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London, Ont.-based stage director Michael Cavanagh is working on an ambitious Mozart cycle with the San Francisco Opera.

Handout

How did a Canadian stage director based in London, Ont. and the San Francisco Opera company come together on an ambitious, newly imagined three-season Mozart cycle? Let’s just say it was a marriage made in Figaro.

San Francisco Opera, established in 1923, recently announced its 2019-20 season. Among the news of upcoming productions of Britten’s Billy Budd, Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet and Mason Bates’s (R)evolution of Steve Jobs was the mention of not only The Marriage of Figaro but of a thematically linked succession continuing with the other Mozart/Da Ponte operas (Cosi fan tutte and Don Giovanni) for the following two seasons to come.

The Mozart trilogy plan came together casually three years ago, over dinner. San Francisco Opera general director Matthew Shilvock, new to the position at the time, confided to Canadian director Michael Cavanagh that he wasn’t thrilled with the company’s Figaro. Come to think of it, the Don Giovanni was showing its age and the Cosi fan tutte needed to be replaced tout suite. Turns out Cavanagh (who had directed Susannah and Nixon in China for S.F. Opera previously) had already begun conceiving a Mozart package set over 300 years in what he calls a “great American house.” After the dinner, Cavanagh received an e-mail from Shilvock encouraging him to develop the idea further.

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Cavanagh did just that, first working with a designer and later bouncing the idea off singers and conductors. Everyone was intrigued by the notion, which involves Figaro set in the 1780s, Cosi in the 1930s and Don Giovanni in a postapocalyptic late 21st century.

“The more I saw that my opera colleagues were excited, the more I knew I was on the right path,” Cavanagh told The Globe and Mail earlier this month. “When I saw how the idea was getting people buzzing, I felt it had a real possibility of happening.”

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Cavanagh is a veteran, in-demand director. Fresh off helming Verdi’s Rigoletto for the San Diego Opera, he spoke from his home in London, where he lectures and works with the opera program at the University of Western Ontario when his schedule allows.

San Diego Opera nearly folded in 2015, but after a contentious changing of the guard among its board of directors, it has rebounded. Of course, opera in general has had its ups and downs over the past few decades. There was the great breastplate boom of the early 2000s, with the advent of surtitles, an innovation from the Canadian Opera Company that made opera more accessible. “It wasn’t baffling any more,” Cavanagh said of the system that projects lyrics and dialogue above the stage. “Audiences didn’t have to wonder what was going on while people were hollering at each other in a foreign language.”

But, then, opera, like theatre and dance, was deeply hurt by the 2008 financial crisis. Donations dropped off; companies folded.

Over a decade later, things have stabilized, which is to say that opera is fighting to maintain its foothold on the performing arts scene as it always has.

“It’s a noisy cultural world we live in, and people have so many choices,” explained Cavanagh, former artistic director of Edmonton Opera. "Opera is fantastic. It’s rarefied. It explores great themes and epic subjects better than any other art form. But it’s not for everyone.

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“So, we have to really grab people and hang onto them for our art form to continue to survive,” Cavanagh says. "And the bar is being raised all the time.”

Know of an unsung arts and culture hero who deserves wider acclaim? Send suggestions to bwheeler@globeandmail.com.

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