5 Questions to David Devan (General Director, Opera Philadelphia)

David Devan joined Opera Philadelphia in January 2006 and was appointed General Director of the company in 2011. Since his arrival, Opera Philadelphia has commissioned or co-commissioned eight new operas, including the Music Critics Association of North America Best New Opera of 2016 Breaking the Waves. Beginning in September 2017, Opera Philadelphia will launch each season with an immersive, 12-day festival featuring seven operatic happenings in six venues throughout the city. Opera Philadelphia will also continue to present additional productions each spring, making it the first U.S. opera company to open an annual season with a dynamic festival. We asked David 5 questions about the inaugural festival, O17.

Opera News recently hailed Opera Philadelphia as “one of the leading instigators of new work in the country.” Can you tell us about this company’s transformative journey over the past several years? 

For many years, Opera Philadelphia has really focused on trying to be the architects of an arts organization of the twenty-first century, and part of that journey was determining that we needed to have a contemporary voice and that we needed to be a voice of our city, of our population, and of the form. So, that led us to establishing the American Repertoire Program, which really guided a lot of the artistic muscle in the institution over that period. We created an American Repertoire Council of thought leaders both inside of opera and outside of it, and that council really set the pathway for us to make a big commitment to new work, but it also reframed how we would develop new work. That led to the wide variety of forms of work that we’ve developed and, because it also was the most creative stuff we were doing, like any good muscle it was developed to be strong. It’s permeated all aspects of our artistic practice in terms of asking the 21st century question: How would we produce this today versus yesterday? 

Your inaugural season-opening festival, O17, features three world premieres over the course of 12 days. Can you give us an overview of these three new operas and tell us how you went about programming the festival? 

I get asked a lot about how I programmed the festival and the answer is that I really didn’t. What we do is we focus on engaging artists, important artists, and provide them with a platform to have a voice and to write and/or perform things that are most important to them. All three of the world premieres came from the artists. For Elizabeth Cree, I sat down with composer Kevin Puts after 2013’s Silent Night and made an observation that I loved his vocal writing and that I would be really interested to hear what he might do with a chamber opera without full orchestral forces. I said that if we were prepared to commission him in that regard, was that something he thought would be interesting, and he said yes. He then went to his collaborator, librettist Mark Campbell, and Mark proposed Elizabeth Cree, and the two of them worked on a treatment and brought it to us. So, Cree wasn’t my idea, my idea was Kevin Puts and I instigated an artistic conversation with him about what might be new and exciting for him to try, something he hadn’t done before.  

Photo by Andrew Ousley

Kevin Puts, Joseph Gaines, Mark Campbell, and Daniela Mack at the Cree in the Crypt preview on May 31, 2017, at the Church of the Intercession in Harlem. Photo by Andrew Ousley.

We Shall Not Be Moved grew out of our Hip H’opera school program in which we’d been talking to librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph and composer Daniel Bernard Roumain about setting some poems that students were writing in school to music. We got all the poems–Marc and Daniel came to us after reading them and, instead of setting the poems to music, they were inspired to come up with a treatment for We Shall Not Be Moved. Instead of looking at the poems verbatim, they looked at the message that was baked into those poems as an inspiration for an opera that would talk about race in contemporary America. So, we chose to put that in the festival, but again it wasn’t our idea, it was their idea. 

Finally, The Wake World was a little more our idea but not entirely. We wanted to do something in the festival at The Barnes Foundation because we wanted people outside of Philadelphia to discover its riches, and The Barnes Foundation is clearly one of those. So, I went to David Hertzberg, one of our Composers in Residence who’d long wanted to write an opera with his own libretto, which is something that is very uncommon in our field. I said to him, “Hey, why don’t you go to the Barnes and see if you get inspired by something, because maybe you could write something for the Barnes.” I was expecting him to come back and tell me about the three paintings that he loved, but he didn’t. He came back obsessed with the mind of Dr. Barnes, the mind that put this collection together, and that led him to The Wake World by Aleister Crowley and this sort of subversive fairy tale. Of course, Dr. Barnes was quite subversive himself when he was making this collection that was almost transgressing art norms at the time. That was David’s idea and we said yes.  

