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'If we want risk we go rock-climbing; we don't spend our money in a theatre' Add to ...

Several years ago, a polling firm working for a local newspaper divided Vancouver's population into seven categories: Homebodies, Competitive Acquisitors, Literate Inquisitors, Middle-class Joiners, Postliterate Hedonists, and (my personal favourite) the Insular Forlorn.

For any newspaper seeking an expanded readership, the pollsters' conclusions still seem bleak: Homebodies are too content to read, acquisitors and joiners too busy, hedonists too sensual, and the forlorn too paralyzed by gloom.

Only Literate Inquisitors remain underserved by local media -- people curious about the world around them, who see it as other than a source of fun, trophies or dread. But even this group is elusive; inured to media neglect, most have transformed into virtual homebodies, reading novels, tending their gardens and surfing the Internet.

For arts organizations attempting to draw a crowd, a more hopeful approach might be to view the above classifications as if they describe the same person at different times of the year. His or her entertainment choices hinge on the weather, the economy and his or her state of mind. Using this paradigm, the challenge boils down to this: In winter (November to April) we hate to leave the house or office, and in summer (May to October) we refuse to go indoors. (Spring and fall, lasting approximately two weeks each, aren't really a factor in Vancouver.)

For the producer of a winter offering, the only inducement with the power to lever Vancouverites out of their homes or gyms is either a conviction that this is an "event" (and we won't be able to face our grandchildren if we miss it), or the expectation that the material will be sufficiently amusing to make us forget the gloom and damp.

(It's a truism in Vancouver that under no circumstances, winter or summer, will audiences tolerate that slight depression that we are about to undergo art. If we want risk, we go rock-climbing; we don't spend our money in a theatre, we spend it at Mountain Equipment Co-op.)

The producer of a summer arts event must accept that at this time of year, Vancouver is the kind of place you go on vacation -- meaning the minds of its residents are on vacation also. The only hope of luring spectators away from the sea and sky lies in the illusion that the art experience is a vacation experience. This is most often done by placing the event in the context of a "festival" -- a term designed to make an indoor, aesthetic, serious activity sound recreational and summery, evoking visions of parade floats, heavy drinking and dancing in the meadow.

(There are no winter festivals in Vancouver; what could possibly be festive about darkness and rain?)

Hence, of a summer Vancouverites are treated to, among others, a Children's Festival, a Jazz Festival, a Folk Festival, a Comedy Festival, a Fringe Festival, as well as a Shakespeare Festival called Bard on the Beach and a festival of classical music and opera called Festival Vancouver. Most of the above, while they occur indoors, feature free outdoor events to bolster the sense that experiencing the arts might have something in common with windsurfing off Spanish Banks.

Festival Vancouver is an especially welcome addition in a city for which "serious music" is an oxymoron, whose symphony orchestra struggles unsuccessfully to persuade patrons to give the 20th century a chance.

With 19 events in 17 days and featuring two adventurous operas (Monteverdi's rarely performed Orfeo and Game Misconduct, a new work about hockey by Tom Cone and Leslie Uyeda), Festival Vancouver is easily the most ambitious of the bunch. Perhaps organizers are hoping that normally skittish legitimate audiences will be swept away by the summer spirit of festive adventure, to the point of listening to a piece of music they haven't heard before.

A more than incidental offshoot of the withdrawal of taxpayer support for the arts is that works of art must now be justified as consumer goods. This has a good side and a bad side. The good side is that artists have become less snooty and elitist; the bad side is that, even more than commercial advertisers, artists have been forced to misrepresent the product on offer. Consumer goods are sold on the basis of fulfilled expectation, whereas the value of art lies in its ability to astonish. You can't fulfill expectation and astonish at the same time. It's a contradiction in terms.

Festivals represent an attempt to inculcate the art experience by stealth, in much the same way that Jamieson makes its vitamins orange-flavoured and chewable, or a teenager on a summer date attempts to cop a feel while drawing attention to the brightness of the moon. But despite the sleight of hand, sooner or later everything depends on how much people value what's really going on.

On this level, Festival Vancouver's opening gala at the Orpheum was a cause for concern, drawing only about a 60-per-cent house, despite the featured presence of the great American lyric soprano Barbara Bonney along with Keith Lockhart, the energetic, sprightly conductor of the Boston Pops.

Possibly, the concert's Aaron Copland theme appeared a bit modern for Vancouver -- Copland was, after all, born a scant century ago. Or perhaps the event suffered from competition from the Symphony of Fire, an outdoor fireworks festival that can be enjoyed by the whole family -- and the family dog as well -- for free. All Vancouver turned out for that one. Even the Insular Forlorn. Writer John Maclachlan Gray's best-known works include Billy Bishop Goes to War . His novel A Gift for the Little Master will be published in October.

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