The timing couldn't have been worse. Vancouver Opera made a bold decision to launch a new, lavish production of John Adams's opera Nixon in China. The Canadian premiere would coincide with the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games, playing off those global events and taking advantage of an international audience. Such an exciting venture would no doubt attract another opera company to partner in the production, which would provide much-needed help with resources.
That was in early 2008.
A few months later, the economy tanked and everything changed: spending habits, funding opportunities, the outlook for arts companies.
What didn't change were VO's plans. The company stubbornly stuck with its intentions to produce the opera during the period of the Cultural Olympiad and, sure enough, the show is about to go on.
"We were in a position to take some calculated risks," says general director James Wright, who has overseen some financially healthy years for the opera company. At the time, VO had surpluses, a healthy capital reserve of more than $700,000 and an endowment that had more than doubled in the previous decade. "We all just felt that, within reason, keeping going during a time like this was the right and smart thing to do."
But the recession hit hard in 2009, and VO's board of directors had to make some changes, cutting the 2009-2010 budget by $800,000 through cost reductions and switching the planned production of The Tales of Hoffman for the less expensive The Marriage of Figaro, which is also a safer box-office bet.
"One of the reasons we did that was to protect [ Nixon in China]" says Wright. "We were not going to let go … All along the goal was to protect this important Canadian premiere."
The economy claimed more victims - in the United States in particular - so finding a partner company to help mount the production became more difficult. The endowments of many arts organizations were shrinking, as were donations and subscriptions; some companies folded altogether. What looked like a promising possibility with Kansas City Opera ultimately fell through. It became clear that VO was going to have to stage this production on its own.
Still, the company refused to cut back on the opera's budget, which, at $1.4-million, is about 40 per cent higher than for the company's average production.
"I was surprised," says director Michael Cavanagh, "because not for one minute did my budget change, was I ever told that the goals should be less ambitious, that we should try to scale things down."
The opera, composed by John Adams, documents the 1972 journey of U.S. President Richard Nixon and National Security Advisory Henry Kissinger to China to meet with Mao Tse-tung and other communist officials. It was an historic trip to what was then a mysterious country.
This is the opera's third major North American production. The original Peter Sellars production, which premiered in 1987 at the Houston Grand Opera, is suitable for very large houses (such as New York's Metropolitan Opera).
VO's production is somewhat smaller than that - with 40 choristers instead of about 50, and, in the opening scene, a full scale model of just the nose of the presidential plane, as opposed to an entire side view. Still, this is a big production.
The second production, by James Robinson, is the one the Canadian Opera Company will present next year. "I'm very disappointed [about that] but it's nobody's fault," Wright says of the missed opportunity to partner with the COC. "It was just one of those things."
Cavanagh approached this project with an intense focus on research. "I did a little jig around the living room," he says of the moment he was offered the job. "And after I landed, I thought, get me to a library." He pored through newspaper stories about Nixon's trip, wanting to understand the mood of the day. At 48, he actually has some recollections of that trip: Back home in Winnipeg, his parents were very big on exposing their children to current events, dragging them out of bed to watch important election results, for instance.
Part of what made Nixon's 1972 trip to China so remarkable was the ability of the media to create a television event out of it and broadcast the stories back home - a new phenomenon at the time. Cavanagh will capture this by having the opera filmed in progress. A 1970s-type TV crew will follow the characters around and shoot portions of some scenes, with parts of that video captured in the last act, along with actual archival footage of the trip. The idea behind using footage from each performance, as opposed to something pre-recorded, is to reflect the immediacy of the events.
"It's a huge part of the story; the unblinking eye of history as we understand it now, the great television generation that we're all part of," says Cavanagh. "More and more of life is being etched onto a videotape for all posterity. We're all being digitized into immortality."
For both Wright and Cavanagh, creating this production marks a career highlight - even if Vancouver Opera had to make cuts elsewhere to fund it, and, in part, because they couldn't find a producing partner. "It's really exhilarating," Cavanagh says of going it alone. "It's really walking a tightrope with no safety net because it's completely on us. The success of this project rests entirely on our shoulders. It's fantastic, a great feeling."
Nixon in China is performed at Vancouver's Queen Elizabeth Theatre on March 13, 16, 18 and 20 (www.vancouveropera.ca).