The Next Act

Ned Canty's vision for a brand-new Opera Memphis

(page 2 of 4)


Scarpia gets his just desserts in Tosca, 2011.

Back then it was a very different world. Opera Memphis was performing four times a year instead of three, before robust crowds, and almost always at the Orpheum. Rehearsal space was an issue, but one Ching could politely explain away to the guest artists he hired. Then it was all part of the usual hustle and bustle of logistics with which small arts groups are well-acquainted. 

Opera Memphis rehearsed shows in various high school auditoriums and gymnasiums, often in exchange for allowing students to sit in now and then. “To block out an opera, you have to have a space that mimics the stage; you can’t take up the Orpheum stage for three or four weeks,” says Handorf, head of the Pathology Department of the University of Tennessee College of Medicine, who’s been on the Opera Memphis board for over 20 years and is a past chairman. “Of course, a positive of that was that it engendered some good relationships with some of the arts programs in the schools. But it was always teetering on the brink; a new principal could say, ‘No, we don’t want to do that,’ and in a sweep of the hand you’re out of rehearsal space. You have to have a sense of place so that people understand that it’s a real thing.”

Plans for a permanent facility came and went over the years, but the turning point came with a very favorable land deal on acreage at the corner of Wolf River Parkway and Kirby Parkway, a few yards from the Wolf River Greenway near Germantown. The sale price was low enough to make the transaction a de facto donation. The board of Opera Memphis then launched its first multimillion-dollar capital campaign to create the Clark Opera Memphis Center. Completed in 2003 and designed by the local firm of Hnedak Bobo, this contemporary white building with its signature architectural slant in the walls of the largest part of the building (the 5,400-square-foot rehearsal hall) caused passersby to fear that the structure was close to falling over during construction. Happily, it’s still standing.

It took more than ten years to complete the fundraising campaign, launching with a signature gift from the Adams Foundation and finishing with individual and family donations pledged over time. The $7.3 million facility incorporates administrative offices, costume storage, meeting space for the board, a lobby that doubles as an art gallery, and the high school gymnasium-sized rehearsal hall. 

“We moved into the facility at a high point when the economy was pretty good,” recalls Michael Ching. “That lasted for another couple of years. The donor base being a little older, I think they were not hit as badly by the earlier [economic] downturn.” But ticket sales did begin to decline slowly after that at what Ching calls a “fairly controllable rate.”

"When we did our New Audience Initiative, we had kids, Boy Scouts in uniform at age 10, all the way up to people in their 60s.” – Ned Canty

“I think what happens [in such circumstances] is that you end up producing a lot of Carmens and Traviatas,” says Ching. “We did a lot of popular shows that would sell a lot of tickets to counterbalance that [decline].”

The recession of 2008 was another story altogether. To help make ends meet, Ching was required to put together a 2009-2010 season with low-budget operas, and spoke frankly to the media about the need to save money through creative choices. 

First, there was Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte, a lighthearted comedy of errors in which two soldiers bet that their true loves will be faithful to them when tempted. He staged it at the Germantown Performing Arts Centre (GPAC) with a single set — a simple, moveable staircase and an aqueduct-like bridge extending across the center of the stage. The orchestra was seated onstage, behind the set.

Next was Orpheus, based on Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, perhaps the most experimental of the three productions that season. Ching staged it in the Clark Opera Memphis Center’s rehearsal hall, with temporary seating set on risers along one wall. Of the three principal roles, one was filled by an Opera Memphis staff member. Finally, Opera Memphis offered an old favorite, Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, at the Orpheum, but with a nontraditonal set noticeably bereft of blooming cherry trees.

One of the two performances of Cosi was on Halloween night, and attendance was low. The small scale of the production also seemed to leave a bad taste in the audience’s collective mouth. The third performance of Orpheus was cancelled due to a snow storm and the stylizing of Butterfly disappointed some ticket holders. The season left Ching with some regrets.

“You have to be creative and you have to do some things that you didn’t want to do,” says Ching. “I can say this, now that I don’t run Opera Memphis — I despise Cosi Fan Tutte. When I got to Opera Memphis in 1992, I had to do it because it had been programmed by my predecessor and I pretty much vowed never to put it on again. But it’s an opera that requires only six singers and a small chorus and it’s written by a composer that everyone knows.”

Criticism for Orpheus came from inside and out.

“The Orpheus production was a failed experiment,” says Charles Schaffler, the current board chair of Opera Memphis. “It was well-intentioned, but the Clark Opera Memphis Center wasn’t suitable for it. I’m not going to say that that necessarily cost us a lot of audience. We were declining anyway, and I’m not sure that that really hurt us in terms of numbers.”

Schaffler adds that he believes Ching’s time with Opera Memphis was productive and notes that Ching’s final show, Aida, in the fall of 2010, drew back many straying audience members with the spectacle of a parade of live animals on stage.

“A lot of people seem to think Orpheus had less quality because it wasn’t done in a more formal theater setting,” says Ching. “I would disagree with that. But if you have an audience used to seeing shows with a proscenium, putting them in the headquarters is just different. You see the cords and the lights and the sight lines are not as good even though it’s considerably cheaper.”

After resigning, Michael Ching moved to Iowa with his wife in order to focus on writing new operas. The latest of these, performed in 2011, A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Opera A Capella, stirred new interest in the company by combining the casts of Opera Memphis with non-operatic singers from Playhouse on the Square, and two a capella groups, Delta Capella and RIVA, all on the Playhouse Stage. Already, Opera Memphis was starting to reinvent itself.


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