AT ARIZONA OPERA, it was perennially 1925. The company projected translations of the lyrics onto the proscenium and used modern lighting controls, but otherwise nothing had changed since opera's golden age. The sets were essentially painted shower curtains, the singers faced forward, waved their arms and called that acting, the chorus had all the vivacity of stumps in a clear-cut forest, and the repertory ended with Puccini's Turandot.
Now David Speers is in charge, and it's suddenly 1999. The sets are either rock-solid or mere shifting light, the singers project comprehension in their crooning, the chorus is a mass of distinct yet synchronistic personalities, and this season's repertory begins with Turandot.
Puccini's final opera opens the company's Tucson season on October 15 through 17, then moves to Phoenix for performances the following week. Offerings in the coming months include Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro (Glynn Ross, Speers' predecessor, considered Mozart a box-office gamble and was always amazed that Mozart sold well here); Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, an almost-standard item that's never been performed in Arizona; Carlisle Floyd's Of Mice and Men, an accessible near-contemporary work that hardly anyone has had a chance to know; and Verdi's Un Ballo in maschera, a refreshing break from that composer's ubiquitous Traviata and Trovatore.
The company's production of Turandot should illustrate what contemporary opera presentation is all about.
The singers will benefit from almost four weeks of intensive rehearsal, a tremendous improvement over the previous 10-day squawk 'n' block schedule. Rehearsal time for the chorus and orchestra has also expanded, and with the seven string positions added during Speers' tenure, the orchestra should produce a fuller sound.
A cost-sharing consortium of eight North American opera companies created the high-tech Turandot set, which is now on the road. Ancient Beijing materializes with a computerized system of 48 rear projectors, sophisticated lighting, arresting fairy-tale costuming and contraptions including 10-foot-tall courtiers.
"There's a buzz about this company that's justified," says Kenneth LaFave, classical music critic of the Arizona Republic. LaFave lauds last season's newly "viable, meaningful, dramatic stage direction," as well as the "much more interesting singers" and "some really spectacular examples of choral singing" -- elements rarely praised during the Ross years.
Speers obviously isn't afraid to spend money. Upon becoming Arizona Opera's general director in the summer of 1998, one of his first actions was to hire better soloists, tripling the company's investment in singers. He also rushed to replace the already-engaged but second-rate conductors and stage directors, and rented new sets and costumes. Renting good costumes instead of making them from scratch saved tens of thousands of dollars.
Speers couldn't afford to be too profligate, after all. He had inherited a $750,000 shortfall -- not a crippling debt for a company with a $5 million annual budget, but an alarming sum nonetheless.
Confronted with questions about the current cash flow, Speers deftly changed the subject before answering with specific figures. He didn't appear deliberately evasive, merely excited about getting the Turandot rehearsals under way, and about the state of opera in general. On the first day that most of the cast would work together, Speers and his Phoenix staff were swarming over the recently expanded (and debt-clear) Tucson office-cum-scene-shop-cum-rehearsal-hall. One singer had withdrawn from the production, and the staff was calling around the country groping for a replacement. Add to this the usual mania of selling tickets, soliciting donations and making sure everything's running on schedule, and it's no wonder that Speers already looked a little rumpled at 11 a.m.
Speers, a boyish 46, slouched back in his chair and laughed easily (often at himself) as he explained his vision for Arizona Opera.
First, about that budget problem. "We're in solid financial shape," he began, then drifted into a fascinating monologue about the company's changing monetary needs as it tries to keep pace with an evolving art form. Half an hour later, nudged back toward the opening topic, Speers declared, "The company officially has no debt. It sometimes runs into cash shortfalls, which is common for opera companies every January and February, but its net assets are worth over $1 million. Last year we spent a heck of a lot of money, but we made more money, too. We got rid of a lot of liabilities, built our assets, had a 43 percent increase in fund raising and a 68 percent increase in ticket sales. A lot of people came out to see what was going on, they liked what they saw on stage and bought more tickets, and if they continue to like what they see on stage they'll become donors."
Glynn Ross, disheartened by the lackluster fundraising in Tucson, shifted much of the development operation and board recruitment to Maricopa County, where there's a Daddy Warbucks or Mrs. Gottrocks behind every palm tree. Speers has already beefed up the Tucson presence on his board of directors, and vows not to neglect the city that gave birth to Arizona Opera more than 25 years ago.
Even so, sprawling Phoenix provides the bulk of the audience and the funding. Phoenix performances are 75 percent subscribed; Tucson's are only 45 percent subscribed, although Speers expects to break 50 percent shortly and nudge it up to at least the 55 percent mark.
With its $5 million budget, Arizona Opera is the 25th largest opera company (out of 170) in North America. Speers intends to develop a new financial strength and artistic vision worthy of the company's ranking, and to build a loyal, younger audience, as he did as head of Calgary Opera.
Part of this he'll accomplish by gradually diversifying the repertory. "We'll surprise ourselves with the ticket sales for Of Mice and Men," he predicts. "To jump directly to something like Wozzek would be suicidal, but we could probably do it in 10 years. The audience is like an elastic band. You can stretch it farther than you might think, but at some point it will snap."
Speers believes that he can attract younger patrons with productions that are more theatrical, more dramatic and more sophisticated. "This Turandot looks voluptuous and grand," he says, "and it has to be, because the expectations of young people are higher now. They're used to the production values of Phantom of the Opera and rock videos -- and what's a rock video, anyway? Words, music, a story -- it's a mini opera. Expand the attention span by two or three hours, and you've got it.
"Opera has started to become the high-school date thing to do."