Hoping For Spark, Vancouver Opera Becomes Festival

Gregory Dahl (Iago), Antonello Palombi (Otello), and Erin Wall (Desdemona) in Vancouver’s production of ‘Otello.’
By David Gordon Duke

VANCOUVER – The inaugural Vancouver Opera Festival, running from April 28 to May 13, is designed to be a multifaceted enterprise boasting three full-scale productions, featured solo performances, and a varied series of add-on panels, workshops, and discussions, all  organized by Vancouver Opera. The format replaces the company’s conventional season and amounts to a bold restructuring.

Vancouver Opera General Director Kim Gaynor

Vancouver Opera was founded in 1958 by the young Irving Guttman (1928-2014), who is remembered as a pioneer of opera production in Western Canada. The Greater Vancouver region was then a provincial,  although rapidly expanding, market of about three-quarters of a million people; its nascent cultural elite was well aware of its distance from major North American centers and from Europe. To address this isolation, in 1958 the Vancouver International Festival was created. Patterned on the Edinburgh Festival, the venture was nothing if not ambitious, and certainly offered exceptional events. But it proved far  too rich for the local scene, and it folded within a decade, creating a certain wary suspicion of festivals and of thinking too big.

Like most regional companies, Vancouver Opera has had its ups and downs. The early years emphasized Italian repertoire in cautiously conventional stagings. From 1974-80, the glamorous power couple of Richard Bonynge and Joan Sutherland was in charge. Brian McMaster provided inspired leadership from 1984-89, concurrent with his time at the Welsh National Opera (and before his stint at the Edinburgh Festival). James Wright, formerly general director of Opera Carolina and general manager of Anchorage Opera, took up the reins in 1999.

It was during the last phase of Wright’s successful tenure that the shift from a regular season of four productions to an opera festival was first broached. Wright retired and Kim Gaynor, who had been with the prestigious Verbier Festival in Switzerland, became VO general director last year.

Though the decision was made before Gaynor came to Vancouver, she is eloquent about the scheme and the conditions that led to the change of format. She spoke with me in a relatively calm moment just a week before the festival’s opening night.

J’Nai Bridges and Daniel Okulitch in ‘Dead Man Walking.’

“It’s for the same reasons that many North American companies are looking for new models,” she said. “We have aging and declining audiences for what we do in the theater on stage. People are not necessarily consuming less opera, but they’re consuming it in different ways. They’re going to the cinema, they’re going online, they’re subscribing to high-definition broadcasting.

“We need to find ways to keep them in the theater. Our business is live performance, and we know that certain kinds of models such as festivals attract younger audiences by their very nature, being a kind of celebration where you can do things you can’t do in a regular season.”

Vancouver Opera isn’t the only company embracing change, and Gaynor has had her eye on other approaches:

“Particularly the Philadelphia model, which I’m still watching very closely because it’s slightly different from ours. In fact it’s closer to what I’m proposing for next year, which is a festival in a season or a season anchored by a festival.”

High on the list of those possibilities are collaborations. “We can do partnerships with other cultural organizations where we’re exploring everything opera can be,” she said, “so that might be, in the future, doing an opera in concert, as opposed to staged with costumes and sets. We already have a confirmed partnership with Early Music Vancouver.

Caitlin Wood (Susanna) and Alex Lawrence (Figaro) in ‘The Marriage of Figaro.’

“There haven’t been any real objections, just people who’ve said, ‘Yes, but I also want to have some opera all year long.’ We’re what’s considered in North America to be a regional opera company. And I think that’s a good thing because it means you are the major professional voice for opera in the region. As that, we have to be all things to all people, or all opera-loving people.

“The management of people and resources is very different. You don’t use a lot of people for a lot of the year and then you need a lot of people. On the other hand, if you do activity throughout the year, you can keep good people employed, you can provide opportunities to a greater number of people, and that makes sense for a regional opera company.”

As for actual programming, the first festival offers a mix: Verdi’s Otello, Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, and Jake Heggie’s popular Dead Man Walking.

If Verdi has figured extra-large in the performance history of Vancouver Opera, in many ways Otello is the most unconventional of the offerings. For whatever reasons, it has been mounted only once by VO, three decades ago. This new production brings together a strong team starting with Antonello Palombi in the title role. Soprano Erin Wall, who sings Desdemona, grew up in Vancouver. Director Michael Cavanagh was director for VO’s brilliant Nixon in China offered during the cultural festivities surrounding the 2010 Winter Olympics. And VO music director Jonathan Darlington will conduct. Darlington, who has been with the company since 2002, has led some of the most memorable Verdi productions in the company’s history and is known for getting exemplary work from the inconsistent VO Orchestra.

Vancouver Opera Music Director Jonathan Darlington

Darlington is also conducting four performances of Dead Man Walking, with Canadian baritone Daniel Okulitch and mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges in the two star roles. While Vancouver has never yet seen such  modern classics as Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk or Berg’s Wozzeck, contemporary opera (anathema in the early days of the company) became a regular aspect of the Wright years, including productions of John Adams’ aforementioned Nixon in China, Tan Dun’s Tea: A Mirror of Soul, Nico Muhly’s Dark Sisters, and several new works by Canadian composers.

Oddly, The Marriage of Figaro could be the most revolutionary offering. In the past, VO Mozart productions were always mounted in the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, a mid-century behemoth with too many seats, an enormous stage, and bad sound (the last at least partially mitigated by a re-fit, a few years ago). Theatrical intimacy and historically informed performance styles were impossible. For thirteen Festival performances, Figaro is in the Vancouver Playhouse, a smaller part of the Queen Elizabeth complex often used for recitals and chamber music performances. Seating just under 680, it’s just a bit smaller than the old Burgtheater in Vienna, where Figaro was first performed. If the gambit succeeds, the possibilities for performances of 17th- and 18th-century works are endless.

Major productions are by no means all that’s on offer at the festival. There is outreach to Vancouver’s thriving choral community with a sing-along Carmina Burana, a showcase for alternative audiences with popular Inuit singer Tanya Tagaq, and Uta Lemper’s “Last Tango in Berlin.” Free events abound. The bet is that the Vancouver region, with a current population of 2.5 million, and with another six million living within a day’s drive of the theater, has achieved the necessary critical mass to support the grand endeavor.

As the Festival gets ready to launch, two crucial questions are paramount: Has Vancouver Opera been able to retain traditional listeners in an untraditional format? And has the festival created a new audience for traditional opera? Time and box-office receipts will tell.

For further information and tickets, go here.

David Gordon Duke contributes reviews and essays to The Vancouver Sun and American Record Guide. He is academic coordinator at the School of Music, Vancouver Community College and teaches at the University of British Columbia.