variety of works in a variety of spaces is investing in its ability to meet the changing demands of audiences and funders in the future. Such foresight might be viewed as a luxury at struggling organizations, but more so than any financial commitment, innovation starts with a shift in assumptions. For both the Opera Company of Philadelphia and Boston Lyric Opera, it was the willingness to experiment and think-small in an industry devoted to the grand that led to programs now integral to their identities and future success.


Brian Hinrichs is a Blogging Fellow for EmcArts and an MBA candidate at the Bolz Center for Arts Administration in Madison, WI.  He is interested in innovation through programming and technology, and believes strongly in the power of connecting audiences to the process of creating new works.

  • Janine P.

    Brian — good points. As we have all seen, the arts is the one place where the technological advances in our lives still don’t allow for “working smarter.” Something that took 3 hours, such as a rehearsal, isn’t going to be hastened by an ipad. By branching out into smaller works, and smaller spaces (and sometimes lower price points) not only are companies allowing new customers (and old for that matter) to commit to a perceived “bargain” they are also giving people an easier buy in to something they may not have bought before. With a new product (or a new art) how many people are going to commit to the biggest, the best, the most right off the bat? How often do consumers buy the warehouse-sized version of something they’ve never tried before the first time they see it? In the cheese platter of life, by branching out, they are also allowing buy-in to a product at a lower impact level, potentially hooking people that wouldn’t have considered it at the original venue, price, length or time.

    Plus, on the opera lover side — who doesn’t want to see a chamber opera performed in a small space? I know I do.

    • Brian Hinrichs, Blogging Fellow

      Thanks for commenting, Janine. You’re right about technology not necessarily making for cost savings in the classical arts – a 3 hour orchestra rehearsal is a 3 hour orchestra rehearsal (unless, like some ballet companies, you switch to piped in accompaniment, but let’s not go there). And it’s important to keep in mind that OCP and BLO weren’t looking to use a different level of singers, designers, or directors for their chamber productions. The savings instead come from the scale of the endeavor (though income is also limited by that scale). What’s exciting is that it seems a smaller space is a safer place for experimentation at opera companies, and experimentation has a distinct appeal from another Carmen or La Boheme with 30 year old sets. More people are being reached, new or lesser known works are being produced, and donors seem to be picking up the financial slack – it strikes me as a win-win.

  • Embracing overlooked, unusual and smaller venues is a wonderful way for opera to extend its appeal. Bravo to Boston and Philadelphia for daring to think smaller. In 2008 The Dido Project in New York played to standing room crowds at the Samsung hi-tech equipment showroom in Columbus Circle, and my own chamber opera The Ghost Train (for six singers and nine instruments) was written for performance in abandoned or underused railway stations and industrial spaces, combing opera with a sensitivity for urban revitalization. Opera needs and deserves the broader audience that can be found outside the opera house.