Bob McPhee moved to Calgary in 1998 with his bags and what he called his BHAGs: big, hairy, audacious goals. After the feat of getting the Winspear Centre built while president and CEO of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (ESO), he arrived in Calgary with cultural ambitions that were radical not just for the city, but for the country. As general director and CEO of Calgary Opera, Mr. McPhee wanted to commission new work – written, conducted and sung, whenever possible, by Canadians. And he made it happen. During his transformative tenure, he commissioned six new operas.
“For the first [nearly] 20 years of this century, he really directed what was the most creative place in opera in this country,” says Bramwell Tovey, who composed one of those operas, conducted its world premiere and later became, for a time, artistic director.
Mr. McPhee was a deft administrator who understood the art form. Equally at ease adjusting a budget or a libretto, he operated with both kindness and directness. He had an artist’s sensibility, an administrator’s brain and a visionary’s ambitions.
And he had charisma. “He could charm a bird off a branch,” Averil Cook, his executive assistant for 18 years, says. That helped when it came to advocating for funding from donors and successive governments – some, in Alberta, not always considered arts-friendly. And his positive energy helped create a warm environment at the decommissioned church that serves as Calgary Opera headquarters.
“There was a lot of laughter in the building with him,” Ms. Cook says. A former professional singer, Mr. McPhee would sometimes break out into song in the office.
During his 19 years at the company, Calgary Opera launched an emerging artists program, a summer opera festival, an opera creation program for schools and sealed a partnership with the biggest game in town, the Calgary Stampede, to build a new opera centre as part of the Stampede’s Youth Arts Campus.
“He had one big idea after another,” says Helen Moore-Parkhouse, former Calgary Opera director of development and marketing. “Any one of those for not a huge company is a big step, but he had this ability … to rally people around his ideas and get people to just get ‘er done.”
The new opera commissions may be his greatest legacy, putting the once struggling company on the cultural map: Turtle Wakes in 2001, followed by the company’s first full-length commission Filumena in 2003, Frobisher in 2007, Hannaraptor in 2008, The Inventor in 2011 and What Brought Us Here in 2012.
He also co-commissioned Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick, with four other international companies.
“I think he truly changed opera in Canada. I think there was Before Bob and there is After Bob,” says Kelly Robinson, a Canadian director based in New York, who stage directed about a dozen productions for Mr. McPhee, including the world premieres of Filumena, Frobisher and The Inventor.
There is another work, in progress, that is also part of his legacy. In 2015, Mr. McPhee commissioned John Estacio – who composed Filumena and Frobisher – to compose a third opera for the company. Mr. Estacio began work with librettist Clem Martini on what would become The Cipher Clerk, based on the story of Soviet cipher clerk Igor Gouzenko, who was stationed in Ottawa during the Second World War and defected to Canada shortly thereafter.
When Mr. Estacio finished the opera in early March, he texted Mr. McPhee to let him know. He replied: “Congrats my friend. … Thinking of you and love you.”
It was their final text exchange. Mr. McPhee died a week later on March 13. He was 65.
“I think this world, the world of creating, the world of opera, it’s still going to be fine, but it’s not going to be as much fun without him,” says Mr. Estacio, who is attending the first workshop for The Cipher Clerk this week. “A little bit of the fun has just been diminished.”
William Robert (W.R.) McPhee was born Jan. 22, 1956, in Winnipeg. Bob – the name he always went by – loved music from an early age. He joined the Winnipeg Boys’ Choir when he was seven years old and continued to sing in his youth, a baritone.
He graduated from the University of Manitoba with a Bachelor of Education (Music) Degree, studied arts management at MacEwan University in Edmonton and Banff Centre, and did a fellowship in non-profit arts leadership at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business.
He worked for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra and Orchestra London.
At the ESO, he began a composer-in-residence program, created the Symphony Under the Sky festival and led the foundation that built the Winspear – a venue that rivals Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, says Mr. Tovey, who has conducted all over the world.
Mr. McPhee lured Mr. Estacio from Edmonton (where he had previously hired him as composer-in-residence) to become composer-in-residence at Calgary Opera. He wanted to commission a full-length opera, the first for the company.
“He was never, never satisfied with the status quo,” Mr. Estacio says.
They were in search of a librettist and a story. They drove to Banff together in January, 2000, to meet with John Murrell, then head of musical theatre at Banff Centre, and George Ross, then associate director of theatre operations. Over lunch at Coyotes Southwestern Grill, Mr. Murrell laid out his idea: an opera about Filumena Lossandro, the last woman to be executed in Alberta (in 1923).
