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Canadian opera director Michael Cavanagh led more than 150 productions for more than 30 companies across North America and Europe, and was named artistic director of Royal Swedish Opera in 2020.Anita Watkins/Handout

Michael Cavanagh, the prolific Canadian opera director who found success both abroad and in his home country, died of cancer while in care in London, Ont., on March 13. He was 62.

Over three decades, Mr. Cavanagh helmed more than 150 productions for more than 30 opera companies across North America and Europe. He led Edmonton Opera in the late 1990s, directed a multiseason Mozart trilogy in San Francisco, and went on to become artistic director of Royal Swedish Opera in 2020.

Edmonton Opera artistic director Joel Ivany calls Mr. Cavanagh “a benchmark” for Canadian opera artists. “He set the table for what was possible.”

Michael David Cavanagh was born in Winnipeg on July 16, 1961. His mother, Angelika Stevens, says her son’s creativity was apparent early. “As a little boy he kept inventing things like board games. We knew he had a great imagination.” His musical gifts were equally clear. “His kindergarten teacher sent a note back referring to his ‘good singing voice.’”

His family life was full of music. Michael’s parents, who were amateur singers, enrolled him and older brother Carl in various singing groups including the children’s choir of St. George’s Anglican Church in Winnipeg. Carl Cavanagh remembers being part of the recording of Canadian composer Victor Davies’s jazz-fusion symphony The Beginning And End Of The World with conductor Skitch Henderson and members of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra in 1971.

“I was 12 and Mike was 10,” Carl recalls. “We worked in a real recording studio and there was an unlimited supply of pizza!”

In 1974, the children’s choir was part of a Manitoba Opera production of Puccini’s Tosca. That experience led to further appearances, in Bizet’s Carmen and Puccini’s La bohème. “The very first three or four operas I ever saw, I was in,” Michael Cavanagh said in a 2021 exchange with the San Francisco Opera. Ms. Stevens says the creative nature of her son’s upbringing “undoubtedly was the foundation” of his later opera passion.

As a young man, he toured with Winnipeg-based vocal group the Easy Ts and performed on CBC Television’s music series Hymn Sing before studying singing at Hamburg’s Hochschule für Musik und Theater. During his time in Europe he frequently attended performances at Hamburg State Opera, where his close observation of production elements made him question if vocal studies were the right path – though the one he took to directing was not entirely straight. As he told The Globe and Mail’s Colin Eatock in 1998, his 20s involved varied pursuits including “travel, study in Europe, singing in the Manitoba Opera Chorus, running my own painting company and even doing crime research for the RCMP.”

Mr. Cavanagh also made a crucial connection with Irving Guttman, co-founder of both the Manitoba Opera and Edmonton Opera. The Canadian impresario put Mr. Cavanagh to work – as a stage manager, prop builder, driver and stagehand. In a 2021 interview with the Winnipeg Free Press Mr. Cavanagh said that Mr. Guttman “gave me the best education I could ever ask for.”

Through this time Mr. Cavanagh also wrote libretti, produced and performed in fringe shows, and had his first big break directing Puccini’s Turandot in Edmonton in 1995. Named artistic director of Edmonton Opera in 1998, Mr. Cavanagh went on to develop an apprenticeship program for young vocalists, and programmed a bold mix of works including Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress and Verdi’s La traviata. During his three-year tenure, Mr. Cavanagh also directed Beatrice Chancy by Canadian composer James Rolfe (with libretto by George Elliott Clarke), a work he had previously helmed in Toronto and Halifax.

Mr. Ivany first met Mr. Cavanagh in 2007 through a directing opportunity with Canadian classical music organization Opera Nuova (now Nuova Vocal Arts). “I knew he’d done everything in the industry,” Mr. Ivany recalls, adding that Mr. Cavanagh’s love of sports increased his likeability. “He made it totally okay to have a life outside of opera.”

