When Opera Atelier’s next production completes its one-week run in Toronto this November, you can bet that Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg are going to party like it’s 1799.
Mr. Pynkoski and Ms. Zingg have a vision, and a successful arts enterprise, that’s quite dated indeed. Their 28-year-old company mounts operas from the 17th and 18th centuries, often rediscovering and recreating long-forgotten arias and ballets for contemporary audiences in Canada and overseas.
In a world where a 10-second video clip is considered long, Opera Atelier is both an artistic success and a viable commercial company. Who would think that performing shows that were on Louis XIV’s top 10 list would today garner strong reviews, sell tickets and attract the notice of leading European conductors, musicologists and scholars?
“If someone had told us when we got started as dancers that we were going to run an opera company, we would never have believed it,” Mr. Pynkoski says.“This was not carefully planned.”
Yet if this is so, Mr. Pynkoski and Ms. Zingg, who are married, have made up for their early serendipity by sticking to a tight, well-organized business formula.
“We run 12 performances a year,” explains Patricia Barretto, Opera Atelier’s executive director. The company rents Toronto’s landmark Elgin Theatre, which seats about 1,500, for a week’s run each fall and each spring.
“Last season we played to an average house of 78 per cent. We almost always sell our opening and closing nights and our matinees are usually sold out, too,” Ms. Barretto says.
With a yearly budget of about $2.5-million, Opera Atelier typically breaks even or runs a negligible deficit (a few thousand dollars). Like all high-level arts organizations, it receives grants from government agencies, such as the Toronto Arts Council.
The company employs about 100 people, including a full-time office staff of nine, at various points in its performance cycle. It also runs its own School of Atelier Ballet, taking on about 35 students a year.
Mr. Pynkoski and Ms. Zingg choose works that are at least 200 years old. While they sometimes mount performances of well-known operas such as Mozart’s The Magic Flute, more often they focus on resurrecting works by composers who are now little known, such as the 17th century’s Jean-Baptiste Lully, or on lesser known or forgotten pieces by well-known composers.
This fall, the company will perform Mozart’s Abduction From the Seraglio, and in spring they will put on an opera by Lully called Persée. The company is also frequently invited to perform internationally in places such as Seoul, Singapore and Houston, and received great acclaim in prestigious opera-loving centres such as Versailles and Salzburg.
What’s the secret formula? Ms. Zingg says it’s a case of not wavering from their earliest vision of what they wanted to do – just growing and adapting it.
“In the early 1980s, someone gave us tickets to Tafelmusik,” an orchestra that specializes in Baroque-era music, played on original-style instruments, she says. “We were flabbergasted to hear composers and works we had never heard of.”
While Mr. Pynkoski had trained and performed primarily as a dancer, Ms. Zingg had also studied pre-Romantic-era acting and was modelling to earn extra money. Both spent a year working at the Moulin Rouge in Paris, where they became interested in how people performed on stage – particularly, how they danced – hundreds of years ago.
The Royal Ontario Museum asked the couple to put on some incidental programming in the gallery spaces to entertain museum-goers.
“We got some Tafelmusik tapes and put on 15-minute performances.” To their surprise, they discovered that people would pay to see them perform.
They also discovered that there was a trove of classical music and notated dance that was little known or completely forgotten.
“Some of it was lost after the French Revolution. The idea that there is this whole repertoire, virtually untouched, fascinated us, ” Mr. Pynkoski says. Why not find it and perform it?
That led to more questions: Instead of just performing the music, why not add costumes and lighting? Why not put on a full-fledged opera? “People assured us that it was a lovely idea,” but a pipe dream, Ms. Zingg says.
Nevertheless, they mounted their first full-fledged opera, The Magic Flute, at the Elgin in 1991.
Like most high-end arts companies, Atelier has had its ups and downs. “We got in way over our heads before we even knew we were over our heads,” says Ms. Zingg. In the early years they were supported by Ms. Zingg’s father, who was a doctor, and by people such as producer/impresario David Mirvish.
In 1994 they received a $110,000 grant from France’s Paribas Foundation, and they credit their stability as well to a strong board of directors, “who are not just friends and family,” as Ms. Zingg puts it. “They ask us really tough questions, and we have to answer them.”
The ultimate secret, they both say, is to stay true to what you are trying to achieve.
“This is theatre for people who think. They don’t just want to be entertained. It takes for granted that you are intelligent,” Mr. Pynkoski says.
“We tell the stories. By telling the story clearly, it makes opera a lot less boring than people may have thought,” Ms. Zingg says.