Q & A: David B. Devan on His Time With Opera Philadelphia & Why It’s Time to Move On

By Rick Perdian

Spring was in the air in Philadelphia when I met with David B. Devan in Opera Philadelphia’s Center City offices. Warm temperatures and flowers heralded a new season, as clearly as the empty offices signaled change for the opera company. 

Devan is stepping down as Opera Philadelphia’s general director at the end of May. It was a decision prompted in part by budget issues, a problem plaguing arts organizations everywhere. When economics drove a scaled-back 2024-25 season and the suspension of the company’s ground-breaking Festival O, Devan decided that it was time to step aside after 18 years with the company. 

The physical changes are not only a reflection of the need to cut costs, but also a sign of adjusting to post-COVID realities. A smaller office footprint is needed as people are working from home more of the time. The costume shop will relocate to the vacated space, which is adjacent to the Academy of Music, where Opera Philadelphia regularly performs. Some longtime employees have taken the opportunity to launch their own businesses, while maintaining ties to the company.

In March, Devan had been feted a “Toi toi toi!”, which was billed as a gala fundraising event for Opera Philadelphia. That it may have been, but it was also Philadelphia’s opportunity to celebrate Devan’s success in making the city one of the most important centers of innovation for opera in the country. 

The gala featured performances by rising stars who have made indelible impressions on Philadelphia audiences. These included soprano Ashley Marie Robillard, mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, countertenor John Holiday, tenor Joshua Blue, and baritone Will Liverman. At the other end of the career spectrum was Frederica von Stade, who had appeared in Lembit Beecher and Hannah Moscovitch’s “Sky on Swings” at Festival O18.

Devan and I spoke just days before Opera Philadelphia wrapped up its 2023-24 season with a new production of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.” It was Devan’s operatic swan song to the city which embraced him and he now calls home. 

(This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)

OperaWire: How did a Canadian figure skater get into opera?

David B. Devan: I took a year off between high school and university to compete as a pairs skater. When my partner decided to quit skating, I had to figure out what to do next. I worked for a while as a choreographer in skating, but I had been really good at math in school, so I got an undergraduate degree in finance. My father suggested that I apply to business school and I did. One of my professors knew about my skating and interest in dance, so he suggested that I get an MBA in arts administration. Heeding my father’s advice launched me on this wonderful career. 

OW: What brought you to Philadelphia?

DBD: I was executive director of Pacific Opera Victoria in Canada, where I had brought in to spearhead a turnaround for the company in 1997. Opera Company of Philadelphia, as the company was then known, had just suffered the loss of its executive director, John P. Mulroney, who had died unexpectedly. The company was running a deficit and needed to change course. I wasn’t approached by OCP directly, but rather contacted by the headhunters who were conducting the search. I didn’t feel it was the right time to move to the United States, but I came for an interview anyway.

OW: What sold you on the job?

DBD: I wasn’t so interested in the position as advertised, but I came with a vision for the company. At that time, Philadelphia was the fifth largest city in the U.S., but in terms of opera it was punching below its weight. Artistically, it was undervalued because it was trying to compete with the Metropolitan Opera. To my thinking, this was one of the last best opportunities in the U.S. to build an opera company. Of course, OPC had a long and distinguished history, as well as a good base upon which to build, but it needed to reinvent itself. The search committee’s response to my ideas was an enthusiastic “yes,” and so my husband and I moved here in 2006.

OW: A great deal of emphasis has been on new works and rising musical talent, but your focus on the future of opera didn’t stop there, did it?

DBD: I volunteer as a Big Brother. When I brought my Little Brother, who lives in North Philly, to the theater when we were doing Verdi’s “Don Carlo,” he lit up like a Christmas tree. It dawned on me that there are so many kids that aren’t heading to university who have no idea that working in the theater is a career option. 

I called Veronica Chapman-Smith, Opera Philadelphia’s Vice President of Community Initiatives, and the union heads and said that we need to develop a program for the next generation of theater tradespersons and technicians. The twist was that I wanted to focus on schools with high drop-out rates where kids don’t feel as if there’s anything out there for them. 

To the local unions’ credit, they stepped right up, and together with help from other partner organizations, Backstage Pass was launched. It is a vocational training program which introduces students to varied careers backstage — carpentry, costumes, electrics, props, stagehands, stage management, wigs and makeup — in theater, film, and concerts. In the next year or so, it is going to really start to scale up, but we already have kids leaving high school with union apprentice cards.

OW: What’s your response to those who have reservations on your emphasis on audience development to the extent which you have? 

DBD: I’m perfectly okay taking a bullet on that one. It’s a downpayment on the future. If we have to be a bit radical to attract a younger, engaged audience, so be it. Every time we open our doors, 30 percent of the audience fits into that demographic. The trouble is that they don’t behave like their parents. There’s neither a development pyramid nor a subscription track for them. They come to a performance and we may not see them for another two years. Leaders make mistakes and if that was one of mine, I’m okay with that. 

OW: Why is this the time to move on?

DBD: I came to Philadelphia with a vision and I satisfied that vision. The company needs a new generation of leadership to deal with the great crop of younger artists. They need someone who is closer to them both in terms of age and experience to manifest the opportunities which they are bringing to the table.

This generation doesn’t see themselves just as performers. They see themselves as being part of the process, including being creators in their own right. I think one of the answers as to how to reach new audiences is to work with these artists and follow where they lead. This will not only change what we produce, but how we produce it. I hope that I have acquired some wisdom over the years which I can impart, but I’m the wrong guy for the job now. 

OW: What comes next?

DBD: When I took the job, we intended to stay for four or five years. Eighteen years later, Philadelphia is home. We intend to stay here and it’s where I will be for the next chapter of my career. I have started my own firm under the name of Portage & Practice, LLC, which is an indication that I’m an avid backcountry canoeist.

Active portaging is working with others to determine whether you know what is needed to stay alive. You then have to carry everything over uncertain, sometimes difficult footing to get up to smooth water, so that you can embark on a great journey. My business model is to apply that concept to the opera and not-for-profit arts space. I want to do important projects with people whom I like, assisting on both the administration and artistic sides.

OW: Your last production for Opera Philadelphia will be “Madama Butterfly” which to some extent brings you full circle in opera, doesn’t it?

DBD: I had never seen an opera until I was working for the Canadian Opera Company in the late 1980s. My first was Verdi’s “Un ballo in maschera,” which left me wondering if I had made the biggest mistake ever. A week later, Brian Macdonald and Susan Benson’s production of “Madama Butterfly” starring Yoko Watanabe opened. Afterwards, I was a total emotional mess, but hooked on opera.


Behind the ScenesInterviews