D.I.Y. Opera
December 8, 2010 |  by Dale Keiger

Brendan Cooke, Peab ’01 (MM), was live on the radio when he learned he no longer had a job with the Baltimore Opera Company. For 10 years, he had performed in the company’s chorus and the occasional secondary role: Jero in Rossini’s The Siege of Corinth, Crespel in Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman. The company was central to his singing career and cultural life. When Sheilah Kast, host of Maryland Morning on Baltimore public station WYPR, called him for an on-air chat in March 2009, he knew that Baltimore Opera had entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy months earlier, but he assumed management would reorganize the finances and carry on. Then Kast asked for his thoughts on the breaking news that the company had changed its bankruptcy to Chapter 7—dissolution. Listen to a recording of the interview and you can hear the shock in Cooke’s voice: “That’s the first I . . . uh . . . that’s the first I’m hearing of it. Oh my goodness. My thoughts are of complete and utter devastation. That company is the reason my wife and I live in Baltimore. I had no idea.”

He had been under contract to sing in the chorus for a production of The Barber of Seville. Shortly after the company’s first announcement of filing for Chapter 11, which canceled the production, he had called some of his buddies with an idea. Why not do their own performance? “I was going to be in the [Baltimore Opera] chorus with 23 of my friends,” he says. “That chorus was like a second family. What were we going to do with all of our nights in the spring?” As a member of the Engineer’s Club of Baltimore, Cooke had access to a venue, the ballroom of the Garrett-Jacobs Mansion, which the club owns. He and his friends could invite some people to listen as they sang Seville in a concert performance at the club. It might be a bit of informal fun and a sort of wake.

They soon decided that performing Seville would look like an ill-tempered swipe at the Baltimore Opera. So they changed from Rossini to Mozart, from Seville to Don Giovanni. No sets, no costumes, no acting, just the singers, the music, and a pianist standing in for the orchestra. They pooled $750 of their own money to entice some guest performers, and Cooke began making calls. He says, “I looked at who were the best singers who owed me a favor, and what was in their repertoire. We threw together a cast for one performance.” As the Baltimore Concert Opera (BCO), they hurriedly built a website and sent out a few press releases. After newspapers picked up the story, “the phone just started ringing, which was a surprise to all of us.” A mere 12 days after Cooke learned of the Baltimore Opera’s final collapse, an overflow crowd took their seats in the Garrett-Jacobs ballroom.

Prior to the concert, the singers had managed one rehearsal, and there were problems. “There were so many elements about this that none of us could know because we’d never done it before,” says Cooke. “The fact that we needed lights, what to do when the lights broke, how to project the supertitles. Who stands at which music stand—we’d never thought of that, so people in the dress rehearsal were bumping into each other, or were not on the stage at the right time. Jason Hardy, who performed Leporello, was staying with me, and I got home that night and looked at him almost in tears because we had 300 people coming to this thing. I said, ‘Can you fix it?’

“He showed up an hour early the next day with Excel spreadsheets for everybody: ‘You go to this music stand on this measure number, and you do this.’ I watched and it looked like it had been rehearsed for months.” He adds, “I don’t remember much right before curtain. It was like, ‘Oh shit, here we go.’”

The next day, Baltimore Sun music critic Tim Smith reviewed the performance on his blog, Clef Notes, calling it uneven but encouraging, with impressive singing by Hardy, Peab ’00 (MM), Peab ’04 (GAD), soprano Erika Juengst, Peab ’00 (MM), and baritone Michael Mayes. It was a mixed review, but a review, nevertheless, from the city’s most important music critic. There was nothing uneven about Cooke’s response to the evening: “It was the biggest high I’ve ever experienced in my life.”