Vancouver Opera to end full season and move to festival format in 2017

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      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.

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      20 Comments

      ursa minor

      Jun 16, 2015 at 2:07pm

      As a former season ticket holder, I can attest that Vancouver Opera was definitely a quality company capable of great performances.

      However, being a primarily theatre person, the tendency to remount productions every few seasons became tedious, especially after the occasional flash of originality like 'Lillian Aling' How many times does one need to see Carmen or Madam Butterfly?

      That being said, if they're going with a festival format, it's ideal for remounting Der Ring de Nibelungen...

      Opera Dan

      Jun 16, 2015 at 4:26pm

      It sounds like a very sudden move for such a wholesale shift in the business model. They haven't cited a feasibility study or any particular market research to back up their hunch that a festival will be a stronger draw. The assumption that cruise ship tourists will stop over for some Verdi is a pretty big stretch. Will those crowds make up for the local audiences who don't particularly want their opera in binge form? Their announcement refers to certain savings in the festival model compared to the current season, but there are also new challenges and expenses in mounting concurrent productions. For example, a festival won't need as much year-round staff, but it will require far more short-term contract staff. Marketing dollars can be more focused during one period of the year, but with the loss of a season subscription base (which requires very low marketing resources), they'll be chasing much more fickle and expensive single ticket buyers. The loss of subscriber relationships could also result in a loss of donations. And while all this is happening, the leader who proposes this new model isn't even sticking around to implement it. I'm concerned that an ill-conceived, poorly executed experiment could result in the eventual loss of yet another major arts organization in our city.

      Hermie

      Jun 16, 2015 at 4:36pm

      Vancouver continues its cultural decline. Why bother to expand their Young Artists Program if there is nowhere for them to perform?! Oh well, at least we have a slew of bubble tea shops.

      Nik Black

      Jun 16, 2015 at 6:15pm

      This is terrible news. The loss of the opera season ripples across the city as singers, musicians and cultural workers lose another source of employment. Staff at Vancouver Opera are now scavenging for work as they join others on the unemployment line. Letting people know "by Labour Day" is so thoughtful that I'm crying. How come Jim Wright gets to envision a new course for Vancouver Opera and then retire before it's implemented? Who will want the job of running an opera company festival that plays only three weeks a year? Who will want to move here for that? Nobody great will want it, that's for sure. Why not wait for one year, do the search, hire the new General Director based on the vision they have for the company and implement it? We might find a true visionary leader who believes opera can make its own way and not rely on musicals to make the money that opera can't. Vancouver Opera needs new energy to save it, not a festival. This idea hamstrings the new General Director before s/he has even begun the job.

      Something is rotten about this plan. Something they're not telling us. Could it be that they don't want to hire a new General Director? Could it be that the people who are hatching this plan already work at Vancouver Opera? Could it be that the transition will be very smooth because this is the vision of people currently employed by the company? Never in my life have I heard of the boss making big decisions about the direction of the company, then retiring. Others are winning here and we aren't privy to it. Watch how the search for General Director plays out. I bet they don't hire anyone, they simply shuffle folks already there and say it was cheaper than bringing in someone new.

      Alex G

      Jun 16, 2015 at 6:39pm

      Brilliant musicians and cast has to find or move somewhere now to find a job. Then in March where are you gonna find these artists.? 3 operas in few weeks with the same cast will sertainly effect the quality of the production. And this idea to go from Verdi's Rigolletto to Frozen sing along festival! What a shame!

      Beerbelly

      Jun 17, 2015 at 10:32am

      I am symptomatic of the problem opera companies face. I am 50--a prime age for opera going--and I adore the arts. Yet despite having seen a fair bit of opera (e.g. Kiri te Kanawa in Don Giovanni) I can't say that I've ever enjoyed opera. The stories and plots seem repetitive (lost love, jealousy, rich suitors etc.) and the emotions sentimental and overwrought. I've never seen a subtle or complex emotion in opera. If this is merely because I lack experience with opera, well I'm probably not alone. Yet nuance, interesting plots and complex emotions is exactly what I'm looking for in my arts experience. The attempts at attracting contemporary audiences that I've seen in the opera world are generally politically correct and leave me feel manipulated instead of moved.

      Snackster

      Jun 17, 2015 at 10:49am

      Hmm.... I wonder if they are broke because they spent all their money on that massive Sweeney Todd set??

      Eloise Sydney

      Jun 17, 2015 at 6:41pm

      Is this really such a surprise? Jim Wright ( remember that I referred to him as an ill tempered autocrat on this very site ) has done a remarkable job! He has managed to alienate his patrons, his future audiences, the arts community and all Vancouverites with this singular decision while maintaining his self- aggrandized image that he is a "visionary". "We don't follow, we lead". Even Peter Gelb or Joseph Volpe ( my personal hero) would never make such a comment. Both were visionary leaders who kept the pulse on the needs and wants of their city. But Jim, you devil, you've somehow spun this demise of a full opera season in this city into Vancouver's fault. We don't like opera. We're uncultured. We're too old. We're uncouth.No Jim, we love opera and all the arts and festivals, and fairs and even circuses. We just don't like your opera company. Or more correctly, we just don't like what and how you present.
      Opera is more than the sum of its' parts. Yes, it can be the same old story of love and betrayal. So can Shakespeare. But like the many of The Bard's work, operatic stories are replete with intrigue, political double dealing and heartbreak; all universal themes. Know what you would get if the casts of Game of Thrones , Mad Men and Breaking Bad could sing gloriously? Opera.
      But back to Jim W. Just on pure finances this doesn't make sense. The ( not very well thought out) plan will result in only a 10% decrease in operating? And how much will it cost to renegotiate Equity, VMA and IASTE contracts- which according to the insiders' buzz, they will ask that the government pay for as part of their transition from opera company to opera festival.
      My heart goes out to the beleaguered staff who already know they will be terminated at the end of the 2015 2016 season and to the orchestra personnel who have consistently given fine performances. My heart goes out, too, to the person that will replace Jim W as the new GM. Maybe he or she will be brilliant. Or maybe we can all get a group tickets to Calgary. As for Mr. Wright's envisaging of a festival in the Queen E plaza as "we'll own the block" I hope he told the Jets and the Sharks.

      JDub

      Jun 17, 2015 at 7:35pm

      They dumbed it down to the point at which they lost their core audience and blew the budget on productions they couldn't tour. Evita, Sweeney Todd, Lillian Aling, the Magic Flute... If they had not tried to give the audience "opera lite"and if they had created productions that were more broad in scope and less locally relevant, they may not be in this mess.

      Classical Snob

      Jun 17, 2015 at 8:57pm

      "If this isn't a festival town, then what is?"

      How well does a classical music festival do in Vancouver? He has obviously forgotten about Festival Vancouver and the Vancouver Recital Society's Chamber Music Festival. Both festivals offered amazing performances with international talent, but weren't able to survive Vancouver's fickle audiences.

      I must admit, I haven't been to the opera in Vancouver in years. I can't justify paying their high ticket prices to see second-tier talent. I'll gladly pay $200 for a decent ticket at the Met to see big stars, but $150+ in Vancouver to see someone I've never heard of? No thank you.