Monday, August 20, 2007

Go West, Young Divi

How is that that Calgary is the New Opera capital of Canada?

An anecdote. I was in Fidelio's (one of Calgary's lost departed classical music stores) in Mount Royal Village, rooting through their selection of 18th Century Romanian operas when I overheard the shop's owner speaking to this woman about the upcoming opera season.

She was outraged at the upcoming season, and had cancelled her subscription. The reason? Calgary Opera was staging Benjamin Britten's Albert Herring. She had heard that Britten had been born in the 20th Century, and was deeply offended by this point, fearing that her ears and her nerves would perhaps never recover from the dissonance should would have to squirm through during a performance of 20th Century opera!

Just so she lived up to the stereotype I was quickly constructing in my head, she leaned over the counter, and, looking side to side, mentioned quietly, but not too quietly, that Britten was a homosexual.

Yes Virginia, Benjamin Britten was a homosexual. Now I wondered at the time, feeling as she did about homosexual composers, what she did whenever Tchaikovsky ever made it onto the radio? Did she shun Schubert too, fearing his melodies would draw her into a life of all-night partying and snappy dressing?

I digress. But there was a larger point. She had said her other friends had also cancelled their subscriptions in vile, ignorant protest, a work that, had they bothered to investigate, has all the drama and controversy of Gilbert and Sullivan.

But to my youngish music school ears, this was horrifying. These people really do exist, people who hold a gun to the heads of arts organizations and demand they perform the same three songs on their organ grinder or else the monkey gets what's coming to him, and it ain't a banana.

It was one of the many things that stuck in my mind about Calgary, about the kind of people who went to concerts, and my prospects when it came to being a musician in this kind of environment. So I left, for the vastly better developed artistic shores of Toronto.

Cue the present. Boy am I glad that people like me don't live in Calgary anymore. There's a ton going on out there, and many of the people I went to school with are gainfully employed as musicians in Calgary. I made a terrible mistake thinking the woman above represented Calgarians and culture.

In fact, being into opera or classical music is like being a liberal in Alberta - there are lots out there, you just can't bring it up in polite conversation, rather like being a conservative in Toronto.

Which brings me to my main point - why is Calgary Opera Canada's largest producer and developer of new Canadian opera? From the early 1990's, where staging Albert Herring was a risky decision, to staging Frobisher, Calgary Opera’s third new opera commission in the last five years?

If I were a journalist, I would interview Calgary Opera's current General Director, the delightfully named W.R. (Bob) McPhee - could his there be a more apt name for a Calgary impresario? The man and his team are doing something right.

But I'm not, so we'll just have to wonder why Toronto's own COC has done little in the way of new opera over the years, or why our own new opera company here in Toronto, Tapestry New Opera Works, has done some phenomenal work, but have struggled financially? And despite the fact that this supposed to be a big theatre town.

Perhaps, had he lived, this is something Richard Bradshaw was going to explore. One can only hope that his successor will take up the next challenge in building opera in Canada - the creation of an indigenous opera repertoire, similar to what's going on in Finland.

What's going on in Finland? Well, it's really hard to say, because all the stuff about the finnish opera boom is in....Finnish.

But new opera there is big. Perhaps all we need here in Canada is a Janacek-like figure, a highly gifted composer with a theatrical bent who speaks powerfully to the Canadian condition.

Well, I think we already have him. But he will likely never work with the COC again, after they produced one of his other works from the Partia cycle. Or perhaps people will awake to him and we'll stage his entire Patria cycle on a regular basis here in Canada.

Perhaps, Calgary's the perfect place for the real start of this boom. Indeed, "Calgary" and "boom" go hand in hand, and so again, Toronto will catch play catch up, and we'll then pretend that it started here all along. Plus ça change...

But you, faithful reader, you will know who really got things going, when people sit on the subway here and argue about the latest production of Barney's get the picture.

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