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British Columbia Vancouver Opera to launch condensed season schedule amid financial crunch

Luretta Bybee as Mrs. Nellie Lovett in Vancouver Opera’s production of Sweeney Todd

Tim Matheson

There are enormous changes coming to Vancouver Opera: After next season, the company will abandon its full-season schedule and amalgamate its programming into a spring festival.

The changes, which Vancouver Opera would not confirm when contacted Monday afternoon, are to be announced at a news conference at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Tuesday morning.

The first incarnation of the new festival format is to take place in the spring of 2017, according to sources in the cultural community. VO general director James Wright, who has been with the company since 1999, is set to retire after the 2015-16 season; his contract was to have expired this month but was extended by one year. Performances will be staged at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre complex, including the Vancouver Playhouse.

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The changes will see VO's season – which now features four major productions staged between September and May (with breaks) – reduced to a weeks-long festival.

The move, according to sources, is motivated by finances.

In 2013-14, the last year for which figures are available, the Vancouver Opera Association posted a budget shortfall of more than $968,000, compared with a surplus of more than $435,000 the previous year. Private-sector fundraising revenues were down almost $900,000 from the previous fiscal period.

"In a year of strategic transition," began the annual report for that year, "Vancouver Opera continued to achieve high artistic standards while exploring seldom-performed repertoire along with time-honoured favourites. ... In the face of a competitive market and shifting demographics that did not produce desired attendance, VO seized opportunities to initiate long-term strategies for developing audiences that will sustain the company into the future."

Vancouver Opera was founded in 1958 and launched in 1960 with a production of Carmen directed by Irving Guttman, the company's founding artistic director. (Mr. Guttman, who was known as the father of opera in Western Canada, died last December.)

Over the decades it has brought stars to Vancouver – including Joan Sutherland, Marilyn Horne and Placido Domingo in the early days. It has created new productions of many works, including John Adams's Nixon in China (for the Cultural Olympiad in 2010) and a First Nations-inspired production of Mozart's The Magic Flute, which premiered in 2007. VO has also commissioned new works, including John Estacio and John Murrell's Lillian Alling and this past season's Stickboy, adapted by spoken word artist Shane Koyczan from his book of the same name with music composed by Neil Weisensel. Stickboy is set to tour schools around the province in a version for younger audiences.

In 2011 the company opened the Michael & Inna O'Brian Centre for Vancouver Opera (after receiving a $1-million gift from the philanthropists), bringing together administrative and other functions at the new East Vancouver production centre, which includes a large rehearsal space.

Last year, VO adopted a "bold new look and feel" – the company's first major rebranding since 1985, according to a news release. It was designed, the annual report said, "to reposition the company as modern, accessible, innovative and exciting."

It has changed up the schedule, offering Sunday matinees, and expanded a program meant to reach new opera-goers – particularly in communities south of the Fraser River.

The 2015-16 season, VO's last in its current form, will open with Rigoletto this fall and close with Evita next spring.

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