Edmonton Opera Blog

Entries from September 2012

Large scale brainstorming

Monday, September 24. 2012

There's nothing more dangerous than a good idea, if it’s the only one you have.
-Mark Twain

I attended an audience development session in Montreal last week, conducted by Opera Canada, and had a chance to spend two days brainstorming with marketing people that work in all of our country’s opera companies. While these types of training sessions can be overwhelming, I came out of it feeling as energized as you do after a double espresso. The sessions were facilitated by Claude Legrand, author of Innovative Intelligence, a book that literally teaches you how to come up with good ideas. Claude believes that good ideas can only be a product of group work, and that if you come up with a great idea on your own, it’s most likely by accident. You need to be in a productive environment, surrounded by both experts and non-experts, creative and practical people. That way, you have a good mix, and great potential to have a successful brainstorming session.

It was certainly time well spent; we all put our minds together in this crazy, wild process that Claude teaches, and started stripping down our main problems and questions that follow all opera companies: How do we reach new audiences? How do we get people to come back after they see one opera? How do we provide great patron service, so that we differentiate ourselves from others?

Many other “How do we” questions came up, and our goal for this short session was not to find answers or solutions. It was to analyze the questions, remove the ambiguity and non-certainty of them, and then reformat the question and come to the core of it. It was an enlightening process that all of us really enjoyed and learned from, whether it was Canadian Opera Company that markets nine operas a year or one of the smaller companies that presents two. We all have the same goal and challenge: to attract new audiences while keeping the current audience engaged. There is no magic solution or answer, but we all strive to do that, and hope that we’ll be successful.

The amazing thing is that opera audiences are one of the most engaged and loyal audience, and that most of you who may be reading this not only love opera, but bring a friend or a family member to see at least one opera per season. You are passionate as much as we are, and with an audience like that, we can have a strong future in this ever-changing world. We need to learn, as a company and as an art form, how to keep our identity during the process. And we need your help. So please, tell us what we’re doing wrong, and we promise we will improve. Tell us if we’re doing something good, and we’ll try even harder. But we need the conversation to happen, otherwise we are doing this without you, and you’re the one that matters most.

Email or call us. Let’s talk. 

Chorus in full swing for "Aida"

Monday, September 10. 2012

I just wanted to take this chance to say how excited I am about how the chorus is already shaping up this year. After a meet-and-greet with the chorus and opera staff at the production facility in late August, we have started right in to Aida — one of the operas with some of the heaviest load for the chorus imaginable. The choral part is also hugely complex — at one point in the opera, it divides into as many as nine parts. It’s wonderful to be able to welcome back so many veterans, as well as to welcome so many new members, who we found through the auditions we held last May.

Our chorus for this show is much larger than what we usually have: 54 members compared to our usual 25 to 40. They also dominate the scene that many consider the crowning achievement of the opera: the Triumphal Scene, where the Egyptian populace celebrates their victory in the war against Ethiopia. The chorus play so many different roles: cheering crowds, soldiers, priests, dancing girls, boudoir attendants, prisoners of war, etc., etc. — often at the same time. It’s exceptionally demanding — I was telling the first tenors the other night that a lot of first tenor lines in Verdi are, in some ways, more demanding than the principal tenor parts, as they just have to sing high all the time for the whole opera. In any case, the sounds they are making are glorious.

The chorus is a huge part of Aida — it really doesn’t have a supporting part, but takes a real role in the action. The chorus acts as the priests who collectively condemn Radamès to death; the chorus is also the people collectively who successfully plead for mercy for the Ethiopian prisoners of war. In fact, the priests form one side of the central conflict of the opera — the conflict between young love and a state at war. There are few operas where the chorus is able to play so many different parts, though it necessitates a lot of costume changes. I can’t help but mention here how excited the men of the chorus are about wearing dance belts for the show. I also have to give a special mention to Andrae Marchak, who wore his dance belt, not only at rehearsal, but also on the trip over, while riding his bike through the streets of Edmonton!

I have to say that I have been so impressed with the dedication and the skill level of our chorus here in Edmonton. So many people have brought their own recording devices to rehearsals in order to tape the proceedings. All in all, we are having a wonderful start to a season full of operas that feature the chorus prominently.

