Since Homeric antiquity, an odyssey has denoted a lengthy, wayward journey filled with dangers and discoveries. The term also connotes a series of experiences that cumulatively lead to enlightenment. Both characterizations suit Odyssey Opera, the young company that first dipped its oars into Boston’s murky, unpredictable operatic currents in September 2013, with a critically acclaimed concert performance of Wagner’s early epic, “Rienzi.”
Just over a year later, the upstart organization has notched further triumphs: an ambitious, satisfying trifecta of underexposed Italian operas by Verdi, Mascagni, and Wolf-Ferrari, fully staged in June, and a triumphal concert rendition of Korngold’s grandly gorgeous, melancholy masterpiece, “Die Tote Stadt,” presented to rapturous response at a sold-out Jordan Hall earlier this month.
None of the operas that Odyssey has presented thus far in its journey has been especially well served by posterity. Few appear even sporadically in the customary goings-on at conventional opera houses, locally or globally. Yet in the diligent hands of Gil Rose, the company’s artistic and general director, and his exactingly chosen collaborators, all have proved enlightening, edifying experiences.
That point, simply put, is the core concern of Odyssey Opera, Rose explained during a recent lunch interview. Joining him was Randolph Fuller, a longtime opera supporter who is Odyssey’s principal underwriter and who cofounded Opera Boston, where Rose served as artistic director until the company folded.
“What we’re dedicated to — the guiding principle, really, for us — is the exploration of repertoire,” Rose says. “Randolph and I are very like-minded, in that there has been a phenomenon, in both the symphonic and the opera world, where the choices of what’s acceptable to the audience, what the theoretical paying audience wants to see, has been seemingly narrowed.”
That narrowing, Rose and Fuller insist, sells short the intelligence and curiosity of an audience confronted elsewhere with more conventional offerings. “We want to present repertoire that is otherwise not going to have been presented,” Rose says. “We don’t feel any need to do, though they be great works, another ‘Carmen,’ another ‘Tosca,’ another ‘Don Giovanni.’ Why? It’s being done by people over and over again.”
Chat with Rose and Fuller over the span of a meal and you can’t help being swept up in their missionary zeal. Fuller is a genial fountain of musical insight and local lore, with an exacting attention to details. Rose, cool demeanor notwithstanding, mixes a keen wit, a scholar’s intellect, and a record hound’s voracious appetite for discovery.
The names of Boston mavericks and visionaries recur in conversation: Sarah Caldwell, Peter Sellars, and more. Like those pioneering forebears, Rose and Fuller want to present audiences with fresh, new experiences. What’s different is that Odyssey is venturing forth behind a shield of fiscal prudence.
“Our intention is always to run in the black, so we don’t ever get put into a position where we have to do something we don’t want to do because of its financial viability,” Rose says. “Basically, it’s a pay-as-you-go model. We’re going to have the money in hand for whatever production we do, or the commitments at least, before we do it.” (Since its seasons have been assembled piecemeal, the company provided no annual budget figures, but the summer festival, Rose says, met its goals of two-thirds capacity and 50 percent sold.)
Accordingly, Odyssey has refrained from announcing future undertakings until relatively close to their arrival. The back cover of the program distributed at “Die Tote Stadt” was where most partisans likely heard about the company’s next offerings: a double-bill of monodramas by the distinguished American composer Dominick Argento to be staged at the Modern Theatre (Nov. 22-23), and an account of Tobias Picker’s “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,”
co-produced with Rose’s Boston Modern Orchestra Project, at Jordan Hall (Dec. 7).
“We have things planned for the spring,” Rose confirms, “but it’s not quite all figured out and lined up yet. So it’ll stay under the table until we’re ready.” Squeezed for clues, Rose and Fuller allow that the spring offering will comprise three operas sharing a common theme, fully staged and spread over a span of several weeks. A smaller presentation might precede that series. And a grand opera in French — one that Odyssey insists has never been performed in Boston — is planned for a concert performance next September.
All of which illustrates, if obliquely, that Odyssey intends to stick with the mix of large-scale works in concert and smaller staged shows that marked its debut season — a point the pair confirms. “A pattern is starting to evolve, where in September we would try to open the season with a big thing that couldn’t really otherwise be staged in town,” Rose says. Recordings, too, will be part of the mix: Mascagni’s “Zanetto,” eloquently performed during the June festival and recorded immediately afterward, awaits release on a label to be determined — or quite possibly launched.
So far, shoring up plans relatively late has worked to Odyssey’s advantage in terms of casting. Promising artists who become overnight sensations are usually out of reach for big companies that book their seasons years in advance. Agile outfits like Odyssey thus can rush in to engage new stars like Jay Hunter Morris, the heldentenor whose unexpected triumph in Wagner’s “Ring” cycle at the Metropolitan Opera made him a hot commodity.
“He stepped in and did Siegfried at the Met, and then did ‘Moby Dick’ for Jake Heggie,” Rose says. “And then he had this giant window in his schedule.” Having just sung the demanding role of Paul in “Die Tote Stadt” with the Dallas Opera, Morris was ready when Odyssey called. Around Hunter and his costar, Meagan Miller, Odyssey wrapped a top-flight cast of admired Bostonians who had worked with Rose previously, though never all at once.
‘What we’re dedicated to — the guiding principle, really, for us — is the exploration of repertoire.’
In keeping with its ad hoc spirit and a la carte budget, Odyssey has shunned subscriptions as a means of retaining its audience. “People are buying less and less subscriptions,” Rose says. They’re making their ticket-buying decisions later in the game. They’re looking for something new, and they don’t mind changing venues.”
Reminded that a rootless approach had contributed to New York City Opera’s demise, Rose points out that City Opera hatched its itinerant scheme less as a proactive means by which to build and retain an audience than as a reactive attempt to resolve a financial crisis. For Odyssey, moving among a range of venues not only serves the dramatic needs of the operas it plays, but also helps to keep overhead down.
“Fixed costs are what create deficit, and deficit is what creates bad artistic choices, or forced artistic choices: Oh, we have to do ‘Don Giovanni’ again because we know we’ll sell two-thirds of the house.” Rose says. “There’s a great misconception about what makes an organization successful. Internal sustainability with the result of artistic mediocrity to me makes an organization a failure. I’d rather have an excellent product, and just get by.”
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