Magazine article Opera Canada

Arthur Kaptainis Assesses the Outlook after a Summer of Upheaval at L'Opera De Montreal

Magazine article Opera Canada

Arthur Kaptainis Assesses the Outlook after a Summer of Upheaval at L'Opera De Montreal

Article excerpt

"MONEY, MONEY AND MONEY," PIERRE DUFOUR, GENERAL DIRECTOR of L'Opera de Montreal, says when asked to name, in order, the three most salient causes for the rapid transformation of a new-look company with an exciting future to an arts invalid on life support, one that seriously considered cancelling its 2006-07 season.

OdeM's accumulated deficit is $1.95-million, generated over two years--a tidy sum for a company that spent only $6.9-million in 2005-06. (By comparison, this season's budget for the Canadian Opera Company, the country's largest, is $33-million.) There are only four productions at Place des Arts in 2006-07, down from the five main-stage productions announced (before the embarrassing deletion of the COC's 1997 Stravinsky double bill of Oedipus Rex and Symphony of Psalms) and the six productions seen four years ago.

Artistic Director Bernard Labadie announced his departure in June, more or less on the grounds that there were no serious artistic decisions to be made in such a fiscal atmosphere. General Director David Moss, his co-pilot, was pink-slipped along with a dozen other employees in a summer massacre that brought the OdeM staff down to nine. Dufour, formerly Production Director, kept that hands-on portfolio while taking on the senior executive job.

Matters were no better in the boardroom. Chairman Andre Laurin resigned after the departure in high dudgeon of two prominent board members (one of whom, Hans Black, had been the organizer of the annual benefit concerts). There was talk of shutting down the company and using the $2.2-million in annual government grants to pay the debt--until it was discovered that cancellation fees would neutralize much of the benefit. Something of the gravity of the situation can be surmised from the company's Recovery Plan. It seeks not to eliminate the deficit but to bring it down to $650,000 in two years.

All this is shocking in a province that is said to love singing and in a city that is famous for its arts scene. And it is not as though OdeM looked old and fusty. Posters and flyers were stylish, and outreach programs, like the technOpera video-jockey nights for youth, were innovative. Last season, the company broadcast a performance of Verdi's Aida on a big screen to thousands on the esplanade of Place des Arts--an idea the Montreal Symphony Orchestra appropriated for its opening Kent Nagano concert this September. So what went wrong?

"If we could point out one reason why we are in this situation, it would be so easy to redirect," Dufour says. "But there were several reasons." The outreach innovations, while bold, cost money. "TechnOpera, all these programs, were fabulous," says Alexandre Taillefer, who took over as board chair in July. "The marketing, the new image of the opera, was the right thing to pick. But probably we did that a little too fast."

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Ticket sales were also soft. Labadie's 2005-06 season, including the rarely seen opera bouffe, L'etoile, was only moderately experimental, but the company was not structured to sustain 1,700-customer evenings in Place des Arts' 2,800-seat Salle Wilfrid Pelletier. In addition, Dufour points out, the legendary vibrancy of the arts scene in Montreal has a downside. "There is a lot of solicitation. And so many forms of art, four and a half months of festivals a year, close to 100 theatre companies, a few orchestras, more than a dozen ballet companies. …

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