Vancouver Opera had grand plans for its 60th season. In a phone interview with the Straight, general director Tom Wright revealed that VO was going to celebrate by launching this year’s series with a free concert at Deer Lake in July.
“For families, we had a full day of programming,” Wright said. “Everything was set. And then, of course, COVID hit.”
It couldn’t have come at a worse time. VO had just come off a critically acclaimed mounting of The Barber of Seville in February. According to Wright, this was accompanied by terrific box-office returns.
“We were just starting to sell lots and lots of tickets to our last show, Another Brick in the Wall, and then I could just get this sense things weren’t right,” Wright continued.
In one week in late February, ticket sales started falling. As Wright looks back now, he thinks that this was when it started to seep into public consciousness that a pandemic was coming.
“So in early March, we made the decision just to cancel before we were too far along in the process,” he said.
Wright realizes that as long as COVID-19 is wreaking havoc, VO won’t be able to present elaborate live productions employing 300 to 400 people over the course of a month.
But he and his team have improvised by coming up with a season of four smaller digital operas, which will continue to offer work to its orchestra chorus, local artists, singers, directors, and designers.
“It’s just not going to be at the scale that we’re accustomed to and what we’re known for,” he said. “For obvious reasons, that’s not going to happen until we know it’s safe to do so again and until the audience feels safe that they can come back into the theatre.”
One-act operas coming this fall
On October 24, VO will launch its season with La voix humaine, a 40-minute, one-act opera by Francis Poulenc. The libretto revolves around a phone conversation between a woman and the lover who has abandoned her.
Directed by Rachel Peake, it will feature soloist Mireille Lebel, with musical direction from VO’s principal répétiteur, Kinza Tyrrell.
The show will be videotaped at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts and edited before being presented.
“Now, it’s going to be lit for the camera,” Wright said. “So that changes everything.”
The second opera, Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, is a family holiday classic that will be presented on December 12. This one-act production was originally created for a television audience on Christmas Eve in 1951 to kick off the Hallmark Hall of Fame.
Featuring the Three Kings on the first Christmas, VO’s production will be directed by Sarah Pelzer with Maestro Leslie Dala. His son, Andreas Dala, will play Amahl.
The third installment in VO’s season will be The Music Shop by Richard Wargo. Featuring the Yulanda M. Faris Young Artists, this comedic one-act opera will be presented virtually on March 6, 2021, focusing on a mild-mannered husband’s search for a song requested by his wife.
And the final production will be a reimagining of Bizet’s La Tragédie de Carmen by Peter Brooks and Marius Constant. This 90-minute adaptation revolves around four key characters, Carmen, Don José, Michaëla, and Escamillo.
It will also star members of the Yulanda M. Faris Young Artists Program, who will be performing alongside members of the Vancouver Opera Orchestra.
This version of Carmen will premiere on May 1, 2021.
Wright heaped praise on the Faris family for the financial assistance they have provided to VO over the past years.
"So we're thrilled that the young artist program will begin, and run, from January to May," he said.
In light of the ongoing health crisis, Wright has to assume that Carmen will be a virtual production.
But in the back of his mind, he wonders if a COVID-19 vaccine might be developed by then, opening up the possibility of a live performance at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.
“I have to hold up hope that we can, but I also have to plan for the worst,” Wright acknowledged.
Dressing up for the opera
In the meantime, the pandemic has managed to bring North American opera companies closer together as they all pivoted to figure out how to salvage their seasons. They used to meet once a year at the annual Opera America conference in whichever city was hosting the event.
Now, Wright said, they communicate biweekly to learn about how to grapple with unprecedented challenges.
One of the leaders in the move to the digital sphere has been Opera Philadelphia, which is led by a Canadian, David Devan. He used to head Pacific Opera.
“That’s where we’ve taken a lot of advice,” Wright said.
One upside of the new reality is that VO could woo audiences who live far from the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.
"Hopefully, fingers crossed, we’ll expand our audience by having people outside of the Lower Mainland and outside of British Columbia, who appreciate opera, check out what Vancouver Opera is doing,” Wright said.
Anothe benefit is that opera lovers can see all four productions for just $100 from the comfort of their own home, with as many family members as they like.
Audiences can crinkle candy wrappers and even put a production on hold if they want to take a bathroom break—something that’s impossible to do at the theatre.
Wright explained that each show will be preceded with a preview talk and followed by a live question-and-answer session with the creators and artists.
Plus, there will be a social-media component.
“We hope to have fun with ‘What did you wear on opening night of the opera?’ ” Wright said. “And have people posting pictures of what they wore to the opera—if they wore their best gowns or their best pyjamas.”