Canadian director Michael Cavanagh has been appointed artistic director of the Royal Swedish Opera, in a five-year engagement beginning summer 2021. The Winnipeg native has been one of Canada’s most in-demand opera directors throughout his 20-year career. His roughly 150 productions have gone up in more than 30 opera houses worldwide, including his acclaimed productions of the Mozart-Da Ponte trilogy (Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosi fan tutte) for San Francisco Opera (2019), and John Adams’s Nixon in China, which premiered in 2010 with Vancouver Opera. It was his Nixon that first brought Cavanagh to Stockholm, as a guest director in 2016; the Royal Swedish Opera then bought the production and invited Cavanagh back in 2018 to direct Verdi’s Aida.
Cavanagh is now set to take on his biggest leadership position yet – a venerable opera house with a 250-year history.
What was your first impression of the Royal Swedish Opera, and how do you feel about taking over the company?
My first impression was being daunted. There’s so much history. This is the house of Jussi Bjorling, of Birgit Nilsson. You walk up Birgit Nilsson Road to get to the opera house, this huge, stunning, magnificent opera house perched on the shores right downtown. There’s so much history, heritage. I was taken aback a little bit.
What have you discovered about Swedish opera audiences? How do they compare with Canadian audiences?
It’s the difference between old-world and new-world. Opera is still in its second, third generation here [in Canada]. Our oldest opera companies are not that old. There’s just not that many iterations of the classics and not as great an opportunity to present new pieces. The Swedes in particular have a real affinity for new stories, new pieces, new works. And that’s something I’m really excited to find out about, to find the exciting voices. I’m not just talking about singers, I’m talking about composers, designers.
What makes a good artistic director?
I’m a big collaborator. I really do like to listen to people, work with them. People think that the director’s the boss, and I always think that I’m a servant of many masters. I feel a responsibility to my singers – and I’m going to include designers, all the musicians, everybody – my responsibility is to allow them to do their best work. You can’t do that by dictating, by taking a top-down approach. Maybe it is part of my Canadianness, that I am very happy when somebody else has a better idea than me, I’m very happy to admit where I’ve taken a misstep. I think that’s something of a strength.
What do you want to accomplish?
The very first thing I’m going to do is learn, learn, learn. People have been asking me, ‘What do you want to accomplish when you hit the ground running?’ I want to hit the ground learning. I want to talk to the men and women of the shop, to the people who have been building costumes for 20 years. They will find efficiencies, they will have strong opinions, they will know their audience. I feel it would be an act of hubris to come in, guns blazing with all my solutions, before I really understand what the challenges are. I do have this idea of forward motion, which means new voices. New commissions, new librettos, that’s going to be super exciting.
How’s your Swedish?
It is bad. I’m not going to lie to you. I can say, “Tack sa mycket,” which is, “Thank you very much,” and I can order a nice meal.
This interview has been edited and condensed
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