Sports and music fused in the Canadian premiere of John Adams’s Nixon In China, which Mr. Cavanagh led as part of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics Cultural Olympiad. The opera would accompany him throughout much of his subsequent career, opening vital professional doors. Mr. Adams’s 1987 work depicts the U.S. president’s historic 1972 visit to China to meet with leader Mao Zedong. The Vancouver Opera production marked the third time it had been staged in North America, and Mr. Cavanagh took a decidedly contemporary approach, using live filming as part of the presentation. Globe reviewer Elissa Poole hailed Mr. Cavanagh’s direction as “outstanding, from the intoxicated mayhem in the banquet scene to the little touches of humour that brightened and humanized the opera.” The production of Nixon in China went on to be presented in Dublin, Stockholm and San Francisco, the latter two cities enjoying particularly fruitful relationships with the director.

San Francisco Opera (SFO) hired Mr. Cavanagh to direct a number of stagings, including Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, Donizetti’s bel canto masterpiece Lucia di Lammermoor, and the chamber opera Svadba by Quebec-based composer Ana Sokolović. Mr. Cavanagh’s ambitious vision of the celebrated Mozart/DaPonte opera trilogy of The Marriage of Figaro, Così fan tutte and Don Giovanni was a multiyear project that used three different time periods (1780s, 1930s, and a dystopian 21st century, respectively) and one setting, an American manor house. Writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, critic Joshua Kosman praised Mr. Cavanagh’s “light but richly inventive touch” and called his Così fan tutte a “first-rate production.” SFO general director Matthew Shilvock said in a statement that the trilogy presentation “will define our stage for generations to come.”

The director’s contact with Royal Swedish Opera (RSO) also resulted through Nixon in China, but it was an unusual Aida in 2018 that really turned heads. “It has some grand aspects, but it really is a personal drama,” Mr. Cavanagh said in an RSO video interview about Verdi’s famous 1871 opera. Mr. Cavanagh’s staging didn’t indulge in the visual splendour of its ancient Egyptian setting; in place of elephants and camels was a simple visual palette emphasizing the work’s intimate relationships. He was appointed the company’s artistic director in 2020, and formally began his tenure in autumn 2021. His acclaimed production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, presented in early 2023 as part of the company’s 250th anniversary season, also marked the RSO’s first foray into musicals.

Along with a decidedly innovative approach, Mr. Cavanagh’s success might also be attributed to his understanding of the human elements that power the art form’s frequently demanding technical details. Manitoba Opera general manager and CEO Larry Desrochers, who first met Mr. Cavanagh in the 1980s when he led the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival, told the Winnipeg Free Press in 2020 that casts enjoyed working with the director and “having been a singer, he understands their needs onstage.” Mr. Cavanagh was aware of the importance of such sensitivity, telling The Globe And Mail’s Jenna Simeonov in 2020, “I feel a responsibility to my singers – and I’m going to include designers, all the musicians, everybody – my responsibility is to allow them to do their best work.”

That spirit of encouragement extended to his students at the Don Wright Faculty of Music at the University of Western Ontario. As well as being a part-time lecturer, Mr. Cavanagh led a variety of productions at the school, including Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Mikado; Puccini’s Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi; Verdi’s final opera, Falstaff; Benjamin Britten’s The Turn Of The Screw, based on Henry James’s novel; and Ravel’s L’heure espagnole and L’enfant et les Sortilèges.

“He would always adapt to the environment he was in, whether it was a big company show or a university show,” Mr. Ivany says. “I think in Canada we don’t have the same history as [opera-linked] European places, but Michael showed we are allowed to have new ideas and interpretations.”

At news of Mr. Cavanagh’s death on March 13, people from all corners of the classical world offered tributes. Royal Swedish Opera CEO Fredrik Lindgren commented that the director “had the fantastic ability to see and know everyone around him and to spread joy and positive energy. The Royal Swedish Opera and the whole opera world have lost a unique creative force and a beloved friend.” San Francisco Opera’s Mr. Shilvock stated that Mr. Cavanagh “represents everything that is good about this art form.”

Mr. Cavanagh leaves his wife, soprano Jackie Short; their daughter, Amelia Pipher Cavanagh; mother, Ms. Stevens; brother, Carl; and sister, Chrissy Morley.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article stated that Michael Cavanagh was at home when he died on March 13. This version has been corrected to say he was in care at the time.

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