Vancouver Opera Festival goes far beyond stage works

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      The new Vancouver Opera Festival, which takes over the Queen Elizabeth Theatre Plaza and both its venues from next Friday (April 28) to May 13, is an all-consuming affair.

      In the past, our resident opera company has staged a few shows stretched out over an entire season; now, for the first time, it has to produce three major works over a tight 16 days—Otello, Dead Man Walking, and The Marriage of Figaro. The rehearsal studio at VO’s East Side opera centre is running from 10 in the morning till 10 at night, with Figaro using the nearby Russian Hall to prepare. Costume racks line every spare hallway and boardroom at the centre, and the props and sets facilities are in overdrive.

      Concerts by the likes of cabaret-style vocalist Ute Lemper at the Orpheum on May 4 and throat singer Tanya Tagaq at the Vogue on May 12, a Carmina Burana sing-along with the Vancouver Bach Choir on May 3, plus numerous speakers’ panels and workshops join the programming, many of them taking place in an on-site festival tent. VO aims to animate the Queen Elizabeth plaza, including a massive media-art installation by Paul Wong. 

      “One of the main goals is we want to create a celebration of the arts that everyone can participate in, including events that aren’t opera,” explains Vancouver Opera’s new general director, Kim Gaynor, speaking to the Straight on a break over the phone. “We’re trying to give lots of points of entry into the art form, with lots of activities for families and young people.” Events aimed at the latter include the kids-oriented Opera Tales at the Playhouse May 2 and the pre-Figaro Opera Zoo May 6 and 13 at the Playhouse, with interactive stations offering young operagoers hands-on activities like drawing, singing, and dress-up with opera pros.

      “If you buy a pass you get admittance to quite a few events—it has that all-inclusive feeling,” Gaynor says. “We’re going to be using the Queen Elizabeth plaza as a place for people to just come and hang out.

      “The restaurant that has not been used for a very long time, we’ve transformed that into an after-performance lounge with light snacks, refreshments.”

      One of the festival’s biggest coups is a free panel discussion next Saturday (April 29) called Ethical Justice in the 21st Century that will feature Sister Helen Prejean, the real-life nun who wrote the best-selling book Dead Man Walking, bringing her together with Shelley Joseph of Truth and Reconciliation Canada and Brenda Morrison, director of the Centre of Restorative Justice at SFU. Dead Man Walking’s creator, Jake Heggie, also hosts a free talk the day before.

      Caitlin Wood and Alex Lawrence lead the cast of The Marriage of Figaro.
      Emily Cooper

      And for opera buffs, the three main-stage shows offer a range of new and traditional stagings to suit different audience tastes.

      “We have Otello, a massive Verdi opera: it’s overwhelming and requires such big voices and hasn’t been done here in more than 30 years. That’s monumental,” Gaynor says. “That’s for people that love Verdi and love drama and big voices.

      “Then Dead Man Walking is a contemporary masterpiece in its own way. Although it’s new, it’s had 300 performances around the world and it’s very easy to listen to.

      “And Marriage of Figaro: it’s a comic opera that was revolutionary at the time,” she says. “It’s a joy to look at and to listen to. If it’s your first opera, people should see that one.”

      A lot is at stake as Vancouver Opera changes its format, throwing its resources into the spring fest and hoping that music lovers and the curious will converge on the Queen Elizabeth plaza next week.

      “Some people have no idea what we’re up to. Vancouver has so many fantastic festivals,” Gaynor admits. “And then some have a wait-and-see attitude—‘Let’s go and we’ll see.’ I find here that people are willing to give you the benefit of the doubt.”