Canadian Overtures: How Well Do Companies across the Country Sound a National Note in Opera and Music Theatre?
Domville, Eric, Opera Canada
There is a growing hunger for opera in Canada, an appetite manifested increasingly by the younger generation. The standard image of opera as the preserve of an elitist older audience is gradually beginning to erode. Greater accessibility helps to demystify opera's supposed remoteness from everyday life. Think of the widespread use of surtitles, the reduction of ticket prices in some cases to attract younger people, not to mention mid- and budget-priced CDs, DVDs and videos, and you have an unprecedented set of highly favorable circumstances. All this is good.
Yet one longs for more--for something of a specifically Canadian nature to flesh out all the readily available international fare. My concern here (and in a second article to appear in the next issue) is with Canadian opera: works created, produced and performed by Canadians and intended mainly, but not exclusively, for audiences in this country. I'm suggesting Canada, increasingly self-confident as a nation, will look for a widening operatic repertoire as part of the artistic expression of its psyche. As Hamlet might have put it, had he thought about our hunger for opera, "Increase of appetite will grow by what it feeds on." All this, of course, is speculative. It will prove more profitable to discuss what is really out there.
Let's start with the bottom line. Opera has always been expensive to put on. From Renaissance courts in Italy and the Baroque extravaganzas of France to the present, money rules. Economic realities today, however, dictate that less has to be more. Co-productions, stripped-down sets, more imaginative lighting and so on set the tone increasingly. Canada is no exception; this realization on the part of many companies led to the formation in 1998 of the Professional Opera Companies of Canada, recently renamed Opera.Ca. Thanks to a generous infusion from the Canada Council for the Arts, Opera.Ca administers the Canadian Opera Creation Program. This contributes financial support towards the various stages of creating a new opera: commissioning, work-shopping, rehearsals and performance--for example, the recent production of Peter Hannan's 120 Songs for the Marquis de Sade, produced by Modern Baroque Opera and Vancouver New Music in Vancouver. Other productions elsewhere are at various stages of development This re presents one area in which larger and smaller companies can come together.
As with other arts, opera splits into two main scales of operation. We have the big companies in the major centres performing almost exclusively standard works. Then there appear for longer or shorter periods an amazingly large number of small, often highly experimental groups.
It is only too easy to criticize the larger companies for playing it safe by presenting all-too-familiar works every season. Each production has a small number of performances through which to recoup expenses and try to make a profit. Notoriously conservative audiences have to be cajoled, finessed into attending unfamiliar, let alone new, works. Pacific Opera Victoria's Erewhon reached the stage only after considerable community involvement. The Canadian Opera Company undertook a huge promotion for The Golden Ass, while Tapestry New Opera Works labored mightily for a year in local communities and schools to ensure audiences for Iron Road.
Where does Canadian opera fit in with the COC? The nation's largest opera company mounts a season of six productions on the main stage and one by its Ensemble Studio, a tight schedule that does not leave much room for Canadian works. Richard Bradshaw, the company's general director, is all too well aware of this predicament The last thing he wants is to perpetuate a museum art; hence his introduction of directors from drama (Robin Phillips) and film (Robert LePage, Atom Egoyan and Francois Girard), which has resulted in some spectacular successes, both here and abroad. "Ideally," Bradshaw says, "I want a three-stage cycle: one Canadian opera being commissioned or considered, one in revision and rehearsal, and one in performance. …