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Critic's Notebook

A utopian endeavor is cut short

The city’s music scene suffered a major loss yesterday with Opera Boston’s announcement that it would be closing down.

The smaller of the city’s two main companies, Opera Boston had a run that lasted less than a decade, but it accomplished more in that time, and took more important artistic risks, than regional companies twice its age and with more than twice its budget.

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From its very first days, the company’s mission was a utopian one: to champion the musical underdogs, the scores by living composers that needed a first hearing, the neglected masterworks of the past that had never entered the mainstream repertoire for reasons completely independent of their artistic value.

Opera companies around the world depend on the Bohemes and the Toscas to pay the bills, but Opera Boston boldly chose from the outset to leave the warhorses to others. And in a few short years, it earned the appreciation of opera buffs, the respect of singers, and the trust of a loyal audience that came seeking precisely what Opera Boston was best at offering: a sense of musical adventure, a glimpse of an exciting work that you could not hear anywhere else.

From the outset, the company faced fierce headwinds, not least of which was the fact that Boston has no dedicated opera house - an astonishing fact given its history and self-image as a city of cultural sophistication.

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Opera Boston eventually made its home at the Cutler Majestic Theatre, but the size of the orchestra pit there meant the company could never present works requiring more than 42 players, ruling out a vast number of options.

Gil Rose, the omnivorous conductor and musical force behind the company, was not part of the old Boston musical establishment and often brought fresh thinking to his choice of repertoire. The company presented the New England premiere of Thomas Ades’s “Powder Her Face’’; John Adams’s “Nixon in China’’; the US premiere of Peter Eotvos’s “Angels in America’’; Kurt Weill’s “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny’’; Shostakovich’s “The Nose’’; and Hindemith’s “Cardillac,’’ to mention just a few of its most notable productions.

The company’s production model, too, was different, bucking the trend of regional companies renting sets and costumes from each other. Under the watchful eye of its founding general director Carole Charnow (succeeded this year by Lesley Koenig), Opera Boston built its own new production for each work.

Its singers were often young and on the rise, though the company also staged a few operas with singers of international caliber at their center, including Osvaldo Golijov’s “Ainadamar’’ with soprano Dawn Upshaw, Rossini’s “Tancredi’’ with the venerated Polish contralto Ewa Podles, and Offenbach’s “La Grande-Duchesse de Gerolstein’’ with mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe.

Not everything worked - last year’s “Fidelio’’ seemed to stockpile every known cliché of German avant-garde opera direction - and yet many things did. On several occasions, the company delivered productions that rose to the level of a piercing wake-up call. Opera Boston’s performance of “The Nose’’ - surely among its greatest successes - brought that sharp-edged satirical work leaping off the stage with a dizzying force that exposed that score’s marginal status as the absurdity that it is.

Those triumphant moments chipped away at the myth that holds sway for so many audiences across the classical music world: that history has done the winnowing on our behalf, that the only music worth hearing is the music we already know. Time and again Opera Boston worked to disprove this idea, and the company’s closure should not be seen as a repudiation of its worthy mission.

Rose estimates that even strong box office sales covered about one-third of the company’s operating costs, and early reports suggest leadership conflicts within the organization contributed to its decision to fold over a relatively small budget shortfall.

“This was not about lackluster box office receipts,’’ Rose said by phone yesterday. “It was about lackluster fund-raising.’’

The company’s closure seems certain to restart a host of old debates about the city’s checkered relationship with opera as an art form. Boston once had a stunning opera house on Huntington Avenue that was allowed to languish and was eventually demolished in 1958.

Sarah Caldwell’s Opera Company of Boston opened the same year and rose to vertiginous artistic heights by the mid-1970s, but the cult of personality through which it was run perhaps worked against building a wider infrastructure of philanthropic support for the art form, a legacy that might live beyond that company’s demise in 1991.

Speaking by phone yesterday, Rose referenced these earlier operatic successes.

“Those companies also did not last forever,’’ he said, “but they left a mark that hopefully will not be forgotten. I hope that when people think of Opera Boston, they will think not of how long we lived but what we did and what we stood for.’’

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.
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