David Devan Dishes on Opera Philadelphia and the Arts

The general director and president of Opera Philadelphia talks breaking stereotypes, experiencing the arts and travel essentials.

Canadian transplant David Devan moved to Philadelphia nine years ago to develop Opera Philadelphia and was appointed general director in 2011.This year, the opera company celebrates its 40th season. David spoke with us over a cup of tea about what this anniversary means for Opera Philadelphia, and what audiences can expect next. Plus, he gives us the scoop on where to experience the arts around town and day trips to take from Philly. 

What attracted you about developing an opera company in Philadelphia?

I thought that were was more opportunity here than any other major city in the U.S. Philadelphia has such a rich history of classic music with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Curtis Institute of Music. I came to see the city and fell in love instantly. It had enough of a European vibe to read into my Canadian sensibilities but enough of the innovation and energy of an American city in the Northeast.

Tell us about the 40th anniversary of Opera Philadelphia.

It’s a big season. Just like in life when people enter into their forties, when opera companies enter into their forties, there’s a certain amount of maturity and swagger. We opened the season with “Barber of Seville,” which was a new production based on the Pedro Almodóvar film, “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.” It was an amazing experience that had people rolling in the aisles. The rest of the season really carries on our practice of doing contemporary, commissioned works along with masterpieces from the regular canon. 

What is the show to see this season?

Well, it depends on who you are. If you’re a literary-minded person, you should definitely see “Oscar.” Much of the libretto is from his writings. “Ariadne auf Naxos” is the quintessential inside baseball kind of opera. If you have never been to an opera and you’re like I want the opera with the big choruses and big juicy Italian voices, “Don Carlo” is it. If you’re a jazz person, or if you’re interested in new work, “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird” is the one for you and it will probably be the hardest to get tickets for. It’s a world premiere so there’s going to be so much attention.

Opera Philadelphia
Opera Philadelphia's "Oscar" (©Ken Howard)

What is the biggest misconception about opera?

Still, we are rattled with stereotypes like fat ladies with helmets and horns, parking and barking as we say in the industry. [laughs] You’re never going to find that here. We just talked about “Barber of Seville” that was this crazy, absurdist Spanish film—it was extraordinary. Which is why we’re trying to sort of honor the tradition and the history of opera, but also celebrate its progression and what is can be. If you think about it, opera is the original multimedia experience. Before there was an internet, before there were smart phones, before computers, there was opera. We’re seeing a huge increase in younger people coming to opera. I think when you strip away the screen and you have something that’s so visceral and so bigger than life with all these things happening that a younger generation is totally ripe for it because it’s extreme.

What do you see in the next 40 years for Opera Philadelphia?

In the next five years, because I’m literally planning them as we speak, [laughs] we want to provide an opportunity for artists and consumers to energize each other and be a unique place where artistry and citizenry come together. I think we’ve done a lot of work at being a part of the community with our Opera on the Mall broadcasts. I think in the years to come, you’re going to see that civic practice grow so that we continue to be a part of the city and not above it. We’ve also got some really exciting, kick-ass projects coming up.

Where do you go to experience the arts in Philadelphia?

The whole devised theater world is fantastic. I’m a big Bearded Ladies and Pig Iron Theatre fan. I know almost every corridor of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and think the ICA [Institute of Contemporary Art] at Penn University does an amazing job.  

Institute of Contemporary Art
Visit the Institute of Contemporary Art on the Penn campus in University City. (©J. Fusco/Visit Philadelphia)

What is the best day trip you would recommend from Philadelphia?

One of my favorite things to do is go biking. I love the Wissahickon Trail. What other city can you live in that you can be in a beautiful forested area in 20 minutes on bike? For those more intrepid cyclists, the Valley Forge trips are great. 

What’s one of your favorite romantic locales in Philly?

In February, my absolute favorite thing to do is skate the rink at Penn’s Landing. I was a figure skater in my former life. I think that’s a totally romantic thing to do. Go to the Blue Cross RiverRink Winterfest, ice skate and make s’mores. I think that’s a totally romantic thing to do.

Blue Cross RiverRink Winterfest
Race around the rink before warming up at a fire pit at the Blue Cross RiverRink Winterfest. (©Matt Stanley)

Do you travel often?

I do. A lot. I was in the Czech Republic in November. I went to San Diego, San Francisco and Los Angeles in January. I’m going to Amsterdam, Berlin and London this month. 

What are your travel essentials?

My staff jokes that traveling with me is like going on "The Amazing Race." The travel essentials are to be as organized as humanely possible. I’m a minimalist traveler. I carry only what I need. Essentials are one really good suit that you can switch up with shirts and ties, one pair of shoes and some toiletry luxuries. For me, I leave a little room for my Christian Dior cologne. 

If you could wake up anywhere in the world tomorrow, where would it be and why?

India. It’s on my bucket list.