Magazine article Opera Canada

A Tale of Two Cities: Richard Turp Looks for Some Lessons in the Recent Experience of Quebec's Two Main Companies

Magazine article Opera Canada

A Tale of Two Cities: Richard Turp Looks for Some Lessons in the Recent Experience of Quebec's Two Main Companies

Article excerpt

Reviewing recent events in Quebec's opera world, one cannot but recall the opening lines of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom it was the age of foolishness ..."

The destinies of the province's two professional companies, Opera de Montreal and Opera de Quebec, have apparently differed greatly, but appearances, as we all know, can be deceiving. Their recent destinies have, however, raised a number of important questions for the art form's future both in the province and in Canada.

Though OdeM was brought back from the brink of extinction several seasons ago, its relative financial security is still tenuous and fragile. Some would argue that its survival has been realized through budget economies in reduced production and performance schedules. A decade or so ago, seasons consisted of six, occasionally seven, productions, with six or seven performances of each. Last year, there were four mainstige productions, plus the presentation of the company's Atelier lyrique training program. This year, a fifth mainstage production was added, with each production running for four performances. After critically neutral stagings of La trapiata and Der fliegende Hollander earlier in the season, a controversy erupted, unlikely though it may sound, over a staging of Die Fledermaus.

The production itself was hardly controversial; the action was updated to the 1930s and sung in French, but was otherwise conventional. The problem surfaced when the province's most visible vocal personality, tenor Marc Hervieux, who has become something of a media darling over the past couple of years, threatened not to sing his role of Eisenstein at rehearsals to protest the company's marketing campaign for the production. In an interview with the CBC, Hervieux said: "I don't understand at all why [OdeM] uses models to represent the singers or the characters in the opera [on its posters] when we have wonderful singers from Quebec and from Canada singing here. How come we are not proud enough here to put their faces on these posters?"

OdeM responded by pointing out that its publicity strategy since 2006 had been designed to establish a brand and to build the audience of tomorrow. It added that its advertising campaign attained an 85 per cent approval rating with the company's public, and that the company had enjoyed a 45 per cent increase in ticket sales in the under-30 demographic. Nonetheless, OdeM then announced that: "For the good oldie company, our public and our artists, the administration will review its promotional strategy not only for Die Fledermaus, but also for the season's two subsequent productions, Dead Man Walking and Manon." Two days later, posters featuring Hervieux were seen throughout the city.

This incident might have remained localised and limited in scope had not the critic of Le Devoir written an incendiary and devastating review of Die Fledermaus, in which he called the company spineless, lacking both direction and vision and even calling its artistic ethics into question. When asked for his comments, Opera de Quebec General and Artistic Director Gregoire Legendre, while expressing his joy that the situation had been resolved quickly was also quoted as saying: "The artists have a point when they say that we should make better use of them. Marc [Hervieux] took it upon himself to say so and I admire him for it."

Perhaps taking a lesson to heart, the OdeM poster for its most recent production, Dead Man Walking, featured a striking photo of Montreal baritone Etienne Dupuis, the opera's leading man, front and centre. The uniformly positive critical and public reaction to the Jake Heggie opera (featuring an all-Canadian cast, by the way) pushed the controversy surrounding Die Fledermaus to the back burner for the time being at least.

Yet even if the initial furor has abated, recent events at OdeM ratcheted into focus a number of fundamental questions. …

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