Opera Philadelphia announces new season without fall festival

The 2024-2025 season will open with the delayed American premiere of “The Listeners." The company is still deciding if and how to produce a festival.

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Nicole Heaston, performing in the world premiere of “The Listeners” at the Norwegian Opera and Ballet, in Oslo, Norway in 2022. (Courtesy of Opera Philadelphia)

Nicole Heaston, performing in the world premiere of “The Listeners” at the Norwegian Opera and Ballet, in Oslo, Norway in 2022. (Courtesy of Opera Philadelphia)

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Opera Philadelphia has announced its 50th anniversary season will get underway in September 2024 — without Festival O, its signature fall festival of new and traditional opera.

The company has announced three productions for the 2024-2025 season: the American premiere of “The Listeners” by Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek, “The Anonymous Lover,” written in 1780 by the first known Black classical composer Joseph Bologne Chevalier de Saint-Georges, and a new production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” All will be staged at the Academy of Music.

Festival O may still appear somewhere in the next season, but that decision is still to be determined.

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General Director and President David Devan said tightening budgets and shifting audience habits due to the pandemic have made programming an entire season in advance more difficult. Instead, he’s adopted a business strategy dubbed “strategic slowness.”

“People who know me would have never thought that term would come out of my mouth,” said Devan, who spent the last 13 years transforming Opera Philadelphia into a contemporary opera company.

“But there’s real value in that. Companies need to be in relationship with their artists and their audiences, and they need to make decisions when they’re ready to make decisions,” he said. “Having the next two years figured out today might not be a realistic expectation.”

David Devan, General Director and President of Opera Philadelphia since 2011. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Last year, Opera Philadelphia teased what a Festival O24 might look like: it was supposed to feature “The Listeners” and the premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s “Woman with Eyes Closed.” Both productions had already been postponed from earlier seasons due to the pandemic.

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By pulling the September festival, Higdon’s “Woman With Eyes Closed” has been postponed, again.

“The Anonymous Lover” was originally scheduled for winter 2024, but got bumped out of that season into the next, with two performances on Jan. 31 and Feb. 2, 2025.

“We all had a bit of a pile-up of projects because of COVID,” Devan said. “So they all got rescheduled on different time frames.”

“The Listeners” was developed by Opera Philadelphia in partnership with the Lyric Opera of Chicago and Norwegian Opera and Ballet, and was supposed to have its world premiere in Philadelphia two years ago. Instead, the Norwegian Opera was the first to produce the opera in Oslo, to be followed by Philadelphia.

“It was supposed to have happened in the fall of 2022, then was delayed like almost everything, especially in the U.S.: delayed six months, six months, six months,” said composer Missy Mazzoli. “As long as it’s not canceled, right? That’s all I care about at this point.”

Mazzoli, originally from Lansdale, Pa., had previously worked with Opera Philadelphia to develop and premiere the 2016 opera “Breaking the Waves,” which went on to global success. “The Listeners” will be her first opera to be performed in the iconic Academy of Music.

Nicole Heaston, performing in the world premiere of “The Listeners” at the Norwegian Opera and Ballet, in Oslo, Norway in 2022. (Courtesy of Opera Philadelphia)

“The Listeners” is based on a global phenomenon of a mysterious hum heard by many people in a particular region but cannot be identified. Hums from no discernable source have been reported in places such as Taos, New Mexico and Auckland, New Zealand. A recent hum in Windsor, Ontario may have been solved.

In “The Listeners,” the hum is only heard by certain characters who gravitate toward each other to find an explanation and, ultimately, fall under the influence of an enigmatic cult leader.

At first, the hum is even kept from the audience, but ultimately the composer reveals the sonic monster.

“The hum is something that comes for these cult members when there’s something in their life that they’re not paying attention to when there’s something significant that they’re ignoring,” Mazolli said. “For all the cult members, the hum is coming for them for different reasons.”

The fate of Festival O may fall to Devan’s successor, who is not yet named but is expected to take over upon his departure on May 31. Devan describes himself as “on the cusp of being a boomer” and wants to hand over a fiscally healthy organization to someone who will shape it for a new generation.

“In case you didn’t get the memo, COVID changed the world,” Devan said. “It certainly had a big impact on all theatrical arts: Broadway, theater, opera. Anybody that uses a lot of stuff and a lot of people are dealing with a pretty big inflation curve.”

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