Magazine article Opera Canada

Capital Ambitions: As Opera Lyra Ottawa Celebrates Its Quarter Century, Artistic Director Tyrone Paterson Reflects on the Company's Progress

Magazine article Opera Canada

Capital Ambitions: As Opera Lyra Ottawa Celebrates Its Quarter Century, Artistic Director Tyrone Paterson Reflects on the Company's Progress

Article excerpt

The curtain came down on the opening night of Eugene Onegin, and the audience at the National Arte Centre last April was on its feet, cheering Opera Lyra Ottawa's first production of the Tchaikovsky heartbreaker. The cheers built to an explosion for baritone Russell Braun, who, in his Canadian debut in the role, gave a rivetingly acted, beautifully sung performance.

At the party afterwards, conductor Tyrone Paterson says he marvelled at how tar Opera Lyra had come since he arrived in late 1998 as General Director. "There have been a few productions I have been very proud of, but that one stands out." he says. "To present it for the first time with the calibre of the cast we put together, to hear our chorus take on an opera in Russian and do a fantastic job, it felt like a culmination of what I've been working on."

The 48-year-old Calgary-born maestro has developed a busy career as a guest conductor with opera companies across Canada, the U.S. and Europe. But he's found special satisfaction in putting a stamp on Ottawa's opera company, and he's proud of the artistic progress the company has made, one careful step at a time. Since Paterson's arrival, Opera Lyra's budget has doubled to about $2.6-million and the number of season subscribers has increased by about 75 percent, to more than 3,500. Although Opera Lyra presents only two fully staged productions each season in the National Arts Centres Southam Hall (the same number as when Paterson started), patrons and critics say the calibre has improved dramatically. Writing in the Ottawa Citizen, critic Richard Todd praised Onegin as among the best productions in the company's 25-year history.

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If opera purists occasionally grumble that the programming is conservative, Ottawa audiences haven't yet shown themselves willing to stray far from the familiar, and the repertoire is dictated by box-office realities. "We have to be cautious. We've been growing and improving, but not taking crazy leaps we can't sustain," says Paterson, whose title changed in 2003 to Artistic Director and Principal Conductor. To allow Paterson more time for conducting engagements, the company lightened his administrative load. Elizabeth Howarth, who started in Opera Lyra administration the same year Paterson arrived, is now General Director. Because Paterson has been responsible for budgets in the past, she says, "he very well understands what the other half of the equation is about, which has made for a good partnership."

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Paterson says he's pleased with the lighter duties, and he talks like someone who wants to stay around. "After I got my feet wet in the opera business, it was always a goal to run a company. My hair is a lot greyer and there have been stressful moments, but the rewards have been wonderful. It's been a terrific experience and an interesting journey."

For Paterson, who at six-foot-four is hard to miss in a crowd, the journey began in the early 1980s at the University at Calgary, where he studied voice, clarinet and conducting. At the same time, he was discovering the power of opera, singing in the chorus of Calgary Opera productions. "It was overwhelming. I loved the elements of opera--the orchestra, the singers, the text, the sets, the costumes. It attracted me because of my background in singing, and I think that's why I've pursued opera rather than symphonic music. That world interests me."

After graduating and doing some assistant conducting at Calgary Opera, Paterson was hired by the company in 1986 as Music and Production Manager. Over the next decade, he also worked as Artistic Administrator and Resident Conductor. He learned about budgets, sets and costumes, he learned how to hire singers and he refined his baton skills, starting with performances for students. His professional mainstage conducting debut there was in 1988 with Amahl and the Night Visitors. …

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