Glimmerglass operas impress

Wednesday, September 5. 2012

Back to the performances. The Music Man (1957) – book, music and lyrics by Meredith Willson. For those of you who know me, you will know that I am not a big fan of musicals (you can call me a snob, that’s OK!) but if musicals are to be done, then the level at which Glimmerglass Festival produced The Music Man was certainly the right way to go about it. No mics, trained voices, great direction, a well-done production. It was such a pleasure to see and hear great baritone Dwayne Croft in the role of Prof. Harold Hill having a comeback after 20 years to the same company where he had his opera debut in 1975 (in the chorus). So many members of the Young Artists Program together with the festival chorus singing, dancing, having fun. As Elizabeth Futral who played the lead female role of Marian Paroo rightly pointed out, “The basic lessons of The Music Man still ring true . . . people still pine away for good partners, communities still long to be engaged in activities that make them energized and there are redeeming qualities in all of us if we’ll just take enough time to look for them!” So, I had a fun evening in spite of myself! And at the end, the production crew was packing this production to go to Muscat, Oman. How wonderful is that?

Now a day later, I am writing this as I came back to my little, modest inn from one of the most powerful and emotional experiences in the opera world that I have known for a long time. I still feel shaken after seeing Kurt Weill’s Lost in the Stars. This musical tragedy (you could call it also “singspiel”) is definitely a masterpiece of musical application to dramatic narrative (quoting Virgil Thomson). This was Weill’s last stage work; it premiered in 1949 and survived him on Broadway by just three months — he died of a heart attack at the age of 50. In 1948, Weill’s collaborator Maxwell Anderson asked permission from the South African novelist Alan Paton to set the novel Cry, the Beloved Country to music. Weill always carried within him and often admitted to such deep awareness of the suffering of the underprivileged, the prosecuted, the oppressed and he definitely managed to address in this opera racial issues, injustice and tension but chose a distant land as opposed to his newly adopted home. This production was co-produced with the South African Cape Town Opera and I can’t even start imagining what it must have felt like being there and seeing it in South Africa. Tazewell Thompson’s directing stayed away from overly sentimental and kept the production in all of its elements a gut-wrenching experience, navigating us with utmost sensitivity and intelligence through the issues of almost biblical proportions — family, faith, redemption. Eric Owens in the role of Stephen Kumalo was absolutely phenomenal; he brought the audience to tears at the end of Act 1 with the song that gave the work its title which he sung with such raw existentialist despair “God who’s gone away . . . .” By the end of the performance in the last scene Eric himself was sobbing and so were the rest of us. The power of music, theatre, great artists, excellent production all as one with the audience that lets itself be taken on this journey. Another notable performance was by Sean Panikkar in the role of The Leader — he has a really nice, warm tenor voice that I wish to hear again.

For an opera house that doesn’t have AC and by the end of the first act can get rather warm, it has a very “cool” design — the outside side walls are on these huge sliders, so as the intermission starts, the walls get opened on two long sides, making the house nice and cool. I thought I would mention it for our house architect Clayton!

My last opera at Glimmerglass Festival was Aida — also the performance that closed this year’s festival. Aida was very, very successfully directed by Francesca Zambello (who is also the artistic and general director of Glimmerglass Festival). I have always admired her, but even more so after seeing her Ring Cycle a couple of years ago. It’s hard imagining Verdi’s grand opera Aida as chamber opera but it is full of very intimate scenes that easily get lost when you stage it on the grand stages of the world. It was really interesting seeing it from that perspective and also in the context of the Arab Spring, keeping it relevant to today’s Middle Eastern political situation. Machine guns, praying mats; military uniforms mixed with female and royalty costumes inspired by ancient Egypt. The conductor Nader Abbassi (who is the head of the Cairo Opera) gave the score such intimate reading and led the cast with secure, musical perfection. It was a predominantly young cast, filled with rising American stars — in the title role Michelle Johnson; Noah Stewart was very good as Radamès and is certainly someone to watch; Daveda Karanas was fantastic as Amneris, and Philip Gay as very young King. Eric Owens recovered from the afternoon’s performance of Lost in the Stars and was a wonderful Amonasro. Certainly a production that must have challenged some members of the audience who want the elephants and all of the trappings of the Triumphal March, but only a handful left the theatre at the one intermission. A thought-provoking production for sure that keeps the opera relevant in today’s world as much as it was when first premiered in Cairo.

The theme of this year’s festival was “Windows on the World.” In choosing this team, Francesca Zambello wanted to inspire discussion about our world today. In her own words: “The world we create   . . . will be reality, a world in which history can be examined, assumptions can be challenged and our common humanity celebrated.” Well done Francesca! Congratulations on your vision and the world you have created for us! I am looking forward to your next season. And left content with the last words I heard tonight: “Pace, Pace, Pace. . .”