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Joyce El-Khoury (Mimi) and Michael Fabiano (Rodolfo) rehearse a scene from La Boheme at National Arts Centre in Ottawa. (Dave Chan For The Globe and Mail)
Joyce El-Khoury (Mimi) and Michael Fabiano (Rodolfo) rehearse a scene from La Boheme at National Arts Centre in Ottawa. (Dave Chan For The Globe and Mail)

Music

Can opera survive in Ottawa? Add to ...

Soprano Joyce El-Khoury is in the middle of rehearsals for the opening of La Bohème next Saturday, and the experience is a dream come true. When the Ottawa native and pride of the city’s Lebanese community first saw Opera Lyra’s La Bohème at the National Arts Centre a decade ago, she vowed she would become a singer. Now she’s back home, after a career-building stint at the Metropolitan Opera, to play the sweet, doomed Mimi, trading lovesick arias with another rising star, Michael Fabiano.

The consumptive Mimi isn’t the only one forever at death’s door. Producing grand opera has proved to be a struggle in Ottawa, which has had trouble finding the resources to match the ambitions of the form. Opera Lyra had to abandon its 2011-12 season last November, when ticket sales languished, revenue plummeted and expenses climbed. To make matters worse, the company’s bookkeeper turned out to be a thief.

As Opera Lyra attempts to rebuild itself with a truncated season of two crowd-pleasers, Puccini’s La Bohème and Verdi’s La Traviata, El-Khoury has jumped in: She has spread the word at Lebanese gatherings and held ticket giveaways on Twitter; her parents bought 30 tickets for opening night.

“I’m inviting everyone I know,” says the 30-year-old. “There’s the potential for greatness here. We’re in the nation’s capital, we perform at a national arts centre, and we have the talent to back up our claims. This can be an A-house, we just have to roll up our sleeves and get it done.”

But for mid-sized companies across North America that are desperate just to pay their bills, simple survival precedes anything approaching greatness. Their smaller, aging audiences can be wary of anything toomay increasingly stay away if the repertoire seems too daring, while younger converts are hard to bring on board in substantial numbers. particularlyfor mid-sized companies that Relying on volunteer support, such companies can also be slower to renew themselves than are their nimble metropolitan equivalents.

Ottawa opera has been facing a particularly nasty period of reckoning in an era of shrinking government: The vagaries of a boom-and-bust economy play havoc with a company’s cash flow, undoing ambitious dreams – and too often those fans who do stick around are left to watch cheap, rented productions that remind them all too clearly they’re not at the Met or the Four Seasons Centre. A boom-and-bust economy plays havoc with a company’s cash flow, undoing ambitious dreams and leaving audiences with cheap rented productions that remind them all too clearly they’re not at the Met (whose lavish productions are available live at the local multiplex for a fraction of the price, just to put the smaller companies in their place).

Ottawa is a comfortable, liveable city for an older population, but aging opera audiences may increasingly stay away if the repertoire seems too daring. Yet younger audiences are particularly elusive for mid-sized companies that rely on volunteer support and are slower to renew themselves than their nimble metropolitan equivalents.

The temptation for mid-sized opera companies is to go with what’s easy, the old chestnuts of the repertoire that everyone’s heard of and no one objects to. But the only way for a company to get beyond survival mode to try new things, engage new audiences and test the limits of scale.Yet mid-sized opera companies across North America are desperate just to pay their bills and survival precedes greatness when it comes to finding an audience.

Thus, Opera Lyra’s current uncomplicated season. “Bohème and Traviata are safe value, and people will pay for that,” says Alexander Neef, general director of the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto. “Then you take them by the hand and try to transition them to something less safe, turning them from single-ticket buyers into subscribers. You’re developing a long-term relationship, and once you have them as loyal supporters, you can start going on adventures. Even if they’ve never heard of an opera, they trust you and know you can guarantee a good performance and a good experience. But if you go on adventures right from the beginning, you might not be able to find your audience in the first place.”

