David Devan and the Future of Opera in Philadelphia

Opera Philadelphia’s David Devan wants to bring the art form into the 21st century. Whether the 21st century is ready for it is a whole different question.

David Devan on-set inside the Academy of Music. “We need to be inventive,” he says, “and we’re in the city that invented America.” Photograph by Chris Crisman

David Devan on-set inside the Academy of Music. “We need to be inventive,” he says, “and we’re in the city that invented America.” Photograph by Chris Crisman

“Toi toi toi!”

It’s the opera equivalent of “break a leg,” and David Devan is saying it to everyone in sight as he darts around the bowelsof the Academy of Music like a squirrel. No one seems to know the phrase’s origin, but everyone says it right back, despite the fact that it sounds like a toddler reaching up from his playpen and begging for his rattle. Devan dashes off again — David Devan does a lot of dashing — and as the clock ticks toward eight o’clock this opening night, he’s up-down, up-down, up-down the curving back staircases of the Academy, squeezing in every last air-kiss and hug and look of delighted surprise, the kind good hostesses give at dinner parties when you bring the right bottle of wine.

His toi-soldiering done, at 8:05 Devan, dressed in a tight-fitting gray suit, sinks into his box seat as the curtain rises on Oscar, Opera Philadelphia’s second offering of the 2014-’15 season. The work is new, a biographical recounting of the imprisonment of Oscar Wilde on gross indecency charges in 1895. It’s a farce with a libretto worthy, if not quite of Wilde, then at least one of the better episodes of The Golden Girls. It’s also something of a ping-pong match, occasionally witty and clever, then whiplashing dark and brooding; the score is muscular rather than lyrical. It includes, in order, a singing jack-in-the-box, a kangaroo court, a ballet solo by the Grim Reaper, and a hanging by noose.

Fan-snapping Carmen this is not.

After the performance, Devan stands in the baroque Academy lobby, glad-handing like a presidential candidate: a big wave over here, a smile over there. He’s standing in place, yet you can’t shake the impression he’s still dashing around.

I ask how he feels. “Great! Awesome! I’m very happy,” he says, giving two thumbs up. A few more patrons pass by to offer wan congratulations. Like the applause that ended the show, their praise is polite but cautious. Opera folk aren’t like the wide-eyed rubes at Mary Poppins, on their feet raucously whooping at every scullery maid’s curtain call. Like the art itself, opera’s patrons can be demanding and difficult, looking for performances that don’t merely entertain or amuse, but that pierce the soul.

In his subsequent review of Oscar for the Inquirer, the perennially purse-lipped David Patrick Stearns will write that the first act “was so one-dimensional” that it “forgot how to be theater.” Barely a month later, Inky music critic Peter Dobrin will pile on in his review of Opera Philadelphia’s third offering, Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, gnashing teeth over its device of utilizing the characters from Gilligan’s Island. (Ginger Grant sings an 11-minute aria.) “It’s too powerful and specific a pop culture reference,” Dobrin sniffs, “and it drained away all sense of fantasy. It was also a serious distraction.”

Two weeks later, sitting in his spacious modern loft east of Broad and eating a slice of Bufad pizza, Devan waves off the noise. Recalling his youth as a competitive figure skater in his native Canada, he’s trying to explain his mission with Opera Philadelphia. “To use a skating analogy, if you’re not crashing, it means you’re not learning the triple,” he says matter-of-factly. “You have to be fearless.”

HIS FINGERS THRUMMING on the conference table in his office, David Devan is talking about white guys.

“We don’t want to have a white guy’s view of what he thinks this world sounds like,” he’s saying, throwing a hand up in the air. Around the table, a solemn nodding of heads. The senior staff of Opera Philadelphia is debating its thus-far-fruitless search for someone to compose a gospel-inspired opera based on a libretto by Lorene Cary, the acclaimed Philadelphia African-American novelist. The group has just heard clips from various composers, and this last one is good, but a bit Sister Act. Which brings us back to the white guys. Despite the presence of some notable black performers — Temple grad Eric Owens is an international superstar bass-baritone who recently headlined OP’s Don Carlo — opera is still largely perceived as something composed by white guys in wigs. “The opera has always been saddled with this idea that it’s an elite art form for nobility 200 years ago,” Daniel Meyer, the youthful chairman of the board of Opera Philadelphia, says. “In the 20th century, it was that it was only for the wealthy. We’ve been trying to shatter that model — to show that opera is really just a way to tell stories. That it’s a way to reach everybody.”

