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For the Vancouver Opera Festival, the drama is offstage

Kim Gaynor, the head of the Vancouver Opera festival, is photographed in the wardrobe department of the Vancouver Opera facilities in Vancouver, British Columbia, Thursday, April 13, 2017. Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail Kim Gaynor, the head of the Vancouver Opera festival, at the opera’s facilities on April 13,

Rafal Gerszak/Rafal Gerszak/the globe and mail

Not that there's ever a good time to fall from your horse, but when it happened to Kim Gaynor, it was particularly inconvenient.

Gaynor was exactly three months away from launching a brand new opera festival in Vancouver when she fell from her beloved horse Gin Fizz de St. Germain. She had brought him over from Switzerland when she left the Verbier Festival to take on the position of general director of Vancouver Opera. It was a serious accident that resulted in a tibial plateau fracture, with cracks down her leg almost to the bottom. She was in hospital initially for two weeks; but a few days after her release, she had to return because of a serious infection.

"Six weeks of antibiotics; I just finished. And painkillers. It was a very, very painful injury. So one week I've been heavy-drug-free," Gaynor says during an interview just before Easter weekend. She pulls up her left pant leg, revealing an enormous scar.

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But even with 14 inches of metal in her, Gaynor still had an opera festival to plan, no easy task in an arts environment faced with aging audiences and declining sales. With no WiFi in the hospital, friends wheeled her over to the closest Starbucks so she could get some work done. Further complicating matters, she was robbed twice during her ordeal – her phone and e-reader stolen from her hospital bedside while she was in a drug-induced sleep; and back at home, while immobile upstairs, an intruder entered the house and walked off with her computer. With replaced electronics, she did as much work as she could from the hospital and home.

"I knew that would all be under control and people kept me up to date," she says now. "Obviously, had there been big problems, it would have been different because I would have been not able as well as normally to deal with them, but we haven't really run into any of those yet."

Still, it was an awful lot to deal with as the inaugural Vancouver Opera Festival approached. Not only is it a new festival, which has replaced the traditional season model at VO, but Gaynor herself is also new to the company, having taken over from James Wright only this past July. "There's never a good time to smash your tibia, but it's kind of the worst time with the new job and the festival coming up. But I will hobble around on my crutches as best I can," she says.

As crutches go, they're quite lovely. Gaynor had finally been back on her feet – well one of them, anyway – making a gradual entry back into the workplace when she attended a board meeting ahead of the company's big gala on March 31. She was bemoaning the ugliness of her crutches when Parvin Mirhady, VO's head of costumes, came to her rescue. "She took my crutches and brought them back at the end of the board meeting bedazzled," Gaynor says. Gaynor had intended to use them like that only for the gala, but the ultimate fashion accessory has turned out to be a fine ice-breaker. "Everywhere I go, people smile and talk to me. It's a conversation-starter. It's better than my dog," she says. "I don't know how long I'll keep them, because actually my entire house and car and dog are covered in little sparkles."

Gaynor will certainly still be using those crutches (perhaps restyled) when the inaugural Vancouver Opera Festival opens on April 28. Taking place primarily at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, the Vancouver Playhouse next door and on the Queen Elizabeth Plaza, the festival is packed with promising programming.

There are three core productions: Verdi's Otello, Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro and Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking, with libretto by Terrence McNally, based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean. Prejean herself will appear at one of the complementary festival events, many taking place in the Festival Tent on the Queen Elizabeth Plaza. The Plaza will be animated with an opera-inspired video installation by artist Paul Wong on enormous screens, playing until the action shuts down each night. And unlike many other events that take place in that space, the festival will not be cut off from view with fencing.

"I wanted to have something open and inviting," Gaynor says. "I wanted a made-you-look effect." There are challenges with putting on this festival that don't involve bone fractures – some quite Vancouver-specific. With the hopes of creating a festival feel on the outdoor plaza, the possibility of rain is not thrilling. And the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, the venue for Otello and Dead Man Walking on alternating dates, was not built to accommodate works in repertory. There are no wings or backstage areas that can adequately store the sets. So the company commissioned a single set that would serve both shows (but decorated so that it will be unrecognizable from opera to opera).

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Then there's the all-important box office. VO moved to a festival model to ensure the future viability of the company as it deals with universal challenges facing the opera world. Gaynor says tickets are selling, but she concedes the buzz has been slow to build.

"It's only just now that we're starting to see press coming out about the festival, so I'm still really waiting for the big excitement," she says. "I think festivals, for them to be successful, have to have a level of buzz that happens. Now, it's a new festival so that's harder to generate ... but I'm still hoping that that will happen. So that's the anticipation thing right now: wondering will the fire catch?"

The Vancouver Opera Festival runs April 28 to May 13 (festival.vancouveropera.ca).

In addition to the three opera productions, here are five worthy events at the VO Festival.

Ethical Justice in the 21st Century

You've seen the film, now meet its inspiration. Sister Helen Prejean, author of the book Dead Man Walking, joins a panel to discuss the death penalty, incarceration and their alternatives.

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April 29, 4:30 pm, Festival Tent

The Carmina Burana Sing-Along

Watch from your seat or register to rehearse and perform with the Vancouver Bach Choir and sing onstage.

May 3, 8 pm, QET

New Works Project

In four open workshops, UBC student composers and writers collaborate with two singers and a pianist to create new chamber opera works.

May 3, 5, 10 and 12, 3 pm, Festival Tent

Ute Lemper

The legendary German singer makes a rare Vancouver appearance with her show Last Tango in Berlin, with songs by Piaf, Brel and others.

May 4, 8 pm. Orpheum Theatre (with a free talk May 5, 4:30 pm at the Festival Tent)

Tanya Tagaq

Never miss an opportunity to see Tagaq, the Polaris Prize-winning throat singer who puts on a mind-blowing show.

May 12, 8 pm, Vogue Theatre

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About the Author
Western Arts Correspondent

Marsha Lederman is the Western Arts Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver. She covers the film and television industry, visual art, literature, music, theatre, dance, cultural policy, and other related areas. More

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