Magazine article Opera Canada

Vancouver Opera at Fifty: Celebrating a Half Century of Innovation and Growth

Magazine article Opera Canada

Vancouver Opera at Fifty: Celebrating a Half Century of Innovation and Growth

Article excerpt

With its 2009/10 season, Vancouver Opera reaches the venerable half-century mark. Many people have contributed to the company's survival, but the five directors who have guided it over those 50 years have shaped its destiny at least more visibly than any other.

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Prior to 1959, visiting troupes performed most of the live opera in Vancouver, including the famous Emma Juch Grand English Opera Company, which opened the newly built Vancouver Opera House with Lohengrin in 1891. Even with an opera house in town, however, it still took almost 70 years to form a resident company. An intrepid Montrealer named Irving Guttman braved the 12-hour flight west in 1959 to direct the fledging company's first production, an enthusiastically received Carmen, which opened its four-performance run in the city's brand-new Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Apr. 2, 1960. Guttman became VO's founding Artistic Director and stayed for 14 years.

Then only 31, but already with almost a decade's experience as a director, Guttman engaged international-calibre singers for leading roles and local singers in secondary parts. "If local talent is to be developed," he said at the time, "opportunity must be given to those in minor roles of working with first-rate principals." Fortunately, Guttman had the knack of "finding them when they didn't cost a lot," as Canadian mezzo Judith Forst says, and of convincing those first-rate principals to sing in Vancouver. He certainly was persuasive:Joan Sutherland, Marilyn Home, Regina Resnik, Renata Tebaldi and Placido Domingo were among the more renowned to appear in Vancouver during Guttman's tenure. "That was some kind of singing," understated Forst, who was the Shepherd Boy in the 1968VO Tosca in which Domingo's Cavaradossi was received rapturously by audience and press alike.

In 1963, Guttman gave a young Australian, Richard Bonynge, a big break to make his staged-opera debut conducting VO's production of Faust. It was successful enough for Guttman to engage Bonynge for Norma later that year. This was the Norma in which Sutherland made her world debut in the title role and Home sang her first Adalgisa, with John Alexander as Pollione and Richard Cross as Oroveso. "Those duets need two voices that really blend," reminisced a misty-eyed Guttman recently. "Both Joan's and Marilyn's voices were rich and big and had everything. It turned out to be one of the most exciting things that's ever happened here."

Guttman was a hands-on director, aware of the needs and interests of the community, staying within budget and directing every production for the first eight years of his tenure. Nevertheless, a smitten VO board installed the ambitious and charismatic Bonynge as Artistic Director beginning with the 1974-75 season. Although the undeniably gifted conductor to some extent continued with solid, well-cast presentations of core repertoire, leavened by the occasional foray outside the war-horse paddock, he had a penchant for lavish productions of less frequently performed bel canto and 19th-century French opera. It was the massive expense of these occasional forays that would be his undoing.

He also was away a lot, appearing in the VO pit for only nine of the 26 operas produced during his six years at the helm. The Bonynge years saw elaborate productions of Rossini's Semiramide, Thomas's Mignon and Massenet's Le roi de Lahore, but even Sutherland's Sita in this last generated only half-filled houses. The press carped about Bonynge's absences, and the board replaced a high-priced production of Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots with a more economically feasible Un hallo in maschera at the end of the 1976/77 season. "The dream of international opera fades as Vancouver faces fiscal realities," wrote Vancouver critic Susan Mertens in Performing Arts in Canada in 1979, as VO ledgers hemorrhaged red ink to the tune of $725,000. …

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