For opera au­di­ences, the aria re­mains the same

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - By Kevin Prokosh

THERE is no sur­prise in the of­fices of Man­i­toba Opera that Aida, dubbed the grand­est money ma­chine in opera, will draw the largest au­di­ence since The Magic Flute in 2011.

It was ex­pected that the Verdi fan favourite, which opens tonight, would sell at least 80 per cent of its tick­ets, as did Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

They al­ways do. Both ti­tles are among what has been dubbed MO’s “nec­es­sary nine”: the ex­clu­sive group of op­eras that are proven box of­fice win­ners.

“There are fewer and fewer ti­tles that will sell,” says Larry Des­rochers, the MO’s gen­eral di­rec­tor. “For us there are about nine shows that will do 80 per cent or more. Ev­ery­thing else is in the mid-50s to mid-60s range. That’s a big gap.”

In 2011, af­ter MO lost a sur­prise $100,000 on what was con­sid­ered a can’t-miss sea­son of Tosca and The Magic Flute, Des­rochers pored over the 40-year-old or­ga­ni­za­tion’s records and dis­cov­ered only nine op­eras con­sis­tently brought out large au­di­ences. Win­nipeg­gers seem­ingly al­ways want to see Aida, La Bo­hème, Car­men, Madame But­ter­fly, The Bar­ber of Seville, The Mar­riage of Fi­garo, Tu­ran­dot and The Magic Flute.

“A lot of opera com­pa­nies talk about their top 10 but when I went through it, we didn’t even have 10,” says Des­rochers, dur­ing a re­cent sta­teof-the-opera chat.

That makes choos­ing a playlist es­pe­cially try­ing for Des­rochers. He wears an awk­ward pro­gram­ming strait­jacket that no other artis­tic di­rec­tor in the city has to don.

MO’s cur­rent predica­ment is that it can’t keep re­peat­ing the same nine shows but if it doesn’t, at­ten­dance plum­mets the way it did last sea­son with Salome and The Daugh­ter of the Reg­i­ment, which, com­bined, av­er­aged barely 50 per cent of ca­pac­ity at the Cen­ten­nial Con­cert Hall.

It would have been a se­ri­ous money-los­ing sea­son if not for a sur­prise six-fig­ure be­queath that en­sured a $40,000 sur­plus. Des­rochers fore­casts at least a break-even 2013-14 sea­son thanks to the de­pend­able Aida, which fol­lowed the Verdi mas­ter­piece Rigo­letto, which drew about 60 per cent.

“It doesn’t give you much room to move,” says Des­rochers, in his 13th sea­son at the helm of a pro­fes­sional opera com­pany with the small­est mar­ket in the coun­try. “I try not to re­peat ti­tles for nine years although many com­pa­nies only wait seven.”

There are long­time high­brow sub­scribers who never want to see Bizet’s adored Car­men again. Then there are more re­cent and younger sub­scribers who are dy­ing to see Car­men, which might not be seen in Win­nipeg again this decade.

“That’s the chal­lenge about only do­ing two shows,” he says. “It some­times feels like it splits our au­di­ence base.” Nov. 23, 26 and 29 Star­ring Peter Strum­mer, Nikki Ein­feld, Brett Pole­gato and Michele An­gelini April 5, 8 and 11, 2014 Star­ring Joyce El-Khoury, Eric Fen­nell, Keith Phares and Lara Ciekiewicz

For sub­scrip­tions or tick­ets go to­i­to­ba­

Pro­gram­ming is the com­pany’s most press­ing is­sue; it has prompted Man­i­toba Opera to launch what it calls a com­mu­nity-en­gage­ment process this spring and sum­mer. It will in­volve fo­cus groups as well as town hall meet­ings with stake­hold­ers in or­der to bring ticket buy­ers, fun­ders, donors and spon­sors closer to the in­tri­ca­cies of sea­son plan­ning. The idea is to seek feed­back, test ideas and get the pub­lic to un­der­stand that MO stages qual­ity pro­duc­tions no mat­ter the ti­tle.

“We hope they be­come loyal to the brand of Man­i­toba Opera and not loyal to the brand of Car­men,” he says.

The com­pany has to change, says Des­rochers, de­spite its im­proved over­all fi­nan­cial per­for­mance dur­ing his 13-year ten­ure. In 2000, the or­ga­ni­za­tion and its three to five full-time staff were weighed down by a $650,000 debt on a $1.1-mil­lion bud­get. This year’s bud­get is $1.9 mil­lion, the staff size is up to eight and the debt whit­tled down to $230,000. Sea­son sub­scrip­tions stand at about 2,900, up from 2,500 in 2011-12 when not one of the nec­es­sary nine was on the play­bill.

If the win­ning pro­gram­ming equa­tion is the sum of one of the nec­es­sary nine and a lesser ti­tle, Man­i­toba Opera will have to find sus­tain­able re­sources to do it and that means more pub­lic fundrais­ing. Government sup­port has been squeezed — MO re­ceives less money from the Canada Coun­cil than it did in 1985.

“Some peo­ple want to see ex­panded reper­toire and I get that all the time,” he says. “If we do that, how do we pay for that?”

Des­rochers has watched other opera com­pa­nies at­tempt to build links with its eth­nic mi­nori­ties. In Texas for in­stance, the Hous­ton Grand Opera reached out to its Mex­i­can com­mu­nity with a mari­achi opera. Des­rochers would like Man­i­toba Opera to de­velop a re­la­tion­ship with the province’s First Na­tions pop­u­la­tion.

“We’ve been talk­ing to a Toronto com­pany which devel­oped an opera with a li­bretto writ­ten by (Man­i­toba-born play­wright) Tomson High­way,” he says. “It’s called The Jour­ney and a good por­tion of it is sung in Cree. We are try­ing to fig­ure out if we can re-mount here.”

In the mean­time, Des­rochers has un­veiled MO’s 2013-14 sea­son: Donizetti’s comic opera Don Pasquale in Novem­ber fol­lowed next April by Puc­cini’s ever-pop­u­lar La Bo­hème, one of the nec­es­sary nine.


Tiziana Car­raro plays Am­neris in Man­i­toba Opera’s pro­duc­tion of Aida.

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