Photo by Dominic M. Mercier

David Hertzberg, Julia Bumke, Elizabeth Braden, and R. B. Schlather in the Barnes Foundation, where The Wake World will be staged from Sept. 18-25. Photo by Dominic M. Mercier.

We haven’t curated things. I did want to do The Magic Flute, but I wanted to do The Magic Flute because I’d been talking to [director] Barrie Kosky and I wanted to have something by Barrie Kosky in the festival, and therefore that’s how we got to Flute. It fit. Things all came from the artists, it didn’t come from us, which I think is why they’re having so much traction and there’s so much interest. They’re so broad and varied because there’s not a central curatorial theme except what does the artist need to say? 

O17 takes place at six different venues throughout the city of Philadelphia. How were these venues selected, and what effect do you hope this will have on audiences? 

It was about the work. The Barnes was specific because we wanted to do something there, but everything else was chosen for the work. With the Wilma Theater being the home of We Shall Not Be Moved, the work was being written and developed and we asked ourselves where would this best be, we want it to be intimate. We didn’t need an orchestra pit because from the get-go, we wanted the musicians on the stage integrated with the performers. And I like the Wilma because it has these stepped-up seats like an amphitheater, almost so you’re looking down into it. We did something at FringeArts where people were looking down and it was so special because it was like you were peeking into these people’s lives and it felt more personal. So that’s how we got to the Wilma.  


Composer Daniel Bernard Roumain, director Bill T. Jones, and librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph, creators of We Shall Not be Moved. Photo by Dave DiRentis.

With the Philadelphia Museum of Art, for the War Stories double-bill, we wanted two very different spaces and they have the medieval cloisters, so for the Monteverdi that was perfect. Museum director and CEO Timothy Rub actually suggested we use the Great Stair Hall. We had a lot of acoustical questions and so they opened up the museum and allowed us to do acoustic testing and it turns out it works perfectly for unamplified voices and early music instruments. Cree was always going to be in the Perelman because it was commissioned as a chamber opera that needed a pit. Again, it was art-led, and in future festivals people can expect to see different venues used again because the pieces will be different. 

O17 has been described as “a risky move, in many ways, but a courageous one.” How does your marketing strategy change with the launch of such an unprecedented event? 

The marketing strategy really was about changing our company so that we are presenting things and packaging them in a way that meets consumers’ preferences for consuming media. Five years ago, we asked ourselves, if Opera Philadelphia is a media choice, what are we competing against and what are people’s preferences? And that got us to the Netflix-ing of opera, which is what this festival is about. The marketing in terms of how you package and distribute a product, by that very definition, is us actually creating the whole festival itself.  

Now within that we’ve been very careful to make sure all of the imagery and messaging has the vitality of today and is as sophisticated as Philadelphia is, but also has a modern grit to it. And I think we’ve found that balance and that’s been a focus of the actual tone of the communications. But in terms of marketing, the big idea is that we’re letting ticket-buyers curate their own experience and we’re creating lots of different product to do that. So, if you think back to the television analogy, think of Opera Philadelphia as a multichannel provider in a multichannel universe, so we’re sort of giving them the remote control for live performance. That’s been the central idea in terms of how we connect this artist-driven practice to the consumer.  

Was the decidedly contemporary focus of the O17 festival intentional, and if so, is it your hope that this annual event will become proving ground for contemporary opera? 

It was very intentional. We had a lot of new works in development, and so that’s what led to the high density of this, but we also love Mozart, so there’s Magic Flute. I think, looking forward to future festivals, there will be a piece of standard repertoire, probably reimagined, and there will be a lot of contemporary work or revisited work in a contemporary way. Our goal is that when you come to Festival O, you will be able to touch the future of opera. So, for us to achieve that, that means that every festival will be slightly different and have a different tone and feeling about it and the works will be different. But the intention is that you will touch the future of opera, regardless of when the piece was written, through casting, production methods, directors.  

We do foresee there will be at least one world premiere, there will probably be an American premiere—those things are being sorted out still. But the festival will celebrate and question contemporary life because, at the heart of it, I believe that opera is intensely modern. Think about opera versus Game of Thrones: they both tell stories in big ways, they both tell things in extreme, they’re both multimedia. For me, developing a lot of new work feels like honoring opera because for our contemporary tastes, it is deeply modern.