David B. Devan, Opera Philadelphia’s general director and president, has a lot to discuss.
Topics we chatted with him about include his having just re-signed a contract to stay with the opera company through the end of the 2020 season because, as he said, “our mission has just begun.” And, of course, we had to talk about the creation of the company’s first-ever opera festival. The new fest (think the yearly Fringe with brief, sharp operas set against longer pieces in unique spaces) starts right before September 2017’s season.
Right now, though — and not to blunt the importance of Devan’s current efforts for Opera Philadelphia, which have transformed the company radically since his arrival in 2006, least of all with inventively staged classics, newly composed opera mash-ups and well-heeled social-media-based PR — Devan is busy laughing about dressing in drag and serving arts patrons coq au vin.
“Last night was so much fun,” he said the day after he and husband David A. Dubbeldam (“yes, the Davids”) welcomed 30 philanthropists into their home with the help of Bearded Ladies’ John Jarboe. The guests won an auction prize of dinner cooked by the couple as part of a fundraiser for Wilma Theatre.
“The deal was they paid $250 each for me to cook them dinner,” he said. “All of a sudden I just popped out with, ‘If you each throw in an additional $50, I’ll do it in drag.’”
They did, so he did: dressed as Julia Child, talking in her high voice, cooking and serving Child’s aforementioned chicken dish, crème of mushroom soup and French tartlets, while Jarboe donned Edith Piaf gear and serenaded in between courses.
“I dare Peter Gelb to do this,” Devan laughed, referencing the head of New York City’s Metropolitan Opera. “This, though, is exactly what makes Philadelphia special.”
Making dinner for new friends and old while dressed like a woman was never part of Devan’s social or culinary diet when he lived in Victoria British Columbia, doing much the same job for their opera company (“putting it into radical turnaround”).
“It could only happen in Philly,” he said about his stint as a chef in drag. “One of the things that David and I love about this city is that there is but one degree of separation with everyone in the arts and its partners. You can really forge meaningful relationships … a network of friends you get to know individually and professionally.”
That’s a line Devan loves to blur: the indistinguishable arc of life where people come together in acts of friendship or philanthropy, or business or art. “That’s why I’m staying here.”
Rather, that’s why the Davids are staying here. Before moving to Philly, they were a “happily out” couple in British Columbia; they wedded there, as marriage equality has been recognized there since 2003.
“It’s very progressive, nothing prudish there. We just weren’t as celebrated as a couple in British Columbia as we are here. That’s another thing about Philly that I love; as an openly gay man, I don’t ever edit my life here. Just let it all hang out, be exactly who you are or who you want to be.”
Dubbeldam has reinvented himself locally as a Universalist Unitarian chaplain in a hospital, a career he’ll commence in full after finishing his current residency at Einstein.
“We support each other. We’re a package deal,” Devan said. “Going forward, being married to a chaplain, you need to have some emotional currency left for each other at the end of the day.”
The end of the day just got longer for Devan now that he’s created the opera festival.
Its September 2017 debut, he said, will allow for more artistic freedom and exciting work than ever before in Philly and beyond. There is a world premiere of “We Shall Not Be Moved,” a hip-hop-era piece developed by composer Daniel Bernard Roumain and librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph for Opera Philadelphia and directed by the legendary Bill T. Jones in the Wilma Theater. There are two new operas rolled into one, “War Stories,” which will be staged at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. An ornate take on Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” will be mounted in the Academy of Music for the sake of opera traditionalism with a twist.
This is just to name a few of the selections to be staged at the inaugural festival.
“It is a model – festival, then season — that has not been done before and that thrills me,” Devan said. “[We’re] figuring out how to build a sustainable classical-arts festival in the 21th century.”