Palm Beach Opera charts a bold new course

It’s a story that resonates – that of a man trying to navigate the vagaries of a new life in New York while dealing with the internal scars inflicted by the Holocaust. But it’s also the story of a regional opera company, struggling to survive just five years ago, willing to take the risk and embrace the challenge of putting on the world premiere of an entirely new opera.

With Enemies: A Love Story, Palm Beach Opera takes a new step in its acclaimed 53-year history. Based on Nobel Prize-winner Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel, with music by composer Ben Moore and libretto by Nahma Sandrow, this new opera allows the company to showcase its strengths and justify the widespread accolades it has received.

PBO’s efforts to chart a new course and engage new audiences have piqued interest throughout the opera world. At a time when so many opera companies are forced to cut back, Palm Beach Opera is breaking new ground with this major addition to the repertoire. Putting on a new opera these days usually requires multiple companies getting together but PBO is going it alone.

It’s a risk it can afford to take, thanks to General Director Daniel Biaggi’s careful tending of the audience over the years, especially with his community outreach initiatives like One Opera in One Hour, a series of programs presented at the Harriet Himmel Theater in West Palm Beach. A more intimate setting allows the company to experiment with new repertoire and gauge audience responses. Enemies had a pared-down debut there last year; what Biaggi calls the “wonderful reception” it received convinced the company it was worth forging ahead with a full production. “People responded to the melodious content, the story line, the mix of characters and farcical elements,” says Biaggi.

The success PBO is experiencing is possible thanks to an organizational and philosophical rethink in the wake of the Great Recession. The financial crisis was particularly hard on the arts but Biaggi and his team have managed to maintain the high quality of the company’s main stage productions while also reaching out to new audiences with new initiatives like One Opera in One Hour, the annual free Opera @ the Waterfront and education partnerships.

They have also fearlessly explored new technological possibilities. “We were one of the earliest companies to make use of online platforms to start communications with a new demographic,” Biaggi notes. Performances have been streamed live online and audiences have been encouraged to tweet during rehearsals. The excitement of a new opera instead of an old gem seems the logical next move. “We generated funding upfront and this mitigated the risk and made it a good time,” Biaggi says.

Palm Beach Opera has always rated high among American regional opera companies, attracting top singers like Renée Fleming, Placidó Domingo and bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch, who stars in Enemies as Herman Broder, the traumatized Holocaust survivor whose life in 1948 New York is the opera’s focus.

Composer Moore reflects on his luck that his opera will premiere in Palm Beach: “People here have such strong ties to New York. It’s exciting to premiere in a place where there are so many connections built into the material.”

“I think with any art form if people can see something of themselves in it – if they grew up in that neighborhood or during that time period – it makes the work more engaging,” agrees Ceci Dadisman, PBO’s director of communications. Anchored in its setting with the jazz and Klezmer elements that Moore has incorporated into his own melodic style, Enemies is yet another way PBO has found to reach out to its audience while making its mark on the world stage.