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Marilyn Horne, Irving Guttman and Joan Sutherland are seen during rehearsals for Norma in 1963.

Vancouver Opera

In 1943, at the pinnacle of her wildly successful movie career, singer Jeanette MacDonald decided to try opera. After a bit of coaching, the famous film star made her operatic debut far from Hollywood in, of all places, Montreal. In the thrilled audience that historic night was gangly teenager Irving Guttman. The young man was so captivated by what he saw and heard, he made his way backstage to secure Ms. MacDonald's autograph, a keepsake he treasured all his life. More importantly, her performance in Gounod's Roméo et Juliette launched the smitten youth on an intense, life-long affair with an art form that took him to opera houses around the world and a directing career that was astonishing in its breadth.

Over the course of four decades, beginning when professional productions in this country were in their infancy, Irving Guttman put an indelible stamp on Canadian opera. He made his mark particularly in the West, where he spearheaded the establishment of not one, but four separate companies. With his ambitious vision and unerring skill at seeking out and landing the perfect voices for his productions, he brought some of opera's most renowned singers to places such as Vancouver and Edmonton, which were then known to attract timber and oil men – not opera stars.

The likes of Joan Sutherland, Marilyn Horne, Beverly Sills, Sam Ramey, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras were all wooed and cajoled to make their first Canadian appearances in productions staged by Mr. Guttman, some singing roles that sparked interest across North America.

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In 1963, only three years into his job as artistic director of the just-hatched Vancouver Opera, Mr. Guttman scored one of his biggest coups with his now legendary production of Norma, which had celebrated divas Ms. Sutherland and Ms. Horne performing together for the first time. Though the opera board had been worried by Ms. Sutherland's nightly fee of $3,000, the opera played to sold-out audiences, was a smash with critics and even managed to turn a grand profit of $14. Nine years later, Ms. Sutherland returned to Vancouver for the lead role in Lucrezia Borgia, which had not been staged in North America since 1904. Even a critic from the New Yorker magazine turned up for that one, while the Toronto Star's William Littler lamented that his city never seemed to land such stunners.

Mr. Guttman worked his same persuasive flair in Edmonton. Four years after he became artistic director there in 1965, star soprano Beverly Sills's first major performance as Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor took place under the direction of Mr. Guttman on the stage of the Jubilee Auditorium. It quickly became one of her signature roles. Mr. Guttman later recounted how Ms. Sills arrived in the northern Alberta capital in the dead of winter, wearing an old fur coat that was almost falling apart. Yet Ms. Sills was so enamoured by her reception, she returned twice more to sing for Mr. Guttman and the Edmonton Opera.

There were many such bravura performances during Mr. Guttman's long tenures at the helm of opera companies in Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Regina.

He regularly managed to convince top performers to brave the bitter cold of the Prairie provinces and the bleak rain of Vancouver, where, in the early days, he was known to greet lead singers with an umbrella as they disembarked. Nor was he deterred on opening night of his first production in Edmonton, when a bat suddenly flew out over the audience.

Mostly, it was a love-in between Mr. Guttman and the singers he hired. They felt safe in his operas, especially when trying out unfamiliar roles. But he knew how to handle prima donnas, too. Faced with a showboating soprano who could not resist heading toward the footlights whenever there was a chorus break, Mr. Guttman advised the main tenor to simply step on the back of her train.

Mr. Guttman also discovered and mentored many young Canadian singers who went on to international stardom. Luminaries Judith Forst, Ben Heppner, Tracy Dahl, Nancy Hermiston, Maureen Forrester and Richard Margison were among those who received their first prominent roles in operas directed by Mr. Guttman.

"Without these companies, what would Canadian opera singers do? You can't go down and work in the States easily. You have to have experience, to have proven yourself," said Ms. Hermiston, now chair of the voice and opera divisions of the University of British Columbia's School of Music. "And Irving was staging world-class productions of excellent quality. Not just two walls and a couple of sets. It was grand opera at its height."

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Mr. Guttman had an exceptional ability to cast a voice in a specific opera. "His ear was extraordinary," said Ms. Forst, whom Mr. Guttman plucked from a student chorus for her first role when the scheduled singer didn't show up. "I don't know what was in his head. He didn't sing, but it was a talent I've never seen before." A year later, she was onstage at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. As happened with many of the singers he mentored, the two became lifelong friends. "He always seemed to know when it was time for me to make the next step in my repertoire."

