Van­cou­ver Opera sings a dif­fer­ent tune

The Globe and Mail (Ottawa/Quebec Edition) - - GLOBE ARTS - MARSHA LEDERMAN

Van­cou­ver Opera presents dra­matic works on­stage, but there has been some drama off­stage as the com­pany shifts from a tra­di­tional sea­son to fes­ti­val model – and back again, sort of. Two years ago, as it strug­gled with the same is­sue many opera com­pa­nies deal with – ag­ing au­di­ences and de­clin­ing ticket sales – VO an­nounced a bold move: to scrap its sea­son and mount a fes­ti­val in­stead.

At the 2015 news con­fer­ence an­nounc­ing the change, VO board chair Pas­cal Spothelfer called it “the most im­por­tant and prob­a­bly also the most in­no­va­tive change at Van­cou­ver Opera since it was founded.”

But the tran­si­tion has had some bumps. The in­au­gu­ral fes­ti­val, held last spring, fell short of box­of­fice ex­pec­ta­tions – so from lessons learned, changes are hap­pen­ing. As it works to bal­ance the books, VO is tar­get­ing ex­penses, af­fect­ing staff and per­form­ers. In an­other sig­nif­i­cant change, it will lose its long-time mu­sic di­rec­tor at the end of the sea­son.

For 2018, VO is plan­ning a scaled-back event. The next fes­ti­val will be shorter, with fewer pro­duc­tions and per­for­mances, and its sup­ple­men­tary pro­gram­ming will not ven­ture as far out­side the opera or clas­si­cal realm.

» At the same time, VO is beef­ing up its non-fes­ti­val sea­son of­fer­ings. It’s pre­sent­ing some­thing that’s closer to a tra­di­tional sea­son, an­chored by a fes­ti­val.

“It’s an on­go­ing process to find the right model that is the most sus­tain­able and pro­duces the best and the most hap­pi­est num­bers of opera-go­ers in Van­cou­ver and sur­round­ing areas,” says Kim Gaynor, VO’s gen­eral di­rec­tor.

Boost­ing at­ten­dance – not sim­ply cut­ting costs – was be­hind VO’s 2015 de­ci­sion to scrap its full sea­son and be­come a fes­ti­val. The move, an­nounced by then-gen­eral di­rec­tor James Wright, took ef­fect in 2016-17, af­ter Wright’s re­tire­ment. Gaynor, who is Cana­dian, was hired from Switzer­land’s Ver­bier Fes­ti­val to re­place him.

Gaynor says it be­came ev­i­dent early in her ten­ure that a fes­ti­val alone was not go­ing to sat­isfy Van­cou­ver au­di­ences; sub­scrip­tions for 2016-17 were down by about 25 per cent.

“There was clearly a por­tion of the au­di­ence who like to have their opera spread out dur­ing the sea­son and not nec­es­sar­ily all at the same time,” she says. She pro­posed a mod­i­fi­ca­tion of the ini­tial strat­egy to a more bal­anced ap­proach be­tween fes­ti­val and sea­son. “When you pro­pose a new idea and you see that things don’t go as in­tended, I think it would be fool­ish to stick doggedly to your idea with­out mak­ing ad­just­ments.”

At the in­au­gu­ral fes­ti­val this past spring, the two op­eras pro­grammed at the main venue, the Queen Elizabeth The­atre, failed to hit box-of­fice tar­gets. De­spite good re­views, sales were dis­ap­point­ing for both Verdi’s Otello and Jake Heg­gie’s Dead Man Walk­ing. Ticket sales were con­sid­er­ably health­ier for Mozart’s The Mar­riage of Fi­garo, which ran in the smaller Van­cou­ver Play­house venue next door.

When asked whether the in­au­gu­ral fes­ti­val lost money, Gaynor re­sponded: “Ev­ery­thing in opera loses money, right? … We did not meet our bud­geted ex­pec­ta­tions. But we did fin­ish the year with a smaller deficit than bud­geted.”

