The Next Act

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

(page 4 of 4)


Die Fledermaus, 2012

So what of the 2012-2013 season? There’s no question about the biggest change Memphis opera-goers will see this year. Noticeably missing from the coming year’s lineup is the Orpheum Theater, Opera Memphis’ primary home base since 1984. 

November’s production of Puccini’s La Boheme and February’s production of Donizetti’s Elixir of Love will both be held at GPAC, while the third major production, a first-ever Chamber Opera Festival, will be staged at Playhouse on the Square in April. The Orpheum’s tight calendar didn’t allow room to offer prime schedules; meanwhile, the costs of hiring union stage crews, which the theater requires, remain daunting.

“People will cry about that, and I will cry about that a little bit, too,” says Canty. “The problem is one of time. The more successful they [Orpheum management] are, the less time there is for us to do an opera. There are weeks in the calendar when you don’t want to do an opera — for instance, the weekend of Easter and Passover. It’s just not something you can do.”

“We were very reluctant [to leave the Orpheum] at first,” says board chairman Schaffler. “We were acting under the assumption that everyone just loved the Orpheum. But when Ned got here, he did a pretty detailed analysis of our audience and he came to conclude that that wasn’t the case. The majority weren’t hung up on the Orpheum.” 

Some actually had complaints that the Orpheum was too far to drive from the eastern suburbs and parking was not easily accessible. “We like GPAC — I like the parking,” says Marian Himmelreich, who with her husband Bill, has been a season subscriber for over 20 years. “The Orpheum is nice, but it’s a long trip for us and expensive with the parking. At GPAC parking is free.”  

Still, Canty is conscious of the effects of moving east for two-thirds of the coming season. To help promote the season in as many parts of the city as possible, Opera Memphis will host “30 Days of Opera” from September 15th through October 14th, a month of impromptu, pop-up scenes and arias occuring all over Shelby County. If the company can expose 50,000 Memphians to ten minutes of opera, Canty thinks he can sell a couple thousand to come to Germantown or Midtown.

“As far as I know, no opera company has done this kind of thing,” Canty explains. “The gold standard is for people to be standing at the water cooler saying, ‘You know, the weirdest thing happened to me the other day at the farmers market — a bunch of people started singing opera,’ and to have the person they’re speaking to say, ‘Yeah, that happened to me at the zoo.’”

“Britten is controversial, but I think when they [the audience] see the melding of music and theater that’s happening on that stage, they’re going to be bowled over.” – Matthew Worth

As for choice of operas, Canty again has gone for diversity. If La Boheme is considered the Mona Lisa of opera, Elixir of Love is the Guernica. An old favorite and a striking new flavor, in other words. The chamber festival selections for Playhouse on the Square — Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, and two works by Lee Hoiby, Bon Appetit! and This Is the Rill Speaking — range  from controversial to nostalgic to largely unknown.

The name “Britten” is as tough for some opera lovers as the word “rape,” but Charles Handorf says the show can be pulled off. Britten is a twentieth-century composer known for capeless, maskless, morally ambiguous villains who are harder to dislike because they seem so identifiable with everyday audiences. Audiences leave Britten productions with the unsavory feeling that they may not be above horrific acts themselves.  

“I’m a big Benjamin Britten fan,” says Handorf, adding with a chuckle, “I’m one of six people in Memphis who love Benjamin Britten!” Adds Matthew Worth, who is returning to Memphis this season to play the villain in Lucretia, “Britten is controversial, but I think when they [the audience] see the melding of music and theater that’s happening on that stage, they’re going to be bowled over.”

Bon Appetit! makes opera out of the story of Julia Child and her television cooking show. This Is the Rill Speaking has only been produced professionally once before. Moreover, hosting the chamber festival at Playhouse will bring Canty back into his element, using unfamiliar quarters, the intimacy of small spaces, and whatever resources he can find to make the kind of intense experience he says opera audiences enjoy.

“I know for a fact that you can put on an opera for $200,000 that is better in every respect artistically from an opera that costs $500,000,” says Canty. “I know this because I spent last year doing it. That was our average budget, and I’ve worked for plenty of companies that spent $500,000 for the exact same product.

“With opera, people are looking for an intense, extreme experience. Some of the best shows I’ve done as a director were in Tel Aviv with a training program with students from all over the world. We did eight operas in eight days. The sets were chairs we brought in from other rooms. It was stripped down, and yet it was powerful. If we had presented that as ‘come see the cheapest opera you’ve ever seen,’ nobody would have come. If you think of it in terms of what it costs, instead of what it is, I think that’s an issue.”


While artistic quality is not on the chopping block, other parts of Opera Memphis’ $1.4 million budget are. A youth piano competition and other parts of the education department which, according to Canty, had “drifted off mission” were cut to shift funds to audience initiatives like the “30 Days of Opera” project. The cost of hiring Memphis Symphony Orchestra musicians for the chamber festival will be less than for a full orchestra. And yes, Playhouse and GPAC are less expensive performance venues than the Orpheum.

“Next season we’re going to be cutting, but it’s not a question of budget,” says Canty. “We’re doing four operas instead of three for the first time in a long time. We’re producing more for less. A lot of it is finding efficiencies.” 

What will not be cut, though, is Opera Memphis’ efforts to make hired singers feel at home while in Memphis, something Canty says will increase Memphis’ presence in the opera world regardless of ticket sales. Rather than putting singers in hotels, the company houses them in homes of its board members. Matthew Worth stayed in Charles Handorf’s backyard guesthouse during Don Pasquale.

“I was staying with Dr. and Mrs. Handorf [during Don Pasquale] and we kept in touch,” says Worth. “In my drive from Connecticut to Fort Worth recently, I stopped and stayed with them on the way down, because this is a family that I care about and I think they care about me too. It was just a few short weeks of rehearsal, but I feel like there’s a home for me in Memphis.”

And as Ned Canty points out, there’s a home for opera in Memphis as well. 


Jonathan  Devin writes regularly for MBQ, The  Commercial Appeal, The Memphis Daily News, and several monthly  magazines. He sings baritone for the Memphis Men’s Chorale, and has been  following Opera Memphis since he fell in love with the art form in their 1991  production of Faust.

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