But the real problem extends far beyond race, and beyond the opera. These are tremulous times for the city’s cultural tent poles, which are battling over an aging and shrinking philanthropic pie and fierce competition from everything from Facebook to Netflix for their potential patrons’ attention. The Orchestra, with a customer base that can only be charitably described as arthritic, plunged into bankruptcy three years ago; the Pennsylvania Ballet has seen both its leadership upended and a massive bloodletting last year as its ballet master, ballet mistress, assistant to the artistic director and director of its school were all canned. And the Art Museum, under the somnolent leadership of Timothy Rub, has had its lunch eaten by the Barnes. Think about it: When was the last time you heard someone say, “I saw the most amazing show at the Art Museum”?

As Philadelphia has become younger, tastier, sexier and livelier, its cultural icons have more or less lumbered along, seemingly oblivious to the fact that a tide of nimble upstarts — beginning with Nick Stuccio’s scrappy Fringe Festival almost two decades ago — has been nibbling away at their customers like Pac-Man. Between 1995 and 2008, the number of nonprofit arts groups in Philadelphia rose a stunning 64 percent; today there are more than 2,700. That’s a lot of curtains going up. And coming down. Buried in a sobering February report from the nonprofit William Penn Foundation about the city’s cultural health was a simple message to arts groups: Innovate or die.

And now your case study: Opera Philadelphia. Devan was hired as the company’s managing director in late 2005, but made little secret of the fact that he was after the role of general director, then held by Robert Driver. The two men could not have been more different: Driver was old-school, from the creative side, someone who cherished and believed in the power of opera’s stalwart works. Devan, 20 years younger, was a charismatic dynamo who had risen through opera’s ranks in Canada via the operations side and believed in a mantra of new, different and cost-effective. From the start, Devan clung to a steadfast belief that he was the right guy to shake the dust off what was then the Opera Company of Philadelphia (it now goes by the sleeker “Opera Philadelphia”) and save it from itself. “I mean, there was an element of risk,” he says, recalling his early decision, after being named general director in 2011, to basically reinvent the company. “But what were our other choices? We were going to close. We had no money and no audience. Other than that, we were great. We had a good orchestra, a great chorus, a great music director and a great city. And we had a venue. So the whole thing was that we were trying to be like all the other opera companies. And in the northeast part of the U.S. — which, you could argue, is the most competitive place for opera in the country — at a meta level, we had not figured out how to be different.”

Trusting his gut, Devan has done something no one could have predicted: He’s made Opera Philadelphia buzzy. The cornerstone of this has been often wild, out-of-the-box staging: Fidelio, Beethoven’s only opera, set in a crazy sculptural Rubik’s cube designed by Japanese abstract artist Jun Kaneko; the edgy Ainadamar, a sort of Memento of opera (it’s told in flashback) that featured flamenco singing; La Bohème, using actual works from the Barnes and PMA, presented in a free outdoor broadcast on Independence Mall. “When I look at the initiatives that Opera Philadelphia has undertaken during his still relatively brief tenure,” says Charles MacKay, the general director of the Santa Fe Opera, which is co-producing next season’s eagerly anticipated Cold Mountain with Devan, “it is really quite remarkable.”

“The operas I saw 10 or 12 years ago felt very much like going up to the Met, only in Philly: smaller, older, dry and a little stale,” says Evan Urbania, CEO of the social-media marketing firm ChatterBlast and a member of Devan’s Union League mafia. “I don’t mean to say I didn’t enjoy it, because that is what I expected it to be. Under David, I saw experimental stuff and new twists on the classics. I’ve tended to appreciate it more.”

“We all love La Traviata and Carmen,” adds Corrado Rovaris, the company’s music director for the past 10 years. “But if we only do them, we are going to die. You have to take the best standard repertoire and do them the best way. And then you have to take some risks.”

