Opera Philadelphia’s leader announces departure as the company tightens its belt

Devan turned Opera Philadelphia into an industry leader. He will leave as the company shrinks and adjusts for a changing world.

David Devan poses for a photo

David Devan, general director and president of Opera Philadelphia since 2011, is stepping down from his role with he company. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The longtime leader of Opera Philadelphia, David Devan, will step down in June 2024,  at the end of the next season.

Devan has been the executive director for 12 years. In that time, he turned Opera Philadelphia into an industry leader by seeking out contemporary works, nurturing new composers with commissions and residencies, and aggressively pivoting to digital productions during the height of the pandemic.

“He literally created a company in step with Philadelphia, created a very urban, new wave opera company,” said board chair Steven Klasko. “We have become one of the leaders in adding new American operas to the repertoire.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

The company created 18 new operas during Devan’s tenure, which have subsequently been produced over 330 times by other companies in 10 countries. Opera Philadelphia also created a series of highly produced operatic films as part of its pandemic-inspired digital service. The soundtrack for one of them, “Soldier Songs,” was nominated for a Grammy Award.

Devan’s current contract with Opera Philadelphia expires at the end of the 2023-2024 season. He has chosen not to renew it.

“It’s really time to allow new leadership to reimagine, reevaluate, refocus,” he said. “Our field — opera, the performing arts, and the arts in general — is in a great time of change and upheaval. The next period of evolution is going to be a long one, and so I think the company would benefit from taking what we’ve all created together and doing the next chapter.”

Devan recently had a milestone birthday. He turned 60 earlier this year, which made him assess his personal and professional life. Originally from Toronto, he said he and his husband will remain in Philadelphia as Devan pursues an arts consulting business.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Over the last decade, Opera Philadelphia has positioned itself as a leaner, more nimble alternative to the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. The company is taking more chances on new work that reflect contemporary life, such as “We Shall Not Be Moved,” based on the 1985 MOVE bombing in West Philadelphia; “Denis and Katya,” based on a pair of teenagers in Russia who livestreamed their own shootout with police; and “The Island We Made,” a domestic fantasia centered on the drag performer Sasha Velour.

That has made the company attractive to donors. Klasko said some supporters like to include both the Met and Opera Philadelphia as part of their philanthropy portfolios, comparing them to the stock market as blue-chip and start-up companies.

“It’s like the New York Stock Exchange versus Nasdaq,” he said. “If you want to invest in cool new companies, that’s us. If you want to invest in IBM, that’s the Met.”

But being innovative and progressive comes at a cost. Commissioning and producing new, untested operas is expensive with no guarantee of financial return. Klasko said Opera Philadelphia has at times valued the creation of new work over ticket sales.

“If we go and do ‘Carmen,’ we pretty much know we’re going to fill the auditorium at 80%,” he said. “But when you do something new, many of those things are money losers. But they’re also what give you the national and international reputation.”

This year Opera Philadelphia has shrunk in size, Klasko said. It reduced its annual budget by about $1.5 million, down to about $11 million. The company eliminated five full-time administrative staff positions, resulting in two layoffs.

To reduce the number of productions this year, “The Anonymous Lover” was bumped into the 2024-2025 season .

Klasko said the shrinkage was needed, in part, to ensure that the company is on solid, though smaller, footing as he looks for the next director.

“It was very, very, very, very important to me starting a search that I could look somebody in the eye and say, ‘We’re going to have a balanced budget,’” he said.

Most performing arts organizations are feeling similar pressures with audiences not returning to theaters since the shutdowns during the height of the pandemic. But changes in ticket sales and audience behaviors pre-date the pandemic, with advanced subscription sales spiraling down industry-wide for at least a decade. COVID-19 quickened and exacerbated an already known issue.

Devan said Opera Philadelphia, along with the rest of the performing arts sector, need to go through a long period of adjustment.

“Both the adjustment in the budget this year and me making room for new leadership are for strategic purposes,” Devan said. “We believe that the next period — four, five, six years — in the arts is going to require a real re-engineering to be in lockstep with changes in society.”

Devan is optimistic about the company’s future, as well as his own.

“I am feeling great about this. And that’s not spin. That’s absolute truth,” he said. “I’m very proud of how I’ve lived my role as a leader, and I think a big part of a leader is knowing when to step back. It can be difficult, especially when you’ve put so much of your life into something. The idea for this happened so naturally. It’s the right time.”

Get the WHYY app!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal