Puccini goes punk

By SARA FAITH ALTERMAN  |  January 23, 2009

Despite all this, and perhaps because of it, the fat lady's forte is experiencing a local modern renaissance. After all, great art is born from great hardship. (The same can hardly be said about, say, financial services.) Rising up out of a shortage of professional performance opportunities and artists' programs, several small local opera outfits have emerged, including Boston Opera Collaborative, OperaHub, and Guerilla Opera. These renegade companies serve young singers and instrumentalists ("young" meaning generally under the age of 35, with a short résumé that may or may not include principal roles). Without the pressures of catering to an audience of lifelong upper-crust opera nerds, they are free to think outside the box seats and take theatrical risks. Case in point, OperaHub's 2008 collaboration with Juventas! New Music Ensemble for Tramps, E-mails, and Hemlock, a collection of new chamber operas that included an operatic homage to online romance.

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The Teeters sisters sing with Boston Opera Collaborative (BOC), which was founded in 2005 to address the lack of local performance opportunities for these still-developing singers.

Notes Roxanna Myhrum, vice-president of the nonprofit BOC, "A group of individuals came together and said, 'There's not a lot of opportunities for us here is this city, which we enjoy a lot. We came here for school. But now, what do we do for the next 10-year window, in which we anticipate growing our careers?' Our mission is to provide singers with performance opportunities and a support network to grow careers in Boston and all over New England."

Other companies have the same mission, which takes different forms. Last year, for example, OperaHub performed an "opera fashion show" at Saint, remixing opera to techno and performing while models strutted down a runway. "Our goal is to make opera exciting and energized and fresh," says Brittany Duncan, who performs with the company. "We want to make opera accessible artistically and financially. We don't have a stage — the action takes place in front of and around the audience, so the audience becomes part of the experience."

Not having a stage has been both a real obstacle and a metaphor for Boston's opera community. Sydney boasts an award-winning contemporary architectural gem of an opera house. Milan is home to La Scala, a cultural orgasm of opulence and operatic mastery. And Boston has a former movie theater that's now operated by Clear Channel.

There was, of course, once a real opera house in Boston, on Huntington Avenue. It was torn down in the 1950s to make way for a Northeastern dormitory. "The city didn't care about the history behind the building, and just let it be torn down," says Lloyd Schwartz, the Phoenix's classical-music critic. "That's the real tragedy of opera in Boston — there hasn't been an adequate theater for opera since 1958."

For a city with Boston's rich artistic history and cultural aspirations, this venue shortfall is flummoxing. Opera, regarded by many as the world's foremost blue-haired art form, has deep roots in Beantown, where formidable impresario Sarah Caldwell founded the internationally acclaimed (and, since 1990 — after more than 30 years of productions — defunct) Opera Company of Boston, and once reigned supreme as the head of Boston University's opera program.

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Related: Can classical be underground?, The show goes on, Diva-gations, More more >
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