Like inviting a bunch of bloggers to come sit in the balcony and live-tweet your opera. Or starting a program called Hip H’Opera in city schools, flipping students’ personal stories into librettos. Or closing out your season this June with a world premiere of Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, a bold new work based on the life of the legendary saxophonist, and paying top dollar to have one of opera’s most sought-after tenors star in it. Or having Ginger Grant solo for 11 minutes straight.

Predictably, this “new” approach to opera has its critics, especially among traditionalists who find Devan’s modern take grotesque — wallpaper on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. On the opening night of Oscar, I run into a high-culture friend leaving at intermission. “You know,” he harrumphs, “I like a little aria with my opera.”

WITH HIS ARTY GLASSES, ubiquitous bow ties and three-day scruff, Devan is not so much elfin as impish, a quality he uses to disarm people and get them to do what he wants (namely, write checks). He grew up two hours northeast of Toronto, in a family that was athletic, not musical. A competitive figure skater until the age of 19 (at 52, he still does a mean flying camel), he planned on being a lawyer but backed into arts administration, eventually landing a marketing gig with the Canadian Opera Company. He went to his very first opera his first week on the job — and hated it. “I thought it was terrible,” he says, “and was wondering what I had gotten myself into.” But the company’s next production, Madame Butterfly, brought Devan to tears: “From then on, I just fell in love with opera.”

Devan has a smile that is warm and also, one suspects, well rehearsed. He can come off a bit smug, as if he’s just patted you on the head and said, “Oh, aren’t you sweet.” Like all people who shake down other people for money, he has a whiff of smarminess. He and his husband, David Dubbeldam, who is pursuing a career as a chaplain, are known in the tony circles, straight and gay, in which they rotate as “the Davids.”

Devan’s critics call his manner cloying and disingenuous, and dismiss his reputation for charming donors as nothing but an act, a hollow rendition of Tea and Sympathy. (One refers to the Davids as “Lord and Lady Voldemort.”) In Devan’s defense, this stewardess-y affect is pretty much standard issue for anyone whose job is, first and foremost, fund-raising. And it works: From 2011 to 2014, Devan increased OP’s total assets from $7.7 million to $10.8 million. While ticket sales have dropped slightly, private giving in 2014 was almost $8.7 million, up more than $1.5 million from the year before.

“Ten years ago, I would have given my life savings for 10 minutes of David Devan’s time,” says Annie Burridge, the former opera singer who is now OP’s managing director (and who, it should be noted, has her own stewardess-y thing going on). She came to the company a year and a half after Devan arrived. “I was so excited to come work for this company, because there was this sense of change in the air.”

But change is hard no matter who’s doing it, which has certainly been the case at Opera Philadelphia. While Devan & Co. have proven remarkably adept at opening the wallets of the well-heeled, when it comes to corporate philanthropy, the response has been largely one-note: No. One night over dinner, I rattle off a long list of some of Philly’s largest companies — not one of which gives money to the Opera. Devan shrugs. “We actually stopped asking,” he says. “Everyone knows that corporate investments in the arts are low, and it’s not a priority.”

Not even Comcast, a Fortune 50 company? Devan tap-dances an answer about how one could make a case that the company establishing its headquarters here is a civic gift in itself. (Comcast’s last actual gift was $20,000, in 2007.) Burridge is a bit more blunt. “We are pretty dogged,” she says of Comcast. “We have asked, and we have not been successful.”

As in politics, in opera, money is king. The problem is that Philadelphia’s main arts benefactors — the Dodo Hamilton/Suzanne Roberts axis, as it were — is aging. Rapidly. And the generation behind them doesn’t seem, shall we say, quite so ready to open the coffers, either personally or through their companies. Anyone looking for the new Morgans or Vanderbilts in Philadelphia is going to find himself in for a hunt. “I think arts institutions need to personally take on the responsibility of developing some of that philanthropic leadership. We need to earn their interest and to blow them away, so they see the value,” Devan says. For the first time in the weeks I’ve been hanging around him, he seems actually strident. “And that’s a harder job than it used to be. There used to be an unspoken civic lesson to corporations and law firms and their leaders that part of being a good corporate citizen was to support these institutions. In this Ayn Rand age we live in, that is no longer taught.”