After the meeting, walking back to the car, Mr. McPhee and Mr. Estacio turned around to make sure the other two were out of view – and then they high-fived each other. “We knew this was it, this was the story,” Mr. Estacio says. “This was going to get a brand new opera on the stage at the Calgary Opera.”
It can be a tough box office sell, a new opera, and there were challenges getting people in the door. The opera premiered on Feb. 1, 2003, a Saturday. The following Monday, Calgary Opera recorded its biggest one-day ticket sale to that point, Mr. Estacio says. “Bob and I looked at each other and went, ‘Holy smokes, can you believe that little lunch meeting at Coyotes led up to this moment?’”
Mr. McPhee brought the two Johns back together to create Frobisher, which premiered in 2007.
That same year, he teamed Mr. Murrell (who died in 2019) with Mr. Tovey for what would become The Inventor. At a final workshop in February, 2010 – 11 months from the world premiere – they ran through Act One before lunch. People were packing up when Mr. McPhee pulled Mr. Tovey, Mr. Murrell and Mr. Robinson aside. He told them quietly and directly: It’s great, but it needs an aria from the main character while he escapes from his creditors on a train.
“It was as if a light came on; nobody disagreed with him,” Mr. Tovey says. “It was unquestionably the right thing. And you know what’s so good about that? At that stage you don’t want someone to say: Have you considered having an aria here? He just came straight out and said it’s crying out for it; you’ve overlooked this.”
Among Mr. McPhee’s many honours, he was named to the Order of Canada in 2013 and received an honorary doctor of laws from the University of Calgary in 2016.
He did not tolerate divas (of any gender, in any position) and he expected – but also appreciated – hard work. He loved to make a joke or give a compliment. He loved a good party. Calgary Opera’s annual Grave Gala was a favourite; one year he went as Karl Lagerfeld, another as Charlie Brown.
He would invite people into his home, his life, his world – where style reigned from his eyeglasses to his shoes. He wasn’t a great cook, but threw fabulous dinner parties anyway for his huge network of friends.
Donors, artists and audiences also adored him.
“He’d appear on the stage before performances and everybody felt like he was their friend, like he was talking to them,” says Mel Kirby, who manages Calgary Opera’s Emerging Artist Program.
He loved to travel – to search for new talent, or for pure pleasure. He toured Europe to celebrate his 50th birthday; took regular trips to Palm Springs.
He also loved the Calgary skyline, and was looking forward to adding to his adopted hometown with the Calgary Opera Community Arts Centre, on land donated by the Stampede.
And he loved his dog, Angus, a Westie who died last November.
Mr. McPhee was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in late 2016 and retired from Calgary Opera the next year – although he did some consulting work for the company. “Certainly he wasn’t ready to retire and had lots of dreams for the Opera,” says his close friend Kathi Sundstrom, executive director of Decidedly Jazz Danceworks in Calgary. “That all became untenable with his health journey.”
He underwent chemotherapy and radiation beginning in early 2017; scans indicated that the cancer had been reduced and he underwent an operation to rebuild his esophagus in late 2019. It was deemed a success and he received several clean bills of health.
So it was a shock when on Feb. 5 of this year, he learned the cancer was back and had moved to his lungs and liver.
When he learned of his diagnosis, he tried to get permission to travel to Winnipeg for a last visit with his mother. But he became too sick too quickly. They had to say goodbye on a video call.
He was admitted to hospital March 1, and moved to palliative care March 8.
As friends and former colleagues were alerted to his condition by e-mail, there were countless responses. Ms. Sundstrom would print them out and read them out loud. She carried 14 pages of what she calls love letters to his bedside the day before he died.
He composed a final e-mail to be sent out after his death.
“You’ve heard the saying, it’s not over until the fat lady sings. Well, she sang this afternoon when I took my final bow,” the note began. He thanked people for their letters, said his life was cut off too soon, urged loved ones to raise a glass of good scotch and listen to some music. (He even created a Spotify playlist for them.)
“Enjoy life, celebrate friendships and families. When you can go see a live show again, go,” he wrote. “I’ll be with you.”
He ended the note: “Toi Toi Toi.”
Bob McPhee leaves his mother, Iona McPhee of Winnipeg; sister, Bonnie McPhee, and her husband, Jim Prokopanko; and his nephews, Chris and Matt Prokopanko of Minneapolis.