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Operatic Entrepreneurship Rises From the Ashes in Baltimore

Brendan Cooke, General Director, Baltimore Concert Opera - Arianne Teeple
Brendan Cooke, General Director, Baltimore Concert Opera - Arianne Teeple
In early 2009, opera aficionado and performer, Brendan Cooke, approached his wife about launching a small opera organization while the Baltimore Opera Company debated its future. He proposed two options: Say no, and he would never discuss it again, or agree and join him on the volunteer effort. She opted for the latter and Cooke's original intention soon morphed into a full-fledged grassroots effort to keep opera alive in Baltimore.

The 58-year-old Baltimore Opera Company filed for bankruptcy in March 2009, causing uncertainty and sadness among the newly contracted performers. While hoping for the Company's restructure, the performers, including Cooke and his wife, created Baltimore Concert Opera as an alternate creative outlet. Shortly after, Baltimore Opera left a void in the city's cultural scene by officially closing its doors.

"I actually found out about the [closure] while doing a live radio interview," Cooke said. "You can probably find a copy of it online and hear the absolute devastation in my voice."

After the filing, the Baltimore Concert Opera suddenly had a new purpose: to keep patrons interested in the art form while focusing on introducing opera to a new audience. In its infancy, BCO earned some press surrounding Baltimore Opera Company's demise, but primarily relied on social media and word of mouth to keep the buzz alive.

Baltimore Concert Opera took to Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook to share its mission, explain the concert opera's format, and highlight singers and performances. In 2010, BCO designed a social media scavenger hunt that had participants visiting advertisers for clues and tweeting about upcoming performances.

"It was really cool to see tech-savvy folks of all ages running around Baltimore, chatting -- virtually and in person -- about opera," Cooke shares.

Cooke also spoke at Ignite Baltimore, where local artists, technologists, entrepreneurs, and philosophers are challenged to relay their message in 20 slides and five minutes or less. Cooke's presentation, "Saving Opera One Voice at a Time," focused on agreeing that opera is worth supporting and preserving. A few takeaways: "The fat lady in horns? She's only in three or four operas," and "The tickets are not nearly as expensive as tickets to a Ravens game."

Baltimore Concert Opera also reaches new ears via open auditions in front of live audiences. Once selected, BCO promises that their format is "not for the faint of heart, [and] fast, intense and also a tremendous amount of fun!" Under Specialties on LinkedIn? "We're not your grandmother's opera company, but we sure sound like it."

"Who says serious fun and serious excellence are contradictory?" asks Baltimore Concert Opera patron Paul Cassedy. "With every production, Baltimore Concert Opera proves that the two go hand in hand, joined in a marriage that is, at once, lighthearted and passionate."

While Cooke is thrilled to see the expansion of Baltimore Opera Company for the city and its fans, he also has a personal stake in its success. Being an opera performer typically requires a vagabond lifestyle, and growing BCO meant that Cooke and others were able to stay in Baltimore while pursuing their passion.

"I have sung with many opera companies throughout the country, but love working at home and sleeping in my own bed," Cooke says.

In addition to Cooke, BCO has a volunteer board of directors, which is gradually expanding and sharing administrative tasks. Cooke and his team are continually focusing on creating a sustainable organization that can survive should any depart.

While promoting Baltimore Concert Opera, Cooke and his colleagues are also quick to support other local opera organizations. BaltimoreOpera.com shares a list of local opera companies, including BCO, Baltimore Opera Theatre, and Opera Baltimore.

"We go to great lengths to make sure that we schedule our performances around other operatic offerings," he says. "We want [patrons] to enjoy them all."

He does believe that Baltimore Concert Opera is set apart for several reasons. The concert setting, the beauty of the Garrett-Jacobs Mansion, and the ability to enjoy a cold beer during performances are a few. BCO's singers perform without sets or costumes, a cost savings that is passed on to the customer. The intimate setting allows the audience a personal connection rarely possible in an opera house. Seasoned fans gain a new perspective while newcomers can gently get their feet wet.

"Baltimore Concert Opera deflates stereotypes, defying those who consider opera a pompous or intimidating genre. Instead, it's a delightful dichotomy, taking its music and mission very seriously without taking itself too seriously, and making opera fun and accessible," shares season subscriber Mimi Hatch.

"We are a vocabulary builder, designed to find new audiences, educate a little, and send them out wanting more," Cooke echoes. "[Concert opera is] the gateway drug to opera."

Renee Libby Beck is a freelance writer and public relations coordinator for Medifast, Inc. Renee serves as the Baltimore Food Examiner for Examiner.com and writes for other local blogs and publications. She is completely tone deaf.

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- Brendan Cooke, General Director, Baltimore Concert Opera - Photo by Arianne Teeple
- The Baltimore Concert Opera - Photo by Madeleine Gray
- The Baltimore Concert Opera - Photo by Madeleine Gray
- Brendan Cooke - Photo by Arianne Teeple
- The Baltimore Concert Opera - Photo by Madeleine Gray
- The Baltimore Concert Opera - Photo by Madeleine Gray
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