It will be the end of a generations-long era at Vancouver Opera, and the start of a new one: after next season, the company will switch to a spring-festival format.
That means the 55-year-old institution, the second-biggest opera company in the country, will no longer run a full season. Instead it will concentrate three of its four productions over three weeks in late-April and early May.
VO general director Jim Wright said it was simply a matter of sustainability amid a climate of diminishing audiences. "The leadership came to the conclusion that anything using the old model simply wasn't working and was not getting the numbers we needed," he told the Straight. "There is not an opera company in North America that is not concerned about sales. We are being as forward thinking as possible."
Although he said the VO looked at similar successful festival models in places like Fort Worth and St. Louis, the idea was geared specifically to Vancouver. "We talked about it: if this isn't a festival town, then what is?" Wright said. "In late April into May there are no other major arts festivals." He added it's the beginning of cruise season, with more tourists in town, and with good spring weather the festival could spread out into the Queen Elizabeth plaza for a higher public profile. "It's about reacting to what this city is about: festivals, innovation, gathering....If we keep up the quality and it's interesting enough and the variety that they may not be able to see these [shows] at home, there's no reason why it can't become a destination festival," he added.
Savings will come in part from the ability to do concentrated marketing at one time of year.
Wright admitted the new format will mean reductions in staffing: "We promised that they'll know which positions will change before Labour Day, and that means nine months notice for the ones that are changing." The VO has said the shift to the festival format will save the company about 10 percent in operating costs.
The VO has announced only one of its shows for the 2017 spring festival: a full production of Giuseppe Verdi's Otello, which will run in repertory at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre along with one other as-yet-unnamed show. The VO has not produced Otello in more than 30 years. A smaller production will run during the festival at the Vancouver Playhouse. A fourth show aimed at families will take place in the preholiday season at the Playhouse in late 2016. Wright estimated the opera saves about $400,000 for shows staged at the Playhouse instead of the Queen Elizabeth.
Wright said the new Vancouver Opera Festival will showcase innovation, with animated lobby and plaza spaces, pre- and post-performance events, programming for young people and families, workshops and forums, cultural concerts, and free events--all aimed at bringing new audiences out to opera. "We've been saying 'We own the block'--the plaza, the lobby, the Playhouse," Wright said. "Hitting the plaza allows us to do catered dinner and food stuff. People can come down on the weekend. We really want to animate the space."
Wright admitted the sea change in the way the opera operates is going to make some subscribers unhappy. "We're going to have to spend a lot of time assuring them," he said. "There are people with anything that don't want change because it works for them, and there are others that understand the need to innovate.
"It's essential. A few days ago, somebody said, 'Did you survey your audience about what to do?' No we didn't; we're leading, not following. Every organization in North America knows that things must change."
Opera companies faced with funding the most expensive art form are struggling with financial crises across the continent--most notably at the Metropolitan Opera, which has raised alarms about pending bankruptcy if it can't reduce wages, and at the New York City Opera, which declared bankruptcy and closed its doors in 2013. San Diego faced a recent near-collapse, surviving through downsizing, and many other major companies are fighting declining ticket and subscriber sales.
While it is tightening up its performance schedule, the opera is in fact planning to expand the Yulanda M. Faris Young Artists Program, from four singers to seven, and that group will give performances during the winter months at the O'Brian Centre for Vancouver Opera and at venues in Metro Vancouver. The VO is also planning a copresentation with the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival in early 2017.
It's noteworthy that Wright's contract does not extend into the 2016-17 season: the Straight recently reported that Wright announced he'll retire at the end of the 2015-16 season, after extending his contract for one more year. The company is using the international search firm Korn Ferry to find his successor. Wright has spent 17 years at the helm of the company, coming here after leading opera companies in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Anchorage.