Punctuating a week of high drama on the city’s performing-arts scene, Boston Lyric Opera has decided that it will not renew its lease at the Citi Shubert Theatre, its home for nearly two decades. Next fall it will move its productions to a temporary venue, one yet to be announced.
This is a seismic development for New England’s largest opera company, and it comes amid major shifts in the ecology of the city’s stages: the disclosure of potential plans to convert the Colonial Theatre into an Emerson College student center; the news that Boston University plans to sell the BU Theatre, home to the Huntington Theatre Company; and the announcement that Citigroup Inc. will be ending its sponsorship of the Citi Performing Arts Center, which runs both the Citi Wang Theatre and the Shubert.
But while bringing still more uncertainty in the short term, BLO’s departure should be read as a hopeful omen. The company is leaving a far from perfect home, and it is — finally — taking its future into its own hands.
In an interview with the Globe, BLO general and artistic director Esther Nelson emphasized the practical financial considerations behind the decision. “We look very carefully where we spend our resources, and a concern was that the expense structure was beyond what we like to absorb,” she said. “Venues cost money, and they have to because they’re expensive. But if we afford expensive venues, then we have less to spend on the art and artists.” Nelson estimated that the company’s expenses at the Shubert, which it uses an average of 63 days each year, amount to $900,000 of its $8 million budget.
Negotiations on a new lease have been underway between Citi and BLO for over a year, and both parties emphasized this was an amicable parting of ways. “We remain grateful to Mr. Spaulding, his staff, and board of directors,” said Nelson. “And we recognize the efforts by Citi’s leadership team to come to a settlement beneficial for both organizations.”
“We’re sad to see them moving along” said Josiah Spaulding Jr., president and chief executive of Citi Performing Arts Center. “Both organizations really tried. I’ll give the BLO credit for that, and I will give ourselves credit. But they need to do what they need to do.”
The news is sure to unsettle the city’s diehard opera fans, who remember all too well the shuttering of the second largest local company, Opera Boston, just a few years ago. Yet there may also be reason for hope. In this critic’s opinion, the Shubert Theatre, with its cramped pit and its deadening acoustic for both the orchestra and the unamplified voice, was never a proper long-term solution for BLO. Bracketing the company’s financial concerns, this space’s limitations have long been hampering BLO’s artistic growth and dimming the impact of its performances. Two more company productions will still take place there. But signing another three-year lease would have only postponed a move that seems inevitable if BLO is to not only survive but flourish in the years ahead.
Of course it would have been far more ideal for the company to transfer directly from the Shubert into a custom-tailored permanent home. But there is no such space, a fact that this development also underscores. One can only hope BLO’s bold departure will provide a necessary jolt to the discussion about Boston’s operatic future, its urgent need for a purpose-built home for the art form.
Now more than ever, finding or building such a home should become a priority for opera fans, city government, and the philanthropic community. It should also become a simple matter of civic self-respect for a city that likes to feel proud of its performing arts scene — in most cases, deservedly so. But in opera? According to Dory Vanderhoof, a performing arts consultant who has worked with dozens of opera companies including BLO, Boston is the sole city among the country’s 20 largest that has no purpose-built opera house. (Keep in mind that the theater referred to as the Opera House does not in fact present opera performances.)
Tellingly, in his work for BLO, Vanderhoof conducted dozens of interviews with BLO audience members. He discovered that it was not uncommon for opera-knowledgeable viewers to refuse to return to the Shubert after hearing an opera there. “They would say, ‘This is ridiculous, this is the third string.’ ” Vanderhoof recalled. “They were referring to the quality of the venue.”
In short, if BLO can land on its feet, it has a lot to potentially gain from this move. It is also encouraging that, over the last few years, the company’s Opera Annex series has already given it invaluable experience in mounting one production per season outside the Shubert, in temporary venues ranging from the Park Plaza Castle to the JFK Library. And it is exactly these productions that have often provided the highlight of the company’s recent seasons. Part of this has to do with the more adventurous repertoire chosen in this off-site series. But there is also something in the company’s temporary jaunts into the city at large that has seemed to deliver a salutary jolt, a liberating freshness. If that sense of immediacy and exploration can become the company’s new norm, there will be no looking back.
Make no mistake, these are dangerous, existential times for opera companies across the country, as recent headlines from San Diego to New York have made clear. But if BLO plays its cards correctly, leaving the Shubert should be where this company’s future begins. Not where it ends.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.