WITH the funding axe coming down on the National Endowment for the Arts, a deepening economic recession, and a war in the Middle East, now is possibly the worst time to start up a major arts organization in the United States. But that's exactly what Peter Sellars and his coterie of operatic colleagues plan to do here with the creation of the Boston Opera Theater, which presents its debut production tonight of Mozart's ``The Marriage of Figaro'' at the Colonial Theater.
As the curtain rises on this fledgling company, another daring objective waits in the wings: Boston Opera Theater hopes to provide a ``new model'' for American opera, one that will give momentum to the art form.
``The only model we have for American opera, really, is the Met [the Metropolitan Opera in New York],'' says executive director Robert Cannon, interviewed in the new company's headquarters in Back Bay. ``We think Boston ... deserves to have a company that is built on a new model [of opera] for the next century.''
Though not without precedent in America, the characteristics of Boston Opera Theater are uniquely combined: A small theater of 1,600 seats (most US theaters used for opera seat at least 2,500), scaled-down productions, a slim budget, resident or ``house'' singers, and most important - the staging of innovative modern works and new interpretations of traditional works that will bring in new audiences.
``So many opera companies have to put on `La Traviata' in order to fill the seats,'' says James Maddalena, who plays Count Almaviva in ``Figaro.'' ``It's always very precarious, but we're all keeping our fingers crossed. Opera definitely needs a company like this, that's willing to take chances.''
That's where Peter Sellars comes in. For over a decade, this directorial iconoclast has been electrifying, insulting, and baffling audiences around the world with his renditions of operatic masterworks (notably his Mozart-DaPonte cycle seen in New York, Paris, and Vienna) and stagings of new works, like ``Nixon in China.''
As artistic adviser, Sellars says he expects to act as ``a friend of the family'' to musical director Craig Smith and the singers.
``A lot of people have been very skeptical as to whether we'd even get this production off,'' says Mr. Cannon. In recent years, Sarah Caldwell's Opera Company of Boston has struggled with financial and managerial problems, but Cannon denies that the new company is a renegade, split-off group from Miss Caldwell. The movement to establish a first-rate opera company here ``has been underway for several years,'' he says, ``and this led to the formation of a new company.''
After ``Figaro,'' Boston Opera Theater will begin its first full season this fall, consisting of three or four fully staged operas. Over time, the company hopes to stage new versions of traditional operas and revivals of 20th-century masterpieces, and to commission works from American composers.
Though Cannon admits he could ``paper the walls'' of his office with all the requests for funding that have been rejected, ticket sales are encouraging. ``We sold out practically before we opened the box office. That's unheard of,'' he says.
Much of the excitement stems from loyal Sellars fans who hopped on his stylistic band-wagon several years ago when the three Mozart-Daponte operas were originally produced by the PepsiCo Summerfare festival in Purchase, N.Y. Endeavoring to make Mozart meaningful and relevant to today's audiences, Sellars upended the staid opera world with his ``Figaro'' situated in Trump Tower, ``Don Giovanni'' set in Spanish Harlem, and ``Cosi fan tutte'' set in a diner.
Also stirring enthusiasm is the fact that Boston is ``hometown'' to these operas, which were created and rehearsed here - but never performed in town, although PBS broadcast versions of them recently on television. Sellars is also a Harvard College graduate, and began his theater experimentation in Boston.
Yet not everyone is sanguine about Boston Opera Theater's debut. Local critics of Sellars's approach have branded it ``manipulative,'' ``a passing fad,'' and ``avant-schlock.''
``They are turning off as many as they are turning on,'' says an opera expert in Boston, who requested anonymity. ``The audience sits there and is amused because they see all these contemporary references. It's funny, [but afterwards] you realize you have not seen `The Marriage of Figaro' - you've seen another opera.''
Sellars's work will be only a portion of what is presented by the new company, though he will help select guest directors, says Cannon. Reached by phone, Sellars insists there will be ``no official political-correctness litmus test'' used in choosing directors. Criteria will be based on ``the beauty of the work,'' he says, ``what's human and interesting and what feels true.''
The opulent but cozy Colonial Theater, which in terms of size comes closer to most European opera houses than American, will play an important role in the selection of presentations.
``There's a whole repertory now that seems to work better in a smaller house,'' says Cannon. ``Audiences tend to like it better, because they can see it and hear it. ... We in this country made the mistake of building [theaters] too large, because we thought, Americans being who they are and having no subsidies at all, if we can get more seats in, we can make more money.''
While Cannon doesn't knock the ``spectacle'' operas that require huge barns, he says, ``increasingly, the big voices that are available in the world to fill the big opera houses are becoming fewer,'' more expensive, and less reliable. The day of the ``star system'' in opera is over, he says - not in every house - ``but there has to be another model.'' Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, N.Y. and the Opera Theatre of St. Louis are smaller theaters forging new models, too, he says.
In intimate theaters, singers have to act and not simply gesture. Conductor Smith boasts that the singers at Boston Opera Theater have true ensemble - the result of having been colleagues in the Boston area.
Good acting ``comes from people being familiar,'' says Mr. Smith, on break during rehearsals at the Colonial. ``If you just met someone that night, you can't act as if you're married,'' he adds.
Boston Opera Theater ``is going to make a splash on the opera scene by being their own individual selves,'' says Ardis Krainik, general director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the first major American opera house to host a Sellars production. ``We all need new models to emulate or to take our own departure from.''