Mr. Heppner recalled that Mr. Guttman was concerned with his stage presence, after selecting him for his first role, as Rodrigo in Otello. "I kind of looked like a sack of potatoes," Mr. Heppner said. "Irving really worked with me, and not just because he wanted to look good as a director. He was trying every which way to make sure you did, too."

Over half a century, until his retirement in 2003, Mr. Guttman maintained a relentless schedule that was tiring just to contemplate, forever juggling two or three operatic balls in the air at once.

In addition to his work out West, he directed operas in Eastern Canada and throughout Europe and the United States. He was also the first to direct televised opera in Canada, staging more then 60 Montreal-based productions for the CBC. Some featured Roger Doucet, who became famous singing O Canada at the Montreal Forum. He was an opera traditionalist, helming productions that emphasized the beautiful voices of his singers, rather than having them "turn cartwheels," as an associate once put it.

All told, Mr. Guttman spent 33 years heading the Edmonton Opera, 21 years as artistic director of the Manitoba Opera, 16 years with the Vancouver Opera, 10 years leading the Saskatchewan Opera, and four years as artistic adviser to the Calgary Opera, holding many of these posts simultaneously.

When he died Dec. 7 at the age of 86, he was known universally as the Father of Opera in Western Canada, a title he could never have imagined when he honed his talents in the rich cultural milieu of Montreal.

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"I moved West, and my heart came out with me," he told The Globe and Mail's Liam Lacey in 1991. "Other places, I might have been able to fit in. Here, I got to build something new."

Mr. Guttman was born Oct. 27, 1928, in Chatham, Ont. to Austrian-born Shea Guttman and his wife Bernetta (née Schaffer), daughter of a pioneering Jewish family in New Brunswick. It was just in time for the Depression to do in his father's clothing business. After a brief stay in Montreal, the Guttmans moved to the village of Blackville, N.B., to run the general store, owned by Bernetta's father. Schaffer's Store, which still stands, is now a local historic site. Irving retained fond memories of his childhood there, but his father soon tired of rural life and the lack of a Jewish community. The family returned to Montreal. By the time Irving Guttman had seen Jeanette MacDonald perform and graduated from Strathcona Academy in 1946, he was absolutely hooked on opera, listening to recordings over and over, learning all the voices, all the words, all the music. With his close school chum and fellow opera fanatic Terry McEwen, who became head of the San Francisco Opera, he would take weekend trips to the Met, travelling overnight by train, buying food from vending machines, and if money was thin, buying one ticket and sharing the opera.

Without much of a singing voice, however, Mr. Guttman faced an uncertain future. But his knowledge and enthusiasm for opera managed to win him admission to the Royal Conservatory of Music. Volunteering for every task he could find, he eventually came to the notice of the austere Herman Geiger-Torel, recently arrived from Europe to teach at the Conservatory and later founder of the Canadian Opera Company. Working his way from stagehand to assistant director, Mr. Guttman received a thorough schooling in the ways of staging opera from Mr. Geiger-Torel.

After two formative years with the New Orleans Opera, where the young Canadian was advised to "get yourself a nice girlfriend and open a drugstore," he went back to Montreal and a job selling dollar ties at a downtown department store.

He took time off to direct his very first opera in the Ontario city of Cornwall in 1953, for which he cast Ms. Forrester in her first opera, as well. By then, Pauline Donalda, the famed Montreal opera singer who sang with Caruso in 1905, had taken a shine to the young man. She recommended the CBC hire him to direct their televised operas. His success prompted ardent music lovers in Vancouver to approach him about staging operas there.

Within a year, Mr. Guttman was the Vancouver Opera Company's first artistic director, although he did not move permanently to the city until 1970, after meeting his life partner, Robert Dales. A member of the local Bach chorus at the time, Mr. Dales had to get used to sharing his partner with Mr. Guttman's other love. "The first 30 years we were together were more like 12 years. He was on the road all the time – Barcelona, Rio, Taipei, Hawaii, San Francisco," Mr. Dales said. "He was always in demand."

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Mr. Guttman received many honours along the way, including admission to the Order of Canada and Canada's Opera Hall of Fame. In recognition of his long history of mentoring young singers, the Old Auditorium rehearsal hall at UBC is named in his honour.

Even as he battled cancer, Mr. Guttman never stopped listening to opera. He was tuned to the Sirius opera channel until his final days, often hearing memorable operas from the Met that he had seen in person.

"He is just one of the giants of opera in Canada," said James Wright, general director of the Vancouver Opera. "There are only a handful of them, and to make it work in this country at all is a kind of miracle."

Mr. Guttman leaves his partner, Robert Dales, nieces Carla, Bonnie and Susan, and nephew Steven.

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