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A Bright Future for Canadian Opera
Colin Eatock
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Opera America Magazine4/1/2008

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Everyone involved in the arts knows that raising money is hard work. But what about giving it away? As it turns out, that’s hard, too.

This point was underscored last November, when Opera.ca assembled a panel of Canadian opera experts in New York to consider applications for financial support from the Canadian Opera Creation Fund (COCF). The panelists — baritone Theodore Baerg of London, Ontario; Marcus Handman, executive director of the Victoria Symphony Opera; technical director Julian Sleath of Toronto; and Montreal composer Ana Sokolovic — found themselves faced with the daunting task of comparing very different proposals and making some tough decisions.

“It was extremely difficult,” recalls Sokolovic, “because there’s never enough money. And we weren’t just judging the projects, we were also judging the companies that requested the funding.” Yet she’s quick to add that she also found the task rewarding. “As a composer involved in opera and music-theater, it was interesting to look at the art form from other angles — from the position of presenters and performers.”

At the conclusion of the panel’s deliberations, a total of $200,000 was awarded to six projects, ranging in scale from intimate chamber works to grand operas. Some are rooted in aspects of Canada’s culture, past and present: Inês is about Portuguese immigrants in contemporary Toronto, Pimooteewin (The Journey) is inspired by native Ojibway mythology and The Inventor is based on the life of a remarkable Canadian swindler and charlatan. Others look farther afield: Transit of Venus recounts the struggles of an 18th-century French astronomer, Sanctuary Song tells the story of an Indonesian elephant raised in captivity and The Children’s Crusade is drawn from events in medieval European history.

The diversity of these ideas reflects a growing engagement with opera as a contemporary art form, as Canadian companies both large and small increasingly commission, workshop and stage new works. These days, opera in Canada is boldly going where it’s never gone before — often with assistance from the Canadian Opera Creation Fund.

In November, Winnipeg’s Manitoba Opera premiered a Oper Transit of Venus, by Venus composer Victor Davies and librettist Maureen Hunter — the first opera commissioned by the company in its 35-year history. Remarkably, the decision to mount this work (with COCF support) was made when Manitoba Opera was struggling with a serious deficit. But the company’s CEO and general director, Larry Desrochers, felt strongly that the time for a new opera had arrived. Desrochers came to opera from the theater world (he was associate artistic director of the Manitoba Theatre Centre), where, as he points out, it’s considered normal to do new work. Why, he asks, should things be different in opera?

With a stellar Canadian cast — including Russell Braun, Judith Forst and Jean Stilwell — the $1.2 million production of Transit of Venus was a resounding success. The Winnipeg Free Press declared the opera a “masterpiece,” adding, “the entire company played its heart out in this performance.” Moreover, Transit also turned out to be just the boost Manitoba Opera needed: The new opera attracted major donors and raised the company’s profile to a new level. “It’s been a great vehicle to increase awareness for our company in the community,” Desrochers told Opera Canada magazine last fall.

These days, a growing number of Canada’s mainstream opera producers — such as Vancouver Opera, Calgary Opera and Toronto’s Canadian Opera Company, among others — are developing new work. Canada is home to several companies whose whole raison d’être is new work, as well. For these small but adventurous producers, the COCF is a vital source of support, allowing them to stretch the boundaries of opera and music-theater.

“Since its inception,” says Wayne Strongman, managing artistic director of Toronto’s Tapestry New Opera Works, “the Canadian Opera Creation Fund has been a lifeline to new work development at Tapestry. When the fund began, these resources were frankly not available elsewhere. If anything, the COCF is even more important in today’s climate.”

Another Canadian company dedicated to new work is Chants Libres. Since 2001, this Montreal- based company, directed by Pauline Vaillancourt, has received numerous awards from the COCF for development, production and documentation. This kind of support is crucial to Chants Libre’s ethos: The company’s cutting-edge musical and theatrical values demand innovation and experimentation at all stages of the creative process. For example, Opéra féerie, “l’oiseau qui dit la vérité,” by composer Gilles Tremblay and librettist Pierre Morency, scheduled for production by Chants Libres in 2009, received COCF Development Awards in 2003 and 2006.

It would be a wild exaggeration to claim that the proliferation of new opera in Canada is solely the result of support from the Canadian Opera Creation Fund. But the statistics are impressive: since the creation of the COCF seven years ago, almost $2 million has been disbursed by Opera.ca to about 60 new opera and music- theater initiatives. Most of this money has come from funding provided by the Canada Council for the Arts. However, Opera.ca has recently begun to seek out private financial support for the fund, with promising success.

Several charitable foundations have answered the call for contributions, including the George Cedric Metcalf Family Foundation, the F.K. Morrow Foundation and the Fleck Family Foundation. And the response from individual donors has been especially encouraging. Opera.ca’s Power of 100 campaign is an appeal for 100 Canadians to make a multi-year pledge of $1,000 per year to the COCF. Since the launch of the Power of 100 last fall, individuals from across Canada have demonstrated their commitment to new Canadian opera by making generous donations. (Every dollar donated goes directly to the COCF, with no funding directed toward administration or overhead expenses.)

This is all very good news — although it’s not likely to make a COCF panelist’s job much easier in the foreseeable future: As interest in new Canadian opera continues to grow, so too will the number of projects seeking funding from Opera.ca. And the challenge of deciding whether “Project A from Company X” is more or less deserving of support than an entirely different “Project B from Company Y” isn’t likely to go away, either.

Yet perhaps that’s how it should be. If the panelists face difficult decisions, it’s because of strong proposals from talented artists and committed producers. And if more productions of Canadian operas leads to greater demand for funding — that’s Opera.ca’s job.
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About the Author: Colin Eatock is a writer and composer who lives in Toronto. As Opera.ca’s Manager of Operations, he helped to organize last November’s COCF Awards
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