Making opera is a risky, expensive business, which is why most large companies stick to the well-tested repertoire, mainly works written in the 18th century and 19th century, sung in German or Italian. And most opera fans like the predictability, which also promises some dependable revenue for these companies.
In the past two decades, Calgary Opera has challenged conventional wisdom and built its identity on a mandate to create new Canadian work.
Bob McPhee left Edmonton in 1998 to lead Calgary Opera. He knew he wanted to do something adventurous with his new company, but he soon learned his audience might not be happy about the changes he had in mind. They were still griping about a 1995 production of Benjamin Britten's Albert Herring, a mid-20th-century work considered "modern" by traditional standards. It had been the only "modern" work Calgary Opera ever offered.
Undeterred, McPhee trusted himself and his own opera tastes, and quickly won the trust of his board. Soon, most of Calgary opera-loving community was won over as well.
He received complaints about his first two relatively contemporary operas – Francis Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites and Carlisle Floyd's Susannah – which he programmed, but he also gave his audience La bohème, Madama Butterfly and The Marriage of Figaro. McPhee also had his new composer-in-residence John Estacio talk to patrons, warming them up to the idea that a new Canadian work was on the horizon.
Over McPhee's almost 20 years at the helm, Calgary Opera has commissioned or co-commissioned four main-stage operas, including Estacio and John Murrell's Filumena, and several shorter works. Filumena, the company's first commission, in collaboration with the Banff Centre, premiered Feb. 1, 2003, and received several additional performances in Banff, Edmonton and Ottawa after its Calgary run.
Last Saturday, Calgary Opera did the unheard of. It remounted Filumena for a three-performance revival, 14 years after the opera about an immigrant Italian woman hanged in 1923 for murdering a policeman in southern Alberta was premiered.
Murrell, Filumena's librettist, puts the accomplishment in perspective.
"For a Canadian opera, especially one that is full-length … to be done once is remarkable. For it to be done twice, with however long a period in between, is almost unheard of in this country. But for it to have several productions, and then a time lapse, and come back yet again is, I think, one of a kind."
The only other comparable performance history belongs to Harry Somers's 1967 opera Louis Riel, which the Canadian Opera Company is bringing back this spring to help celebrate Canada's 150th birthday.
McPhee's programming formula always includes something in the middle of the season that is outright new or at least is a work from abroad that, in many cases, Canada has not seen before. But he also gives his audience an opera for the list of greatest hits and something in the standard repertoire that may not get as much attention as a La bohème or a Madama Butterfly.
"It's a formula that we've been doing here for 15 or more years, and my audience has come to accept that once a year we're going to stretch them. We're going to take them somewhere that they've never been. And now they just know it, and they trust us," McPhee says.
"You have to earn that trust. At first they didn't trust us at all. Now, I think they know I'm not going to throw something at them that I don't believe in. They might not like it totally, but they certainly find the value in why we're doing it."
The Canadian Opera Company's general director, Alexander Neef, attended the opening performance of the Filumena remount. He believes the COC is ready to follow a path similar to Calgary Opera and create some made-in-Canada opera.
"The important thing is regularity. The thing is, you don't want to do a world premiere once every 20 years. If you do that, you don't build an audience for it. So what we're trying to do at the COC slowly is to get into a rhythm."
And to win the audience's trust.
Before the premiere of a short new work in the 2015-16 season, the COC hadn't presented a new opera of any length since 1999. The plan now is to do four Canadian projects over five years out to the 2019-20 season, and then do a new work every third year after that, Neef says.
"I hope that will also put us together with our audience on a new level of interest in new work. You really show a level of commitment and engagement, and you hope that will bring parts of your audience along," he says.
What impressed Neef most about his experience of Filumena was a palpable feeling of engagement and commitment in the Southern Jubilee Auditorium.
"You could feel that everyone on stage and in the pit had so much pride in this project. And it carried over to the audience. That was really fantastic about the whole evening, that people felt it was about them in many ways."
So besides McPhee's confidence in his own artistic tastes and his hard-headed approach to budgeting for risk, what is it about Calgary that has made his leap of faith in his audience possible and then successful? When he started, the city's economy was buoyant. Times have changed, but the spirit of the place hasn't.
"Calgary is having a rough time right now, but there's something about doing something here that hasn't been done somewhere else that Calgary really likes – that we're doing it, and no one else is."
An intrepid Western Canadian spirit may have something to do with the faith Calgary opera audiences have placed in McPhee's leadership, but without his own conviction that Canada needs its own opera tradition that tell its own stories, operas such as Filumena, the tragic story of immigrants' struggles to fit in; Frobisher, a northern fantasy; and Bramwell Tovey's The Inventor.
Murrell, better known as a playwright than a librettist, was among the pioneers in the late 1960s who shaped a new Canadian theatre culture. He believes McPhee and Calgary Opera have begun something similar for Canadian opera. They are laying a foundation for a new Canadian opera canon.
"How strange is that that it should be in Calgary, rather than in Toronto or somewhere else?"
Postage pays tribute
At the opening performance of Filumena on Feb. 4 in Calgary, five new stamps recognizing Canadian opera were unveiled, including a stamp acknowledging Calgary Opera's first commission and its remounting in Canada's 150th anniversary year.
Also recognized was Harry Somers's centennial-year opera Louis Riel, as well as Irving Guttman, the father of professional opera in Western Canada, and two internationally renowned Canadian opera singers, bass baritone Gerald Finley and soprano Adrianne Pieczonka.
– Bill Rankin