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Photographed by Justin Tsucalas
As a boy in Jacksonville, Fla., James Harp would sometimes be so moved while listening to opera recordings that he’d scrawl “rapturous” or “divine” in the margins of the score as he followed along.
Almost 40 years later, when the singers Harp directs see those scores they’re reminded— not that anyone who knows Harp needs a reminder— that opera has been his lifelong passion. And that, in a sense, he has been training his entire life for his current role as artistic director of Lyric Opera Baltimore, the company that rose from the ashes of the Baltimore Opera Company and will open its first full season with “La Traviata” on Nov. 4 and 6 at the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric.
Harp, who is 53, came to town in 1978 to study voice at Peabody Conservatory. But rather than focusing solely on vocal performance after graduation, he set about creating himself as a one-man opera dynamo: singer, conductor, choirmaster, composer, organist and music director. There is hardly a classical music organization in town that he hasn’t participated in or led.
And though opera is his first love, he doesn’t confine himself to high-brow music— he’s composed scores for silent films, sung “My Old Kentucky Home” on TV at the 1981 Kentucky Derby, coached Lily Tomlin when she sang arias from “Aida” on “Homicide” and camped it up onstage at the Young Vic.
Perhaps most interestingly, he adapted the Puccini opera “Gianni Schicchi,” which is set in 1299 Florence, Italy, into an opera titled “The Tale of Johnnie S. Kickey,” which is set in Florence, Ala., in 1929. “It’s a story about a man who dies and all of his heirs are trying to get his money,” says Harp. “I based all the characters on people in my family, though I’m not naming any names!” The opera debuted at Artscape in 1987 and has since been staged all over the South.
As artistic director of Lyric Opera Baltimore, Harp is finally the head opera honcho after years as opera’s MVP in town. He was the perfect choice for the position, says Sandy Richmond, executive director and president of the Modell Performing Arts Center. “There’s no one else in the Baltimore region that is as knowledgeable, experienced and enthusiastic about opera and music in general,” says Richmond. “He’s a gem.”
Harp chooses the productions, casts singers, oversees the chorus and selects sets, costumes and directors. And he does it all with characteristic wit and passion.
“The first time I did Wagner with Baltimore Opera Company, we came in for rehearsal and saw that, as a joke, but only halfway, Jim had erected a kind of a shrine, a giant oil portrait of Wagner surrounded by flowers and candles,” says Monica Reinagel, a mezzo-soprano and 15-year veteran of the Baltimore Opera Company. “When we got to a particularly sublime moment, he would stop and turn to the portrait and say, ‘Thank you.’”
Reinagel adds that Harp enlivens the often-tedious process of learning a score in a foreign language. “He has us move around while we’re singing. It’s like he’s part gym teacher,” she says. He’s also been known to shout, “Your voice is not just a musical instrument— it’s a weapon. You must hurl it at your audience!” and “Life begins at forte,” as encouragement for singers to pump up the volume. But perhaps the most memorable of his quirks is the customer service bell he keeps on his piano, which he “dings” when someone utters a funny line during rehearsal, or when one of the choristers looks especially put-together. One night all the female members of the chorus showed up to rehearsal in evening gowns and got a lot of dings.
Armed with both passion and an encyclopedic knowledge of opera history and productions, Harp is the perfect evangelist, and in his role as artistic director, he plans to convert folks as young as 4 years old with programs such as puppet shows about putting on an opera. “The kids eat it up,” he says. “When you ask a roomful of Baltimore City third-graders who wants to be an opera singer when they grow up, everyone raises their hand.”
Though there are certainly bigger and grander opera towns in the world, Harp believes Baltimore can hold its own and he has strong evidence on his side. “Of all the companies that have collapsed in the past two years in various cities— I think there are about eight of them— Baltimore is the only one where grand opera has come back,” he says.
Additional reporting by Laura Lefavor.