On the road: Opera's lights go out in Cleveland

Poulenc and Leoncavallo one-acts could mark Photo: Opera Cleveland

CLEVELAND, Ohio —  After our Oberlin sojourn last Tuesday, we headed for Cleveland, we managed to cop some tickets for Opera Cleveland’s opening night performance of Poulenc’s La voix humaine and Leoncavallo’s I pagliacci. Actually, “cop” is not actually accurate. There were plenty of empty seats in Cleveland’s magnificent State Theatre, one of several restored performance spaces at the town’s once-legendary Playhouse Square.

The empty seats were and are emblematic of Opera Cleveland’s big problem—one that it shares with many opera companies living and now dead, including to some extent our own Washington National Opera company here in DC. Even with those seats filled, it’s still pretty expensive to mount fully staged operas in this era of the Great Recession. Economists claim we exited that recession last year, but many performing arts troupes would beg to differ. Opera Cleveland is one of them. That’s a real shame, because last week’s offerings were genuinely first class.

Gregory Carroll.

Tenor Gregory Carroll.
(Photo courtesy the artist’s web site.)

Thematically, both one-act operas focus on the tragedies of lost loves. Or more specifically, on how one deals with being unceremoniously dumped.

Francis Poulenc’s 1959 La voix humaine (The Human Voice) is an unusual one-woman opera in which the unnamed female character alternately pleads with and cajoles the lover who has jilted her over the telephone from her tiny Parisian flat. Quaintly, in this era of the iPhone, she has to use a party line to keep the discussion going, keeping busybodies off the line and losing her connection several times in the process.

Composed in a spare, modern, yet somewhat deco style, Poulenc’s opera contains no memorable arias. But its sung drama conveys tremendous emotion as the backing and filling of the one-sided conversation reveals unpleasant details of the woman’s former relationship—a convenience for her lover, who’s now about to be married, but the real deal for her.

The opera is a real tour-de-force for the soloist, and Robin Follman as “elle” was superb as both actress and vocalist, conveying genuine pathos and emotion in a role that rarely gives the singer a chance to soar.

After the break, Ms. Follman returned as the slippery Nedda in Leoncavallo’s small classic, I pagliacci (best translated as Clowns). Famous for its showy central tenor aria, Pagliacci (1892) is a kind of play within a play. Canio, head of a small traveling troupe of clown-actors, stops in small towns to put on his shows. They’re usually a version of the ancient commedia dell’arte whose stock characters run into predictable slapstick predicaments.

In Canio’s case, it’s his chosen fate to perform the central role of the older man who marries a much younger, attractive woman, only to be cuckolded by her as she seeks out romantic interests more her own age.

Unfortunately for Canio (tenor Gregory Carroll), who’s rescued Nedda from the streets and married her to save her, Nedda has eyes for Silvio (baritone Eric Dubin) and is scheming to run away with him. This dalliance is reported to Canio by another member of his country, the leering cripple Tonio (baritone Michael Chioldi) whose own advances have been spurned by Nedda.

Enraged, Canio saves his revenge for the evening’s performance, horrifying his audience by turning a humorous fantasy into a grisly reality. Strong stuff, but extraordinarily well done by the cast, including a terrific chorus and great support from a fine orchestra under the baton of artistic director Dean Williamson.

As the tragic hero Canio, tenor Gregory Carroll turned in a particularly fine performance, highlighted by the paradox of a fine lyric voice that possesses more than enough heft to reach the rafters. He was easily one of the best Canios we’ve seen in many a performance of this popular opera.

The curtain call after the opera’s final tragic moment was long, loud, and enthusiastic. So much so that it seemed a shame that it might be this company’s last.

Formed circa 2006 by the merger of two struggling Cleveland opera companies, Opera Cleveland started out with great promise for renewed vigor, but the promise didn’t last very long. With a budget eviscerated by the tanking economy, the red ink flowed more freely than ever.

The company first canceled its scheduled spring 2011 performance of Jules Massenet’s Werther. Then it announced it was going into indefinite hiatus after staging its pair of one-act operas this past weekend. Most employees have been laid off. The folks who are left may not be on the payroll beyond December 31. Educational programs, apparently, will continue, probably due to state or local government funding. As to staged performances—or any other performances—of opera, however, nobody really knows. The company is technically on hiatus. But frankly, it doesn’t look good.

We caught a former employee at intermission, and chatted with her briefly about the company’s plight. She told me a fascinating story. At some point earlier this year, the company gradually became aware that well over a third of their regular season subscribers hadn’t re-subscribed. Concerned about this, opera staff began to call these missing season ticket holders, and discovered something astounding. “At least two-thirds of these people could not even be found,” she said. “They were mostly people in the financial industry. We checked around, and discovered that the bulk of them had lost their jobs and had actually completely left the area.”

In other words, whether in the brokerage or real estate banking businesses, these employees were apparently laid off in significant numbers. The implosion of giant National City Bank could not have helped, either. While branch banks and certain wealth management departments retained their employees, upwards of 5,000 headquarters employees either have or will receive termination notices as Pittsburgh’s PNC Bank—which acquired National City under Federal supervision—will now run home office functions out of their own HQ.

With this many jobs vanishing in the generally high-paying financial industry, employment prospects for those who lost their jobs were somewhere between zero and none. So away they went, no doubt to seek better prospects in a city or state without Ohio’s disastrous unemployment rate.

And so, away, too, went a healthy chunk of Opera Cleveland’s season subscriber base. Given that most opera companies run at least a modest deficit anyway, this put Opera Cleveland in a very bad way, leading to last weekend’s abrupt season-ending performances.

For all the jokes and potshots people take at Cleveland, the city boasts tremendous riches when it comes to education and the arts. The Cleveland Orchestra—itself taking some budget hits recently—has been world-renowned for decades. The Cleveland Art Museum is highly respected and is currently completing a massive addition that will significantly increase its already impressive holdings.

The city already houses Case-Western Reserve University and Cleveland State as well as the Cleveland Institute of Music, two of whose students performed in DC just a few weeks ago at the Kennedy Center as part of the Young Concert Artists series. The city has a tradition of supporting the arts, even though it only gets credit these days for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But none of that matters now for Opera Cleveland. While they’re not gone yet, their options clearly have narrowed. They have become yet another casualty in this once major city that’s slipped to third rank due to its loss of heavy industries, its legendarily corrupt politics (the FBI continues to nab and indict city and county officials seemingly daily), its unbelievably high taxes, and its surly public employee unions. With a population of roughly one-million after the Second World War, the city is now less than half that size, and may no longer be able to support the arts the way it once did.

To survive, Opera Cleveland may have to radically re-define its mission. Perhaps its time to back off and present concert opera for awhile. Our own Washington Concert Opera, while hardly prosperous, continues to fill Lisner for its twice yearly performances that routinely feature spectacular singers more often better known in Europe than here.

Perhaps it’s time to foster a more formal relationship with the Cleveland Orchestra whose music director, Franz Welser-Most, already conducts opera in Europe and who actually staged an opera at the orchestra’s Severance Hall home last season. And perhaps it’s time to seek a smaller, less-expensive venue that the State Theater whose seats Opera Cleveland apparently can no longer fill.

Whatever the solution, assuming there is one, we wish Opera Cleveland well as it struggles toward an uncertain future. Having recently watched the nearby Baltimore Opera fold forever almost without warning, and seeing the Washington National Opera and the Virginia Opera facing perilous futures, we certainly empathize with what’s happening in Cleveland, and hope this particular story ultimately has a happy ending.

Rating: *** (Three stars.)

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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times (1994-2009). 

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