It’s an approach that has worked in Toronto, but can Ottawa follow suit? It’s easier for the COC to incorporate a modern work into a season of seven productions than it would be for Opera Lyra, for which two or three shows is the norm.

Yes, Calgary Opera, drawing on a similar population base, was bold enough to mount the Canadian premiere of Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick this year in a three-show season. But Ottawa isn’t Calgary: There’s no Husky Energy to take a flyer on a splashy production. Indeed, when politics is a city’s major industry, opera’s quest for financial support can become downright overwrought.

“From outside, there’s this impression that Ottawa’s a fat-cat city,” says Victor Rabinovitch, the former CEO of the Museum of Civilization and the War Museum, who recently was named vice-chairman of the Opera Lyra board. “But in fact, Ottawa has one of the smallest concentrations of wealthy people of any city in Canada.”

The federal bureaucracy might be expected to supply an audience, but with pressure to cut government spending, there’s not the long-term support for Opera Lyra to depend on. “We have the ups and downs of living in a government town,” affirms Mayor Jim Watson, who recently took part in a new I’m Going to the Opera ad campaign designed to publicize the company beyond its core market. “Now, we’re in one of the periods where people aren’t sure they’ll have a job, so discretionary spending starts to get a little tight.”

It wasn’t alway slike this. Opera once had a national presence in Ottawa, under the NAC Orchestra’s founding conductor, Mario Bernardi; lavish world-class productions were considered part of the capital’s cultural obligations. But that was another time: an era of nationalistic euphoria and big-government confidence, with grandiose public displays such as Expo 67.

While the Trudeau Liberals led the drive to build a new, world-class National Gallery in Ottawa, the decentralizing Harper government saw a still-unbuilt National Portrait Gallery as an institution that belonged elsewhere. Harper has famously stated his dislike of the fundraising galas that arts groups use to generate support, reinforcing the idea that a company like Opera Lyra is elitist rather than accessible.

Not that it hasn’t long tried to be accessible – at least in opera terms. Created by local opera supporters in 1984, after the NAC opera program ended, the company has, say some, never completely outgrown its humble origins. “It’s a little too Ottawa-based, a little too parochial,” says Roberto Martella, a Toronto restaurant owner who has sat on the boards of the Canadian Opera Company and the National Arts Centre. “Opera is not an easy art form, but often they go for the easier options.”

El-Khoury encapsulates Opera Lyra’s plan to transform itself after a season in which it ruthlessly downsized staff, overhauled its management and cut its budget in half.

But for all the singer’s patriotic bravado, ascending to the A-list of well-heeled, successful and adventurous international companies isn’t the immediate challenge facing Opera Lyra.

“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to persuade funders we’re an appropriate target, given our recent history,” says Jeep Jeffries, Opera Lyra’s new general director, whose expertise lies in fixing financially troubled opera companies – most recently in Tulsa, Okla., a city that at first glance isn’t exactly Ottawa’s most logical counterpart.

But, like Tulsa, Ottawa is a city in which opera isn’t ingrained in the local culture, where it has to repeatedly make the case for itself, and where economic uncertainties can be enough to prompt a death watch. “When companies are in trouble, they drop off the radar,” says Jeffries. “We’re doing everything we can to get back on the radar, because if people hear about us, we’re a lot more attractive target for support.”

Jeffries counsels patience, and says he has a five-year plan for Opera Lyra that will result in three staged shows annually, a shift toward more engaging productions, and a more visible presence in the community through social media, collaborative performances with other institutions and pop-up opera activities.

In the meantime, it’s the play-it-safe approach. “We’re eager to do some pieces that are not seen so frequently,” Jeffries says. “But we have to be cognizant of our financial realities: We have to make sure that if we head in this direction, our audience will follow us.” And become passionate opera boosters, just like El-Khoury.

 

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