THIS YEAR MARKS THE 40TH anniversary of Opera Philadelphia’s birth as the Opera Company of Philadelphia, but the form goes back far longer than that in the city. It’s a history fraught with scandal, politics, backstabbing and infighting. In other words, it’s like the history of everything else in Philadelphia.

The city’s first grand opera, Sir Henry Rowley Bishop’s English adaptation of Don Giovanni, was performed in December 1818. By the middle of the 19th century, the city had become an opera hub, debuting the first U.S. performance of The Magic Flute in 1841. Nine years later, legendary Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind (managed by P.T. Barnum, no less) toured the city, motivating early photographer Marcus Root to legendarily pay $625 ($19,500 in today’s money) for a ticket to see her. In 1857, the Academy of Music, modeled after Milan’s La Scala, was completed.

By the late 1920s there were three full-fledged opera companies in the city, presenting 30 operas a year. The Academy boxes were stuffed with a who’s who of Philadelphia society: the Biddles, the Cassatts, the Clothiers, the Drexels, the Lippincotts, the Newbolds, the Scotts, the Van Rensselaers, the Wideners. The city hosted all the great singers — Caruso, Galli-Curci, Ponselle. (And a live horse, which during a 1920 production of Carmen got spooked by the conductor’s baton and plunged into the prompter’s box.) South Philly would produce Mario Lanza, one of the greatest opera singers of the 20th century.

By the late 1950s, the city was down to two competing opera companies: the Grand, which had a long and rich history, and the Lyric, founded in 1957. For almost 20 years the two companies waged a bitter rivalry that almost killed opera here for good. They merged into the Opera Company of Philadelphia in 1975, but the marriage was hardly made in heaven. As Inquirer critic Daniel Webster would note during the new company’s virgin run, “The opera season here limped on Tuesday with that jumble of chinoiserie, Turnadot, in a performance that would not let its watchers forget its difficulties.”

The company meandered along for the better part of the next two decades, but became largely irrelevant as all of the cultural energy and publicity in the city flowed to the Orchestra under fiery Riccardo Muti in the ’80s and the Art Museum under steely Anne d’Harnoncourt in the ’90s. Robert Driver assumed control of the Opera Company in 1991 and is largely (and rightly) credited with saving it from closure: In 1992, OCP sold 16,000 tickets; five years later, in 1997, it sold 45,616. Driver was a well-regarded steward of the classics, but by the time Devan arrived on the scene, the Opera Company board sensed its leader wasn’t keeping up with changes in demographics, technology and entertainment. Driver doubled down on the stalwarts: His 2006-’07 roster consisted of La Bohème, Cinderella, Porgy and Bess and Falstaff. “I have to think of what sells,” he told the Inquirer.

The board, it turns out, was thinking about other things. “Leisure time is less available, and the opportunity for how you use it is increased,” says board chairman Daniel Meyer. “People can sit home and stream 13 hours of Orange Is the New Black, or they can put on clothes and go out to see a performance. So the question is: How do we get them to put on clothes and go out and see a performance?”

Driver, he says, was “a reflection of what the company needed at that time, and he steered it in a very solid way through the ’90s. But the 21st century demands a very different approach.”

Which is what Devan has provided. “What I said was, ‘Why don’t we try to be the HBO of opera?’” he says. “We need to be inventive, and we are in the city that invented America. We need to own that.” And so the mantra became WHDT: Would HBO Do This? “I think it was bold,” Devan says, “but I don’t think it was risky.”

IT WOULD BE REALLY GREAT, John Jarboe is saying, if Marilyn Monroe were on the stage — or wait! Maybe there are several Marilyns! And they’re emptying huge bottles of prescription pills over their faces and drowning in them!

