Opera Philadelphia lands $2.5 million grant for its 'O' festival

David Devan, artistic director of Opera Philadelphia since 2011.

Opera Philadelphia has landed a $2.5 million grant for its upstart opera festival, pithily dubbed O, putting the total raised at $12.5 million toward a $15 million goal the company hopes to reach by May 31.

The grant, from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, based in Miami, is one of the largest ever to the company, which plans to launch the first iteration of the festival in 2017.

The Knight Foundation money will be applied to programing. It will also help establish a new ticketing system that will allow the company to withdraw as a partner in the Ticket Philadelphia consortium, used by several arts groups, most of them centered at the Kimmel Center.

"This gives us working capital to do what's necessary to prepare for the festival, both to curate activity as well as back-office support, such as setting up a ticketing system that will be conducive to people buying product in a festival - hopefully, a lot of product in a short amount of time," said Opera Philadelphia general director and president David B. Devan.

The opera has already begun pulling out of the consortium, a process Devan expects to be complete in April or May. The company will use its own ticketing system, not only for the September festival, but also for all of its offerings throughout the season, said Devan. (For now, ticket buyers should continue to use the Ticket Philadelphia number.)

The move was necessary, he said, because festival ticket buyers "have heightened needs to know what's going on, and those needs change frequently. So it was important for us to develop our own ticket system to have rapid response to the market. The festival will require a high degree of product knowledge from the people selling."

Victoria Rogers, vice president for arts at the Knight Foundation, said the grant was an extension of the foundation's belief that Opera Philadelphia was doing important experimentation with the art form and its presentation. Knight has also given money toward the company's broadcasts to audiences on Independence Mall. Rogers said she admired this season's production of Andy: A Popera, a campy opera-cabaret hybrid inspired by the life of Andy Warhol.

The O17 festival in September 2017 offers a concentrated experience - 25 performances over 12 days of world premieres, an outdoor broadcast, soprano Sondra Radvanovsky in a solo recital and master class, performances in unusual venues, and traditional opera treated with a cutting-edge aesthetic in Barrie Kosky's animation-heavy production of The Magic Flute at the Academy of Music. The $15 million budget helps pay for expenses of the festival over five years.

The festival's varied locations and adventurous spirit, Rogers says, "in some ways democratizes the project."

The festival format, she said, also speaks to a trend in arts audiences that is fairly recent (at least compared to the 400-plus-year history of opera): "It capitalizes on our current binge-watching, if you will."