Indianapolis Opera Closed for Repairs… And No One Cares?

KEVING VOGEL | Arts. Etc. Editor

Last week, the Indianapolis Opera announced it was cancelling its final production of the 2013-2014 season, Benjamin Britten’s “Albert Herring.”

The 2013-2014 season was supposed to be a turning point for the company. It would have been a four-show season featuring all 20th-century operas, three of which were Indianapolis Opera premieres.

Instead, the opera company found itself facing “financial challenges as individual and corporate support for the arts has diminished,” according to the press release on March 25 announcing the cancellation.

“It’s tough whenever there is a loss,” said Carol Baker, general manager of the IO, in an email.

She said the IO had been looking forward to working with many of the artists involved in “Albert Herring,” including six voices who were to make their IO debut.

“While this has been disappointing for staff, board, artists and audience,” she said, “we feel confident that we made the right decision for the future of the company.”

For followers of opera news, it was a small heartbreak on the heels of a crushing blow.

A few days before the IO’s announcement, the San Diego Opera announced that, after nearly 50 years, it would be closing.

Immediately, publications across the United States entered into a debate about what this means for the future of opera. The opera’s employees and its fans signed an online petition which now has almost 20,000 signatures.

In Indianapolis, the news that the opera is cancelling its final show has sparked virtually no dialogue, and I don’t know why.

Now, the San Diego Opera was a top-10 American opera according to Opera America, in a city of over a million people. It would be foolish to expect the same reaction here when our smaller opera company is not shutting its doors completely.

But it’s time to start talking, as a city, about what our opera means to us. The Indianapolis Opera is the only professional opera company in the state of Indiana and is almost 40 years old.

Comparably, it is also a very progressive opera. This season of 20th-century works is a perfect example. In fact, in the past four years, the IO performed “Akhnaten,” by Philip Glass; “A Water Bird Talk,” by Dominick Argento; “Bon Appetit,” a one-woman opera by Lee Hoiby; and Peter Brook’s revised take on Carmen, “La Tragedie de Carmen.”

If IO had been able to produce “Albert Herring” and be financially stable, it would make our opera company one of the most successful champions of 20th-century opera in the U.S.

This should be a point of pride for a mid-size, Midwest city like Indianapolis.

But no one seems to be saying that. Perhaps as a city we don’t care. Perhaps we are satisfied watching the same four operas in rotation year after year while institutions like the San Francisco Opera handle all the newer stuff.

The Indianapolis Star, in an article the evening of IO’s announcement, quoted Charles Stanton as saying one reason the opera is struggling is because it decided to perform at the expensive Clowes Memorial Hall.

Stanton is the CEO of Classical Music Indy and a former opera vocalist.

Baker said producing shows at Clowes had no effect on this decision.

Joshua Lingenfelter, Clowes’ director of marketing, declined to comment on behalf of the Clowes administration.

Another of Stanton’s reasons why the company is in dire financial straits is because it didn’t “program for standard listeners, who look for big-name shows like ‘Carmen’ and  ‘La Boheme.’” The Star went on to say that Stanton called “Albert Herring” a “large and expensive but obscure production.”

If Stanton is correct, and the “standard listener” in our city is not interested in seeing rarely produced opera done well, then I fear no art institution here is safe.

Innovation is the life-blood of art. Not the business innovation that Stanton talked about in The Star, but programming innovation. Inviting us, the citizens of Indianapolis, to be active members in the history of art and music, stewards of the creations made during our lifetimes and champions of the new.

“Indianapolis Opera’s musical and theatrical experiences are a unique and vital part of the cultural fabric making Indianapolis a world-class city,” Baker said. “Opera…offers both a release from the modern world and new lens for viewing and critiquing the post-modern condition.”

I absolutely agree, and if we want an opera to be proud of and an artistic identity for our city, we should be encouraging the Indy Opera to diversify its programming more, not less.

We should demand Jake Heggie’s “Moby-Dick,” John Adams’ “Nixon in China,” maybe a brand new commission that we can offer the world from an Indiana composer.

In an economy that seems so unfavorable to artistic innovation and community support for the arts, if we as individuals and companies were to invest in an opera organization enough to allow it to perform such works, we would absolutely, no doubt about it, make Indianapolis a hub of new art.

With new art comes new people, new ideas, new business, more money, more young people and a pride and identity that Indianapolis is ready for.

If I am not the only “nonstandard listener” in Indianapolis who feels this way, I encourage you not to be silent. The Indianapolis Opera is very active on social media, so express yourselves there.

Call The Indianapolis Star and the Indianapolis Business Journal and offer your opinions.

Donate to the opera. Our city is relying on you, reader. Without you actively supporting the arts, Indianapolis will forever be adolescent, a non-contributing member of American thought and culture.

We are poised to stand out, to be different. And that can start with the 2014-2015 season of the Indianapolis Opera.