Julia Cooke, Executive Director of Baltimore Concert Opera, and I chatted recently over coffee. I thought the conversation would concentrate around BCO’s production of Carmen which opens tomorrow night at the Engineer’s Club in the The Garrett-Jacobs Mansion. On the contrary, we had an illuminating conversation about opera in Baltimore and BCO’s role in that landscape. It is clear that they have found a supportive and growing community of singers and audience members here. In true Baltimore style, their success has not come through luck but through hard work, vision, and a consistently genuine love for the art form.
As a co-founder of Baltimore Concert Opera Ms. Cooke has been intricately involved in BCO’s operations since its founding, serving as a member of the Board of Directors. Ms. Cooke transitions to the role of Executive Director subsequent to the departure of General Director Brendan Cooke who accepted a position as the General Director of OperaDelaware.
On stage, Ms. Cooke has performed leading roles in Faust, Die Zauberflöte, Don Giovanni, Falstaff, Dialogues of the Carmelites, Les Pêcheurs de Perles, and Verdi’s rarely performed Il Corsaro. Companies include Baltimore Opera, Baltimore Concert Opera, Sarasota Opera, and L’Opera Piccola. In concert, Ms. Cooke made her Avery Fisher Hall début in 2009 as the soprano soloist in Carmina Burana. Other highlights include appearances with Anchorage Symphony, Maryland Symphony, York Symphony, and Rhode Island Civic Chorale and Orchestra. A specialist in French Art Song, Ms. Cooke has appeared in recital in Nice, France and in New York City as part of acclaimed pianist Dalton Baldwin’s recital series.
Baltimore Concert Opera presents “opera in a format that highlights the human voice and removing the artifice that separates the audience from the performers, BCO creates an intimate and affordable experience that captures the core essence of opera.” How does concert opera engage the audience differently than fully staged opera?
The majority of people who are so excited and love the close proximity whether they are a first time opera-goer or have been going for years and years. There are some people for whom it is not that effective. When they come and try it out we are extremely appreciative. Audiences love to see how the singers move and see them work together. The thing that we have found is that there is an intensity to rehearsals and performance because singers have been given a lot of freedom. They have to prepare the music and their own staging ideas ahead of time so they can just get started when they arrive. There is a lot of risk and excitement in that.
We also make a real effort to make opera accessible and welcoming. We’re like, “this is our party. Welcome!” We want to listen and we want people to feel comfortable. It gives us energy to reach out and invite people.
BCO has had multiple sold-out performance runs in this and recent seasons, including your upcoming production of Carmen. Why do you feel Baltimore audiences have gravitated to this form and presentation?
We’ve reached a tipping point as an opera company. There’s a cynicism that comes with the popularity of Carmen. That, “oh, they only sold out all of the tickets because they’re doing Carmen.” But, we opened our third season with Madama Butterfly and it didn’t sell out. Our first big coup was Lucia di Lammermoor. It was one of our first steps out of the box. Programming the glass armonica was a big risk but it worked. We will be stepping slightly more out of the box in coming seasons, but slowly. We were pretty sure that Carmen would sell well. We’ve learned a lot about how to time things right and our trends with sales. We have finally gotten to the point where, although nothing is easy and we don’t just sit back, we’re getting better at planning and understanding our audience and how they react.
You have been thoroughly involved with BCO since 2009. However, this is your first season as Executive Director. What have been some of the challenges or surprises you have experienced since September?
What I have realized this year in my position as the Executive Director, even though I have been in it since the beginning and I am married to Brendan, I didn’t realize just how much he was doing. It wasn’t because he was secretive at all. There was simply institutional knowledge that he accumulated over time. We also have to remember, I had our second child three weeks before I started the job. It just all happened so fast. Initially, once we had raised the money [to create the Executive Director position], it was supposed to be Brendan and then he got the OperaDelaware job [Ed. note: do not miss their upcoming production of Macbeth]. That’s how it all started anyway – we didn’t know everything that would be involved – but we did know, ‘this is important to us. Let’s do it.’
Beyond that, the challenges with this position are with volume of work and development. We thought that once we had a full-time person in the office, that would be the person to write all the grants. Grant-writing is such an acquired skill. You can be a smart person and a talented writer and have vision and everything, you just have to find the right fix. There is a lot of volume out there and it can be time-consuming. That being said, I am very lucky to have an extremely dedicated board member who has helped in that area. It is really setting the foundation for next year.
If I knew, then, the kind of sacrifice that would be involved, if I had my wits about me, I probably would have said “no.” But, I am so glad I said “yes.” All of us are. All of us.
I’m sure one of the challenges is fundraising – which arts organization doesn’t have that perennial challenge? I know that BCO works tirelessly to conservatively budget each season to keep things balanced. How momentous is your current 25.4.5 campaign and what will that help secure for your organization?
When you do so well ticket-wise right out of the gate, everyone assumes everything is fine. We are doing well, but we are also working very hard to secure the future of the organization rather than pay for productions we have already done. That is what this 25.4.5 campaign is all about – showing that we are going to be okay for next year. This year is paid for. We want to be strong for next season and let our donors know that they are investing in a sure thing. There is never any resting on laurels. It is a lot of tireless work, commitment, and true love. It could not be happening if there weren’t a lot of people who loved this. Not just myself and Brendan and not just the board members either. I’m talking about – really down to everybody in that audience. I love to talk to people and I love to hear their experience.
In Baltimore specifically, we had a moment of time when there were a ton of start-up opera companies, and then they almost all receded. It has been a wave back and forth. How do you feel your audience has changed over that time? Furthermore, how do you feel the Baltimore opera audience has responded throughout that wave.
That is a really interesting question. The audience, then, was mostly people who had lost their Baltimore Opera. That was the connection for us. We were filling a hole initially. That was our intention; to give the singers something to do while Baltimore Opera was reorganizing. The reason we lived here was for Baltimore Opera. That was where our first audience came from. They had a lot of curiosity about us. There was a lot of excitement because we were the story and then over time it kind of died off. That was at the beginning of the downturn of the economy.
What I hope people realize is that it was never our intention to replace Baltimore Opera. We are not Grand Opera. We love Grand Opera but we’re not trying to replace it – we’re trying to supplement it.
After that first wave of excitement, we had to work very hard to reach out. We did really aggressive marketing and discounting. Our best method of advertising has always been word-of-mouth. That started in 2009 and we are now really seeing the fruits of that. You have to invest in that long-term. We have 444 chairs to fill for each production. We don’t need just 444 people – we need 8 times that because not everyone that supports us can come to everything. This process has changed over time from an initial audience into a slow build of the people who have stuck around and the new people who tell their friends.
If you had a magic wand, what would you desire for the opera community in Baltimore?
I mean honestly, it all comes down to money. When you have money you can present more at ever higher-quality. You do not have to worry about the money so you can focus all of your energy on the art and its presentation. It is such an expensive art form. Ultimately though, part of the reason why things have worked in our case is because we have made that connection to our audience. From the $5 donation to the $5,000 donation, our community feels invested in us and we appreciate that they know we are committed to the future of this organization.
Well, I hope that you have a ticket for this weekend’s performances because there is some diabolically good singing going on. What questions would you ask Julia as the Executive Director of a growing opera company? Leave them in the comments below!
- Page’s Take on the Baltimore Arts Scene (viewfromthespyhouseandzoo.wordpress.com)
- Small NYC Opera Companies Band Together in New Alliance (wqxr.org)