Departing president David B. Devan ensures his final O Fest is one to remember

O Fest Devan
‘Unholy Wars’ reframes the Crusades from a Middle Eastern perspective to reveal a new story of belonging and resilience.
William Struhs

This year’s O Fest is many things. Think of it as a Netflix-like choose-your-schedule festival with several new operas — vocalist Karim Sulayman’s ‘Unholy Wars’, composer Rene Orth’s ’10 Days in a Madhouse’, Francesco Maria Piave and Arrigo Boito’s freshly-deconstructed take on Verdi’s ‘Simon Boccanegra’ to name a few.

But for President David B. Devan, this year’s O Fest is much more—it’s also his swan song.

David B. Devan will retire next spring as head of Opera Philadelphia. HUGHE DILLON

“I’m hoping O Fest 2023 is a great victory lap,” said Devan. “This is the last time I’ll be speaking to you as General Director of Opera Philadelphia because at the end of this season, and the run of my contract, I’ll be moving on. I’m joyful to move on and make room for the next generation of leaders to take charge of the company and the initiatives I’ve been proud to establish. And I’ll be staying in Philadelphia as an independent arts advisor and producer.”

Thankfully, we haven’t seen or heard the last of Devan, a man who admits that live performance attendance and audience engagement in a post-pandemic setting greatly affected his decision to step down from Opera Philadelphia leadership.

“Thoughtfully, strategically, we’re at a tipping point as a society-at-large in terms of a post-Covid return, especially in the arts,” he said. “Boomer-dom is done. The pandemic accelerated that. Our systems are not set up for Gen X, Y, and Z. And, though we created this innovative, vital opera organization for Philadelphia AND the U.S., I should step aside and let someone from a new generation figure out the next answers… I think that Opera Philadelphia going forward should be an artist-driven organization.”

The creative team behind ’10 Days in a Madhouse’ is pictured.Ray Bailey

Before stepping aside from leadership, there is one more O Fest up Devan’s sleeve – its aforementioned three mainstage productions, the operatic events at Late Night Snacks’ Closet headquarters on South Street, and Voices showcases at Curtis Institute of Music.

“All of Opera Philadelphia’s artistic values are evident in this year’s O Fest in interesting contrasting ways,” said Devan.

Karim Sulayman stated that he found a way into the more opulent and “esoteric” musics of ‘Unholy Wars‘ so to lure audiences more easily to the stages of the Suzanne Roberts Theatre.
“I wanted there to be ear-friendly stuff,” said the tenor vocalist. “And there is this incredible meditative quality to be found with this music, and with this subject matter.”

When it came to Rene Orth’s entrancing ‘10 Days in a Madhouse‘ at the Wilma Theatre, the composer said of her world premiere that she wanted to present a strong female character — “something that is grossly underrepresented in opera” — while speaking up for social justice and mental health.

“This was a chance for me to write for women and women’s choruses, and it screamed “operatic form,” and the idea of exploring a character’s journey through a psychological space,” said Orth.

“I’m really happy when an opera can make people cry, and Rene’s ‘Madhouse’ delivers on that count on several occasions,” added Devan. “There needs to be an urgency about these operas, that these are the most important works from these artists at this time. These are urgent works that we’re presenting at O Fest 2023. That’s the point of having a festival such as O 23 in the first place.”

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