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Opera Philadelphia, announced in 2010 that it would produce a new American opera every year for 10 years, and is on track to doing so with seven new works in development. (Dominic Mercier)
Opera Philadelphia, announced in 2010 that it would produce a new American opera every year for 10 years, and is on track to doing so with seven new works in development. (Dominic Mercier)

CULTURE

Why opera directors need to think like Wayne Gretzky Add to ...

‘No, it is not from the academy,” Rufus Wainwright sings, “… From this moment on you’ll cease to be.” Those words, from Wainwright’s song Matinee Idol, seemed like a retort to every composer in Canada who imagined a pop singer-songwriter might not be top choice to write the first new opera booked for the Canadian Opera Company’s main stage in two decades.

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Wainwright’s opera Hadrian (with libretto by Daniel MacIvor) got the nod after three other full-length operas commissioned by the COC were abandoned one by one. The feeling among Canadian composers is perhaps similar to how visual artists would react if our selection for the next Venice Biennale turned out to be a graphic novelist who had recently taken up oil painting.

But regardless of who was chosen, it’s worth pondering the glacial tempo of the COC’s engagement with new creation. Imagine the Art Gallery of Ontario going 19 years without a single showing of any new Canadian art. It would be hard to think of a rationale for that scenario, although the COC, which receives about $4.5-million annually in public funding, is always quick to say that new work is too expensive and risky for regular consumption. But does that really need to be true, for the biggest opera company in the country?

Consider Opera Philadelphia, which announced in 2010 that it would produce a new American opera every year for 10 years, and is on track to doing so with seven new works in development.

OP gets no government subsidy and has no endowment; yet, it has racked up hefty surpluses every year since its American program began. This feat would seem to defy gravity as understood at the COC. The man who engineered it is Canadian: David Devan, a former executive director of Pacific Opera Victoria.“We decided that, if we want to remain viable, we need to move from being Turner Classic Movies to being HBO,” says Devan, now OP’s general director. “To quote Wayne Gretzky, we need to skate where the puck is going to be. Twenty-year-olds will still want to hear Tosca and [La} bohème, but there’s going to be a big thirst for things that reflect their time and reality and aesthetics, and we have to write that.”

Devan arrived in Philadelphia in 2006, five years after the city began to expand its cultural facilities and ambitions, just as Toronto was doing at about the same time. After his first two years producing opera at the Academy of Music, the recession hit, which most companies took as a cue to cut risk and double down on the classics.

“We did exactly the opposite,” says Devan in a phone interview. “We cut an opera in the big theatre [the Academy of Music, an 1857 hall modelled on Milan’s La Scala], and started two chamber series in other venues, and did a lot of new things there. We made it elective, so no one felt it was being stuffed down their throats. We changed our production model and our product mix to be more things to more people.”

Devan also struck up partnerships with other institutions in the city, and adopted a venture-capital model for new work, “which sort of protects you from yourself, because you have to show proof of concept before you scale up.”

After a few years of that strategy, he had the private support needed to announce the 10-year American Repertoire Program, and also to launch a three-year residency program for composers. “It’s pure R&D,” he says.“If you’re going to commit to 10 American operas, you need bench strength.”

He made sure there was as much administrative expertise involved with new work as with casting and vocal coaching. He also programmed other non-American contemporary works, such as Osvaldo Golijov’s full-length Ainadamar (opening at the Academy in February) and Thomas Adès’s chamber opera Powder Her Face, in part to avoid creating a ghetto for American work.

“You need to figure out how to put new work into the bloodstream of the institution,” Devan says. It’s not enough, he says, to pick a piece once in a blue moon and try to do it like Tosca.

“David believes in the art more than he worries about the risk,” says Dairine Ni Mheadhra, co-director of the small Toronto contemporary-opera company Queen of Puddings. Devan was very keen on a QoP production of Svadba, by Montreal composer Ana Sokolovic, so he took the piece to Philadelphia last month for four performances at the Fringe Arts Festival, with a Balkan dance party afterward. Forty per cent of the people who saw the piece had never been to opera before.

Devan points out that Philadelphia is not Toronto, that his company is one-quarter the size of the COC, and that his HBO strategy makes particular sense with two large, more conventional opera houses in nearby New York and Washington. “But if I were in Toronto, I would look for artistic partners off the main grid I could experiment with.” Vancouver Opera is already planning to go off-grid with performances outside the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, including a Canadian chamber commission called Stickboy at the Vancouver Playhouse.

The COC doesn’t have artistic partners in Toronto, apart from those invited to play lunchtime concerts in its foyer. The company doesn’t perform outside its main venue, not even in its Imperial Oil Opera Theatre, which used to be a hub for experimentation. Performing standards are definitely better than they were a decade ago, but the crowds are thinning: Box office revenue fell nearly $1-million last season. Perhaps the Turner Classic Movies approach is not enough.

There’s another example of a more robust risk attitude in the COC’s own theatre: the National Ballet of Canada, which recently did a program of three new works, as it does every year. The shows didn’t sell as well as Swan Lake, but were budgeted for 70-per-cent attendance and hit that target. More importantly, they fed the company’s roots in the art, and produced a masterpiece – James Kudelka’s …black night bright day… .

I can’t say I’m eager about the Wainwright commission. He’s a gifted songwriter, but his campy Prima Donna was a static singing Valentine to French and Italian operas that I prefer to hear in their original versions. But, however Hadrian turns out, it’s past time for the COC to think more broadly about where it lives, who its neighbours are, and how it can start becoming a real Canadian opera company.

The COC in brief

A short 50-year history of mainstage Canadian opera at the Canadian Opera Company:

In 1967, centennial year, the COC did two new pieces: Louis Riel, by Harry Somers (libretto by Mavor Moore and Jacques Languirand) and The Luck of Ginger Coffey, by Raymond Pannell (with Ronald Hambleton). Since then, there have been only three others on the mainstage:

Héloise and Abélard, by Charles Wilson (with Eugene Benson), 1973;

Mario and the Magician, by Harry Somers (with Rod Anderson), 1992;

The Golden Ass, by Randolph Peters (with Robertson Davies), 1999.

The COC plans to revive Louis Riel in the spring of 2017.

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