Oscar, A Co-Production, To Premiere at Santa Fe Opera’s 2013 Season

When the 2013 Santa Fe Opera season gets under way , its big ticket will be the world premiere on July 27th of Theodore Morrison’s new opera, Oscar, based on the life of Oscar Wilde. Morrison and John Cox are co-writing the libretto. Countertenor David Daniels, will star in the title role.

In a situation that is increasingly becoming familiar to opera fans, Oscar is a co-production of the Santa Fe Opera and Opera Company of Philadelphia, Santa Fe Opera general director Charles MacKay announced at Stieren Hall on May 24th.

As co-productions increasingly become norms for performing arts presenters to share costs on expensive new productions, SFO has another such arrangement on the boards this season, for a new production of Arabella (Richard Strauss), in co-production with Canadian Opera Company and Minnesota Opera.

Mindful of collection-sharing among regional art museums that has spent years in the visual arts news, as Fisk University in Nashville has won high-court approval for a $30 million deal for sharing its art collection with Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas, co-productions in performing arts manifest a revenue stream, albeit more modest (so far), for the originating party.

“It makes total sense to share resources,” MacKay said. He took the job at SFO in 2009, succeeding Richard Gaddes (MacKay had spent two decades heading up Opera Theater of St. Louis before that.)

MacKay estimated that co-productions as a new income stream, will represent $1.2 million to SFO over the next three years. Measured against ticket income, that number becomes considerable. MacKay said that the 2011 SFO season grossed ticket sales of $7.8 million and 86 percent capacity, a figure on which he expects some improvement to just shy of $8 million in ticket sales this summer.  The Opera’s annual budget is $18 million.

Charles MacKay

Describing co-production as essentially an upfront cash investment by the co-producing opera in the original production – including SFO’s opera design, concept and budget – there are also challenges, MacKay noted, that require plenty of upfront R-and-D.  These include the need to keep the stage design and direction intact, across venues.  Santa Fe festival stage is close to a proscenium, but not exactly, and the co-producing entity must present the opera “exactly as it would be performed here,” stressed MacKay. He nodded to production director “Paul Horpedahl wizardry,” in analyzing the theater plan of a prospective partner to assess whether SFO set design and building can be fitted elsewhere. One caveat does apply to co-production: Casting cannot always be guaranteed to stay the same, although sometimes the co-producing companies can strive to lock in future performance contracts (if they start early).

Oscar director Kevin Newbury briefly took the dais at SFO Thursday, and described his time visiting librettist John Cox’s English garden and “figuring out how to immortalize the Victorian landscape.” Newbury said that Oscar is “a very compassionate piece, and a very theatrical piece.”  Issues in the domestic news such as bullying, Newbury suggested, will make Oscar especially pertinent. “Oscar Wilde said that pain, unlike pleasure, wears no mask,” Newbury quoted.

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