He’s sitting with his collaborative composers in a drafty rehearsal space above a garage in West Philly, working on what will eventually be Andy: A Popera, which Jarboe describes as a “hyper, hyper surreal” mash-up of songs that are romantic, operatic, pop, spoken-word and bel canto. A funhouse-mirror tribute to Andy Warhol that will bow in September in a warehouse on North American Street, it’s sure to be one of the more avant-garde, if not downright bizarre, offerings from Opera Philadelphia this fall. “Whenever we talk about putting more drugs in, I’m happy,” Jarboe continues. And then he laughs.

Jarboe has a very … unique laugh. It’s incredibly loud, and sounds like a cross between a braying donkey and a seal with pneumonia. It’s also part of what makes him unique and kooky and dynamic, traits that will all be on ample display in this co-production between Opera Philadelphia and Jarboe’s off-kilter Philly theater troupe, the Bearded Ladies Cabaret. (From page 25 of the working script: “A soup can, a Marilyn, an Elvis and other characters dance. The Andys all have wallflower hats on.”)

The whole thing came about after Devan caught the Beards’ 2012 show at the Wilma about gender theory and James Bond (don’t ask) and he and Jarboe struck up a friendship. One night over post-yoga pizza and beer, discussion turned to how to work together. Jarboe mentioned that the Beards had always wanted to do a piece on Warhol. “That’s it,” Devan replied immediately. “That’s the collaboration.”

“The goal is to create an opera/cabaret hybrid that goes into popular music and then into classical music, that goes from low art to high art fluidly,” Jarboe says. “And we are figuring out how to make that happen.”

Whether Opera Philadelphia will figure out what will make it happen — as a cultural force, and as a guardian of opera in the city for decades to come — is another matter. It’s doing much innovating on and off the stage, including more co-producing, so it can mount more ambitious works while splitting the costs with other companies. But that doesn’t guarantee an audience. More than being different or splashy, opera needs to be one thing: good. “In terms of a national reputation, it’s difficult to say [Opera Philadelphia] is a destination opera. I am not sure that is necessarily true,” says F. Paul Driscoll, editor of the national Opera News. “But I am sure it has that potential.”

Whether that potential is realized rests squarely on the shoulders of Devan, who must modernize a stuffy art form identified with colonial Europe, add to that aging donor base, and figure out how to prosper while competing against everything from the Barnes to scrappy whack-a-doodle outfits like the Beards. How Devan responds to those challenges will determine whether Opera Philadelphia continues to outpace the city’s other cultural institutions in terms of vision and innovation — or ends up as a horse in the prompter’s box.

“When you look at the big picture, you say, ‘Where is the interesting, cool stuff happening — and how do we get there?’” Devan says. Which explains why he and his husband hosted a fund-raiser for Pig Iron Theatre Company in their loft, and why he’s spent the past three years trying to find a joint project to do with BalletX, the edgy ballet company in residence at the Wilma. Devan knows that achieving his goal of being the HBO of opera means occasionally throwing in with the freaks, geeks and rebels who have transformed Philly’s arts scene. “It’s not going to be perfect all the time,” he says. “If I wanted that, I would go work for Disney. It’s entertaining, but it’s not entertainment. It’s art. I’m not putting this on. We have this conversation around the table all the time: ‘Did we do this, and this, and this?’ People say, ‘Yes, we did.’ Then we’re happy.”

Back at the Andy rehearsal, Jarboe, in a gingham shirt, jeans and a flowing red scarf, is still futzing with the script. He manages to say both “There’s a lot between blemish and finding the soup can” and “Penis puppets are always welcome” within three minutes. He constantly plays with his scarf, wrapping it around his head in different permutations so that at various points he resembles Norma Desmond, Linus as the shepherd in the Charlie Brown Christmas play, and a Taliban fighter.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen of the theat-uh, this is your newest opera librettist.

“David is a brilliant curator, and he knows when things are valuable opportunities, and he sees those things,” Jarboe says. Andy will feature six cabaret singers and 12 opera singers, to reflect Warhol’s cunning ability to move between the worlds of high and low art. And, perhaps, Opera Philadelphia’s as well. “But,” Jarboe adds, “I’m sure we are going to piss off some people.”

David Devan wouldn’t have it any other way.

Originally published as “Opera Man” in the June 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.