Joseph Quesnel died in 1809 and, by rights, his ghost should be haunting Toronto's new Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. Quesnel composed the first opera ever written in Canada, and neither he nor any of his successors is getting any time this year in the first Canadian theatre built specifically for opera.
The Canadian Opera Company, which built the Four Seasons, has of course been mighty busy with its production of Wagner's Ring cycle, which opened the theatre for real last month and brought glory to the COC here and abroad. But the company has had a lot of time to think about bringing some Canadian rep to its new stage, and so far that thinking has yielded no result.
The company says that its plans for the current season once included Inanna's Journey, the opera it commissioned from Margaret Atwood and Randolph Peters. But poor health prevented Peters from finishing the score on time, according to Philip Boswell, the COC's music administrator.
Fair enough. But the COC has passed up several other opportunities to put our music where its hall is. Aside from O Canada, the company played no Canadian music at its hall-opening fete in June, or during the public concert that followed a few days later, or even during the two informal test concerts held before the red carpet rolled out.
Surely it couldn't have been so difficult to squeeze in an excerpt from one of the Canadian works in the COC's past repertoire, which includes operas by Harry Somers, R. Murray Schafer and Peters, whose 1999 comedy The Golden Ass (with libretto by Robertson Davies) was the last Canadian piece to get a COC main-stage production. Or the company could have played a bit of The Scarlet Princess (2002), the full-length opera written for the COC by Alexina Louie and playwright David Henry Hwang -- a work that remains unproduced, in spite of occasional musings on the subject by general director Richard Bradshaw.
The COC owns a miserable record for putting Canadian work on its principal stage. In the past 40 years, only six pieces have made the cut, and half of those were premiered during the late-sixties, Centennial-era binge of cultural nationalism. The company launched a composer-in-residence program in 1987, and produced several one-act pieces that were supposed to help Canadian composers, and the COC's resident singing ensemble, get a feel for contemporary opera. The program was scrapped in the early nineties. The last person to be called resident composer by the COC was Louie, who spent six years writing The Scarlet Princess and is still waiting to see her work on stage.
Calgary Opera, a smaller company with a budget to match, did a big new work ( Filumena, by John Estacio and John Murrell) three years ago, and has another ( Frobisher) by the same authors coming up in January. The company has forged an alliance with the Banff Centre, which provides support for the same kind of gestational work that the COC's composer-in-residence program was set up to do.
The COC still commissions pieces for school programs, and for short runs in its small warehouse-like theatre at the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre. A fragment of one of those pieces turned up on Tuesday during the first of 90 free afternoon concerts to be held through June in a space on the second floor of the Four Seasons Centre. This space, called the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, is essentially the second-floor foyer.
The 200-odd people at Tuesday's launch sat on deep hardwood steps at one end, or stood along the railings that skirt the entrance to the theatre's upper levels. While trucks rumbled along University Avenue on the other side of the glass wall, three singers and a pianist delivered a well-turned excerpt from Swoon, a short comic opera by James Rolfe and Anna Chatterton.
The music was charming, and the space worked surprisingly well, but the symbolism was terrible: here at last was Canadian opera, yet it still couldn't get in the door of the new theatre. It was stuck in the foyer, just like some late-coming ticket-holder kept out of the main hall until a break in the real performance.
But Canadian opera is no less real than any other kind, and it needs more from the COC than good intentions and small-scale tributes. If that's not forthcoming, perhaps a name-change would be in order. Instead of the Canadian Opera Company, maybe we should start calling it the European Opera Company of Toronto, at least until it remembers where it lives. Canadian opera should be at home in Canada's splendid new opera house.