Gilbert and Sullivan at the opera? Where does that leave Verdi, Puccini and Wagner?
Do not mistake yourself; I love Gilbert and Sullivan as much as I love “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”. There’s a bit of John Cleese in all of us.
But what did Canada’s second-largest opera company do this spring when it produced “HMS Pinafore”?
OK, so the Canadian Opera Company has already produced – and very well produced – the Broadway musical “Kismet”. So why shouldn’t the Vancouver Opera sleep a little?
Slums? Well, snob that I am, I happen to believe that opera companies should produce opera. And the reason? In Canada, we are operationally underserved. Our so-called second largest company offers its customers the grand total of three main productions every year and this season, surprisingly, our largest company is doing the same.
So what about Verdi, Puccini and Wagner? In the Canadian cold, there it is.
While it’s true that Canada is developing a number of smaller, more experimental companies, sometimes championing new work, our traditional companies, especially in these times of COVID consciousness, seem to be trying to play it safe.
Of course, they want to expand their audience. What they do in the process becomes less and less what they are. And it doesn’t always work. Tom Wright, general manager of the Vancouver Opera, recently expressed his disappointment with ticket sales for ‘HMS Pinafore’, a hit when his company last produced it several years ago.
I attended one of the performances this season and was also disappointed, not only by the attendance, but also by the not unrelated realization that Vancouver Opera had failed to bring this vintage piece from 1878 from Victoriana to life.
There was certainly life present in the person of Peter McGillivray as the scene-stealer of Sir Joseph Porter, KCB, First Lord of the Admiralty. And he was certainly not surrounded by corpses among “his sisters and his cousins and his aunts”.
What the cast needed, however, was the kind of energy and sense of style that Brian Macdonald brought to his Stratford Festival Gilbert and Sullivan productions. Brenna Corner brought business but no firm direction and her colleague in the pit, Rosemary Thomson, now in her 15th season as music director of the Okanagan Symphony Orchestra, conducted in tepid weather.
No, the production was not really incompetent, it was provincial, still hampered by the unflattering acoustics of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. Two days after attending ‘HMS Pinafore’, I found myself at the Four Seasons Center in Toronto, listening to the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’ and wondering why the music was suddenly sounding so loud.
The music sounded loud because I was sitting in a real opera house with good acoustics. We don’t realize often enough how much most Canadian opera companies suffer, like Vancouver’s, from unsympathetic accommodations.
Vancouver Opera, like its sister companies, has certainly suffered for a few years from COVID-19 closures and audience restrictions, having at one point had to cut its budget almost in half.
But there will be no Gilbert and Sullivan in the upcoming season. To its considerable credit, the company will courageously bounce back with three substantial and far from over-interpreted operatic pieces, beginning with Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers” (Oct. 22-30), continuing with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by Britten (11-19 February) and concluding with “The Flying Dutchman” by Wagner (29 April-7 May).
Don’t forget, this is the company that introduced Joan Sutherland’s Norma and Lucrezia Borgia to the world, staged the Canadian premiere of John Adams’ “Nixon in China,” and commissioned Lillian Alling. There are remarkable pages in its history.
Certainly, its days of five annual productions on the main stage seem to be, at least temporarily, a thing of the past. But Vancouver Opera is a national leader in its educational programs, with its school program having delivered short operas in English to more than 1.6 million children.
Although ‘HMS Pinafore’ may not have succeeded in bringing crowds back to the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Wright thinks at least part of the explanation lies in people’s reluctance to return to regular theater when COVID- 19 remains a social presence.
As an incentive to keep coming back, the company plans to present its first free outdoor concert at a Burnaby park in July. “We want to send the message that opera is fun,” he said.
This is a message that opera producers across North America are sending. In pursuit of a younger audience, less attached to the standard repertoire, he also becomes more sensitive to the sounds of our time. As well as worries.
By commissioning “Naomi’s Road”, an opera based on Joy Kogawa’s book about a young Japanese-Canadian’s experience of her family’s internment during World War II, the company touched on a subject that continues to resonate with British Columbians.
So maybe the occasional laugh with Gilbert and Sullivan might not be such a bad idea after all. Just make sure the right people are telling the jokes.
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