The com­pany found a pat­tern in at­ten­dance: Peo­ple came to one or two op­eras, “but not nec­es­sar­ily three,” Gaynor says. “If the ex­pec­ta­tion was that ev­ery­one who nor­mally came to op­eras through­out the year would just mi­grate into three op­eras over two weeks, that isn’t what hap­pened.”

So the con­densed 2018 fes­ti­val – shorter by a week – will fea­ture two main-stage op­eras in­stead of three, one at the Queen Elizabeth and one at the Play­house.

“I be­lieve we can sell con­sid­er­ably more tick­ets than we sold last year. Bunch­ing the pro­gram to­gether, some sub­scribers didn’t like that, so they stayed away. And they will be com­ing back this year. You know, these tran­si­tions are not easy,” says Spothelfer, who prom­ises a bet­ter-pre­pared on-site box of­fice, and “more so­phis­ti­cated” mar­ket­ing for the next fes­ti­val.

He also says that hav­ing only one opera at the Queen Elizabeth will solve the tricky problem of set de­sign in a venue with lim­ited stor­age ca­pac­ity.

“The way Kim has laid out this sea­son is prob­a­bly smarter than what we did in the first year,” says Spothelfer, who stands by the de­ci­sion to bring in the fes­ti­val. “A mixed ap­proach is prob­a­bly smarter. But the key rea­son why we wanted the fes­ti­val is to have a plat­form by which we can en­gage with a broader seg­ment of our com­mu­nity. Be­cause this opera com­pany ex­ists for the com­mu­nity, it doesn’t ex­ist for the man­age­ment and the board.”

With that first fes­ti­val, VO dis­cov­ered that while com­ple­men­tary fes­ti­val events such as con­certs by Ute Lem­per and Tanya Ta­gaq were suc­cess­ful, they didn’t help sell tick­ets to the main-stage op­eras.

“They were pop­u­lar but they were a com­pletely dif­fer­ent au­di­ence. In other words, the peo­ple who bought tick­ets for them … largely were peo­ple who didn’t come to other ac­tiv­i­ties in the fes­ti­val,” Gaynor says. “So if the ob­jec­tive is to kind of build an au­di­ence for what we’re do­ing in the fes­ti­val, they didn’t con­trib­ute ex­cept for a kind of pub­lic re­la­tions/vis­i­bil­ity point of view.”

So next year, there will be on­theme pro­gram­ming with more cham­ber mu­sic and part­ner­ships with sim­i­lar or­ga­ni­za­tions, in­clud­ing Early Mu­sic Van­cou­ver.

“I’ve de­cided to keep the pro­gram­ming slightly closer to our world,” Gaynor says, “with the idea be­ing that we can build a more co­her­ent tar­get au­di­ence.”

This year’s sea­son – the first Gaynor has pro­grammed for VO – launches in Oc­to­ber with Puc­cini’s Tu­ran­dot, a large-scale pro­duc­tion with a 52-mem­ber lo­cal cho­rus and 64-piece Van­cou­ver Opera Or­ches­tra; Amer­i­can so­prano Am­ber Wag­ner will make her role de­but as Tu­ran­dot.

This will be fol­lowed by Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore in Jan­uary. A Rus­sian-themed fes­ti­val next spring will in­clude three per­for­mances of Tchaikovsky’s Eu­gene One­gin at the Queen Elizabeth The­atre (last year, each QET opera had four per­for­mances) and 10 per­for­mances of The Over­coat – a mu­si­cal tai­lor­ing, an op­er­atic rein­ter­pre­ta­tion by Mor­ris Panych of his and Wendy Gor­ling’s 1998 play The Over­coat.

Gaynor hopes to an­nounce fur­ther fes­ti­val pro­gram­ming at the sea­son launch in Oc­to­ber.

