When Opera Philadelphia's general director David B. Devan signed a new contract on Oct. 1 to stay put through the end of the 2019-2020 season, it wasn't just because he likes the city's restaurants.
"Our mission has just begun," Devan said about making the opera company into something as profitable as it is adventurous. "We do not resemble that same company of 2006, not in terms of support and notoriety, nationally and locally."
On Tuesday, Devan announced a new urban opera festival — O — that will open each season starting in 2017.
"It's the Netflix effect," Devan said of the festival's concept. "You used to plan your week when your show was coming on, like you'd plan for an opera subscription. Now, though you can binge watch for 12 days straight at O17 and still catch the traditional network programming of a season."
After having been hired in 2006 to turn Philly's opera fortunes around, Devan has done just that with recent seasons being Opera Philadelphia's most profitable.
From pulling in just over $7 million in its 2010-11 season, the 2014-15 season saw revenues of $11 million.
"Plus our contributed revenue exploding by 103 percent, which means we're getting more audience members and people voting with philanthropic dollars," Devan noted.
With that growth, Opera Philadelphia has undergone studies showing that adventurous fare such as premiering an Andy Warhol-themed opera in a Kensington warehouse — "Andy: A Popera" — and creating an avant-garde opera based on the life of saxophonist Charlie Parker attract a wider, younger demographic; one that's not as attracted to the opera's usual model — the subscription series — as older patrons once were.
"Twenty-seven percent of our single ticket buyers are 25- to 34–year-olds," Devan said. "Research tells us that we're skewing to a younger audience and single ticket buyers, and that our older demo still likes subscriptions. My job is to connect the dots."
That thinking led to something revolutionary, not only for Opera Philadelphia, but, for opera in general: The O festival, which commences in September 2017 and will be followed by a full season of three shows at the Academy of Music and one or more chamber works at the Kimmel Center.
Opera companies worldwide do one or the other; not Philly however.
"O17" as Devan is calling it, represents a radical new way to experience opera, that is not unlike Philly's Fringe Festival in that it presents longer works in traditional theaters, shorter pieces in untraditional spots and vice-versa.
Devan compared what he's doing with O17 to where television is now.
"We're doing longer traditional pieces ala "Masterpiece Theater" as well as bite-sized shorter operas, contemporary and dense like how 'The Sopranos' packed all its drama into 60 minutes without intermission," he said. Because Opera Philadelphia's composers-in-residence and its singers are all under 30-years-old, they grew up with this hyper dramatic sensitivity. With that, Devan is asking audiences to treat Opera Philadelphia how they would new television.
O17's new approach
Some of the just-announced offerings for 017 — to run Sept. 14-25, 2017 — is a world premiere of "We Shall Not Be Moved," a hip-hop era piece developed by composer Daniel Bernard Roumain and librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph for Opera Philadelphia and directed by the legendary Bill T. Jones in the Wilma Theater. There's two new operas rolled into one, "War Stories," that will be staged at the medieval cloister and the Stair Hall of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Plus Barrie Kosky’s internationally-heralded production of Mozart’s "The Magic Flute" will be mounted in the Academy of Music.