Saturday, January 1, 2011

I still owe the general cultural scene at least one more glance in the rearview mirror - but that will have to wait a day or two, I'm afraid.

For today is New Year's Day, a day for resolutions.  And so I'd like to propose one for the whole city:

2011 will be the year Boston resolves to build itself a new opera house.

Why?  Well, there have been rumblings around this particular ambition for some time, but we're closing in on the cultural conditions that make it a requirement. Boston Lyric Opera has positioned itself to become the city's next big cultural success story; its productions have skyrocketed in quality over the past few seasons, and it has a smart, ambitious artistic director in Esther Nelson - someone who I think can keep the company's quality high while wooing Boston's big donors toward their next "philanthropic opportunity," as they say.  And unlike most cities our size, we can boast another ambitious opera company, Opera Boston, which has successfully carved out a secure niche for itself in the more adventurous and obscure repertoire.  Meanwhile a sense of ferment, and foment, has begun to bubble around these two major players; we now have smaller opera companies putting up productions in the summer, and there's even an opera fringe these days.  James Levine consistently programs opera at the BSO, and of course many weekends the local malls fill up with opera lovers watching the latest from the Met and elsewhere.  And at the same time, Boston Ballet is finally getting the love from its hometown it has long deserved (the company is about to pay off its long-term debt and renovate its South End digs thanks to a remarkably fast fund-raising drive) - and the current "Opera House," gorgeous as it is, cramps their style slightly when it comes to extravaganzas like The Nutcracker.

All this was unheard-of ten or fifteen years ago.  But then let's just ponder the remarkable journey Boston has taken in the past few years - or rather, let's give credit where credit is due.  This provincial capital has all but transformed itself culturally in the past decade; I really wish the town could begin to understand how far it has come, thanks to the vision of several determined leaders and the deep pockets of the philanthropic community.  We're not the dead-end locale of some trashy Ben Affleck thriller anymore.  Indeed, almost year by year, we've seen major cultural projects come to fruition: first the Calderwood Pavilion in the South End; then the renovation of the Opera House and Cutler Majestic; then the new ICA on the waterfront.  And this year brought a double whammy - the renovations of the Paramount (and Modern) theatre complex downtown, and the stunning new American Wing at the MFA.  Not so long ago the Globe was worrying that Boston couldn't support the Calderwood Pavilion, and now we're awash in gleaming new cultural spaces!  It's not an overstatement to say that in the past decade, in cultural terms Boston has become a different city.

Except when it comes to perhaps the grandest of the arts - opera.  And yet, as I said before, the opera scene has never been stronger - there's just no space for it to grow into.  The Schubert and the Opera House can't handle Wagner, or Verdi, or actually half the operatic repertoire, so Boston Lyric and Opera Boston can't really bring our city the full range of their art form.  Likewise Boston Ballet can't bring us the full sweep of the greatest ballets without a stage bigger than their current one.  But don't think the list of tenants for the New Boston Opera House would end there.  The Boston Early Music Festival and Boston Baroque are now producing opera productions that garner global attention, and not so long ago Handel and Haydn was doing the same thing.  And local orchestras like the Boston Philharmonic are constantly programming huge modern works that are crammed, both physically and sonically, in spaces like Jordan Hall and Sanders Theatre.  I'm quite sure that in short order, a new opera house would be over-, rather than under-, booked.

Especially since even if we got off the dime right now, it probably wouldn't be built till 2015, or maybe 2020 - particularly given all the open questions about it (beginning with "Where should it go?").  The road ahead looks like a long and hard one, I know - and there will always be other worthy questions to distract us (like "What to do about the Greenway?").  But every journey begins with a single step.  Let's make the next decade the one in which Boston makes good on its claim to being a world-class city with an opera house worthy of one.

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