At the end of the fes­ti­val, Jonathan Dar­ling­ton, who has been mu­sic di­rec­tor at VO since 2002, will leave his po­si­tion. This is the last year of his con­tract and Gaynor says, “at the mo­ment we’re not in dis­cus­sion for a for­mal ex­ten­sion of that con­tract.”

Both Gaynor and Spothelfer an­tic­i­pate Dar­ling­ton will re­turn as a guest con­duc­tor.

“I love Jonathan and his work and so does our or­ches­tra and our au­di­ence,” Gaynor says. “What I do want to do, how­ever, is to bring some con­duc­tors to Van­cou­ver who have not con­ducted here be­fore. There’s some fan­tas­tic young Cana­dian con­duc­tors, for ex­am­ple, who I would love to in­vite to give that ex­pe­ri­ence not only to our or­ches­tra, but also to our au­di­ences here and to gen­er­ate some ex­cite­ment from the pit.”

De­spite its fi­nan­cial sit­u­a­tion, Gaynor says VO “def­i­nitely has a role in pre­mier­ing new op­eras” such as The Over­coat (a co-pro­duc­tion with Toronto’s Cana­dian Stage Com­pany and Tapestry Opera). How­ever, plans to stage the Cana­dian pre­miere of Huang Ruo’s Man­darin opera Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, which VO an­nounced in 2013, have been shelved. “We’ve de­cided that the pro­duc­tion is too ex­pen­sive for us to do at the mo­ment,” Gaynor says.

With an an­nual bud­get of $9.6-mil­lion, the com­pany is op­er­at­ing on a deficit – but is work­ing to rein in ex­penses; it fin­ished the year 7 per cent un­der its pro­jected ex­pense bud­get, Gaynor says.

The 2016-17 fis­cal re­sults are be­ing au­dited with a planned re­lease at the Oc­to­ber AGM. At the end of fis­cal 2015-16, VO had an op­er­at­ing sur­plus of $134,663 on a $9.75-mil­lion bud­get, re­duc­ing its ac­cu­mu­lated op­er­at­ing deficit to $657,266, which it called “man­age­able” in its an­nual re­port.

As The Globe and Mail re­ported in June, VO asked staff and con­trac­tors to agree to pay roll­backs of 2 per cent. Staff were given var­i­ous op­tions in an on­line poll; some signed a let­ter of protest to se­nior man­age­ment in re­sponse.

Staff mem­bers aren’t the only ones af­fected by the cost-cut­ting. The Van­cou­ver Mu­si­cians’ As­so­ci­a­tion has agreed to con­ces­sions that in­clude a 2-per­cent cut through a pen­sion re­duc­tion for two years and a cut in the num­ber of per­for­mances for mu­si­cians (al­beit at a higher rate).

“It was the best pos­si­ble sce­nario for how to meet the im­me­di­ate needs of the or­ga­ni­za­tion but also be in a place to, if things im­prove, be able to very quickly rec­tify it,” says David Brown, pres­i­dent of the Van­cou­ver Mu­si­cians’ As­so­ci­a­tion. “We’re all hope­ful that the opera’s go­ing to weather this tran­si­tion and get back to a place of strength.”

In a three-year deal with VO, the Cana­dian Ac­tors’ Eq­uity As­so­ci­a­tion agreed to a 2-per-cent de­crease in the first year, fol­lowed by a freeze and then a 2-per-cent in­crease.

In a state­ment to The Globe, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Ar­den Rysh­pan said Eq­uity rec­og­nizes that these are “chal­leng­ing times” for VO. “It is our hope that Van­cou­ver Opera will re­turn to fi­nan­cial health by the end of the 2020 sea­son, which is their plan.”

Van­cou­ver Opera’s Tu­ran­dot is at the Queen Elizabeth The­atre Oct. 13, 15, 19 and 21.

RAFAL GERSZAK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Kim Gaynor, the Van­cou­ver Opera’s gen­eral di­rec­tor, says it be­came ev­i­dent early in her ten­ure that a fes­ti­val alone was not go­ing to sat­isfy the city’s au­di­ences.

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