It was the feud that lit the opera community aflame.
On closing night in Norfolk of the Virginia Opera's "Rigoletto" two years ago, Peter Mark and Edythe C. Harrison took the stage during the company bow. Harrison, the opera's founding president and one of the patrons after which the Harrison Opera House was named, spoke about an insidious plot to remove longtime maestro Mark from the company.
Two days earlier, the Virginia Opera had issued a letter explaining that Mark's "history of difficulties in working relations with staff, musicians and board leadership" had caused the company to add safeguards against Mark in his contract. When problems were unresolved, the board asked Mark to take early retirement, which he declined.
Thus began a series of negotiations, heated meetings and accusations within one of the state's most prestigious artistic groups. A few weeks after a meeting in Williamsburg, in the middle of the 2010-'11 season, Mark was fired.
Mark — referred to as the embodiment of opera in Virginia by some patrons — decided to form a new company, Lyric Opera Virginia. Its first season saw critically acclaimed productions of "La Traviata," "Carmen" and "The King and I."
But things weren't going well for Lyric financially.
"This is not a very good time for the arts in general," says Mark, Lyric's artistic director and conductor. "It's very unstable in this economy, and a lot of people are concerned."
After being unable to pay bills for last season and the upcoming one, Lyric pushed back the start of its second season from September to August. Upon hearing about Lyric's financial woes, Virginia Opera president and chief executive Russell Allen approached Mark with an offer: The Virginia Opera would take over two of the company's previously scheduled main-stage shows, and honor Lyric season ticket holders.
"We were concerned because we have many overlapping subscribers," Allen says. "We didn't want any of them to experience a loss, and so we thought with a quick financial analysis that we might be able to pick up those two productions and still have a good shot at breaking even."
This month the Virginia Opera will perform Lerner and Loewe's "Camelot," originally planned for Lyric. Next season the Virginia Opera will pick up Puccini's "La Fanciulla del West," or "Girl of the Golden West." Both shows will be performed at the locations Lyric had scheduled, all of which are either new or unfamiliar venues for the Virginia Opera. Though the Virginia Opera folks are pros at staging shows at multiple locations, changing venues and putting together shows on such short notice has its challenges.
"With 'Camelot' we had to work very quickly," Allen says. "There were a number of things that we had to complete. Basically the stage direction and the concept for "Camelot" will be the concept that Lyric Opera had put together. A number of the casting decisions hadn't been made, so we had to finish that right away. Then we had to finish the design work."
Though the next two seasons for the Virginia Opera will have six shows instead of the normal five, Allen says it's premature to say whether it will become the norm. Though Mark no longer has a hand in either of the shows, an olive branch was extended earlier this year when he was named artistic director emeritus of the Virginia Opera.
But don't count Lyric Opera Virginia out yet. The company still plans to conduct opera events and concerts, just without main-stage performances. "The Best of Broadway" will be the first of these performances, and will take place at the Weinstein Jewish Community Center on Jan. 17.
"We want to continue to bring new talent to Virginia and bring the audience backstage to see what it's like to create the art form," Mark says. "I think there is an important and cooperative role we can play." S
Virginia Opera's "Camelot" will play at the Landmark Theater on Jan. 20. For information, visit vaopera.org or call 866-OPERA-VA.
Lyric Opera Virginia's "The Best of Broadway" will play at the Weinstein Jewish Community Center on Jan. 17. For information, visit lyricoperavirginia.org or call 757-446-6666.