New artis­tic di­rec­tor val­ues bold cre­ativ­ity

Cal­gary Opera an­nounces re­place­ments for out­go­ing CEO and gen­eral man­ager

Calgary Herald - - YOU - ERIC VOLMERS [email protected]­

In 2003, Bramwell Tovey had just fin­ished con­duct­ing the world pre­mière of Cal­gary Opera’s Filu­mena, based on the true Al­berta-set tale of a young im­mi­grant woman’s re­la­tion­ship with a dash­ing boot­leg­ger.

At a re­cep­tion fol­low­ing the per­for­mance, he was ap­proached by the great-niece of Florence (Filu­mena) Losan­dro, the tit­u­lar hero­ine who was sent to the gal­lows in 1923 as one of the few women to be hanged in Canada. Filu­mena, which the Cal­gary Opera com­mis­sioned from com­poser John Esta­cio and Al­berta play­wright John Mur­rell, helped es­tab­lish the com­pany as a leader in com­mis­sion­ing new works. For Tovey, it was a clear ex­am­ple of how the best opera, while per­haps melo­dra­matic and usu­ally set in the past, achieves a timely, univer­sal con­nec­tion with au­di­ences.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been any­where where (opera has) been more rel­e­vant than the re­cep­tion after Filu­mena was over,” Tovey says. “I was blown away to meet her. She’s still liv­ing in Al­berta. She’s still around. This is a legacy of our past cen­tury. I think that’s where opera can re­ally hit home. Mu­sic de­scribes what’s go­ing on in­side us. Mu­sic is what feel­ings sound like. When you add the drama of the opera to the mu­sic we hear, it’s an ex­plo­sive com­bi­na­tion. When there’s a great aria, a great en­sem­ble and even some­times some of the qui­etest and most mov­ing mu­sic that opera can pro­vide deals and ad­dresses these univer­sal is­sues that we all en­counter as hu­man be­ings. We en­counter death in the fam­ily, we en­counter death among friends, we en­counter love, we en­counter peo­ple tri­umph­ing, we en­counter peo­ple who fail.

“When we hear real opera, it’s ac­tu­ally all about now, the kind of world we’re liv­ing in.”

Tovey, who will take over as artis­tic di­rec­tor of Cal­gary Opera in Jan­uary, sees Filu­mena as one of the com­pany’s crown­ing achieve­ments; a risky, col­lab­o­ra­tive pro­duc­tion that told an in­tensely lo­cal story with univer­sal res­o­nance and earned na­tional ku­dos.

It’s not the Bri­tish-born con­duc­tor and com­poser’s only ex­pe­ri­ence with Cal­gary Opera. His in­volve­ment dates back to 1994, when he con­ducted Mozart’s The Magic Flute un­der then gen­eral di­rec­tor David Speers. In 2011, the com­pany pro­duced The In­ven­tor, which Tovey com­posed along­side li­bret­tist John Mur­rell and con­ducted the world pre­mière. He also con­ducted the Cana­dian pre­mière of Die Tote Stadt for the opera in 2016.

On Satur­day, the opera an­nounced Tovey and Heather Kitchen as the re­place­ments for out­go­ing gen­eral man­ager and CEO Keith Cerny, who an­nounced he was leav­ing the com­pany only eight months into his ten­ure. Kitchen, a 40-year vet­eran of arts ad­min­is­tra­tion who most re­cently served as the in­terim ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer for Per­form­ing Arts at the Banff Cen­tre for Arts & Cre­ativ­ity, will take on the role as man­ag­ing di­rec­tor and chief ex­ec­u­tive.

The divi­sion of du­ties should al­low Tovey to con­cen­trate on the “artis­tic side in a very cre­ative way.”

“I can give a lot of time to build­ing re­la­tion­ships in the com­mu­nity with all kinds of groups,” he says.

“By shak­ing hands in the com­mu­nity, by get­ting out and meet­ing a lot of peo­ple, you’re build­ing re­la­tion­ships brick by brick and you’re build­ing your au­di­ence seat by seat and be­com­ing re­ally part and par­cel of what the com­pany is ini­tially set up to serve, which is to be a great com­mu­nity opera com­pany.”

Tovey will also have some time to set­tle in. Cerny, who has a wife and four chil­dren in Texas, cited the travel de­mands as a rea­son for leav­ing his post. But the 2018/2019 sea­son is al­ready well un­der­way, with a fi­nal per­for­mance of sea­son opener Romeo & Juli­ette by Charles Gounod on Nov. 23.

Ever­est will run Feb. 2, 6, and 8; Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigo­letto is set to be per­formed April 6, 10 and 12, while Ghost River, a col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Old Trout Pup­pet Work­shop, is set for May. The 2019/2020 lineup has also been set and cast, al­though has yet to be an­nounced.

Dur­ing his short ten­ure, Cerny fo­cused on part­ner­ships with other art groups in the city, in­clud­ing the Old Trouts, Al­berta Bal­let, The Na­tional Mu­sic Cen­tre and the Cal­gary In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val, among oth­ers. Tovey says he plans to con­tinue this trend for fu­ture sea­sons.

“It’s a very com­pet­i­tive en­vi­ron­ment out there, es­pe­cially in Al­berta,” he says. “I think peo­ple want to see value for money and they want to see cre­ative con­nec­tions.”

Tovey comes to Cal­gary Opera after “18 in­cred­i­bly happy and cre­ative years” as mu­sic di­rec­tor of the Van­cou­ver Sym­phony Orches­tra, help­ing to lead the or­ga­ni­za­tion to both Grammy and Juno wins.

He served as mu­sic di­rec­tor of Orchestre Phil­har­monique du Lux­em­bourg from 2002 to 2006 and led the Win­nipeg Sym­phony Orches­tra be­fore that. In 1987 he was artis­tic di­rec­tor of D’Oyly Carte Opera Com­pany in the United King­dom.

As of 2020/2021, Tovey says he hopes to con­duct at least one opera a year on top of his role as artis­tic di­rec­tor. He will also con­tinue to serve as prin­ci­pal con­duc­tor of the BBC Con­cert Orches­tra in Eng­land, and as an artis­tic ad­viser of the Rhode Is­land Phil­har­monic Orches­tra.

Tovey says he hopes to build on Cal­gary Opera’s rep­u­ta­tion for stag­ing bold new works, which be­came a fo­cus for the com­pany dur­ing the 19-year ten­ure of CEO Bob McPhee, who an­nounced his re­tire­ment in 2017.

“Cre­atively, work­ing with com­posers is one of the things that keeps the art form alive,” he says. “Now, how we do that best and how we do that within to­day ’s fis­cal re­al­i­ties is very im­por­tant.

“You have to make sure it will oc­cur when things are and can stay healthy.

“But yes, I see com­po­si­tion and par­tic­u­larly work­ing with emerg­ing artists in the com­mu­nity as a real op­por­tu­nity for us to ex­plore dif­fer­ent com­posers.”

Mu­sic is what feel­ings sound like. When you add the drama of the opera to the mu­sic we hear, it’s an ex­plo­sive com­bi­na­tion.

For its open­ing pro­duc­tion of the new sea­son, Cal­gary Opera is pre­sent­ing the sec­ond-most-fa­mous of Charles Gounod’s op­eras: Romeo et Juli­ette. The most fa­mous opera is, of course, Faust, which at one point was the most per­formed opera in the world.

But the lus­tre of Faust has faded some­what, and more re­cently it is Romeo et Juli­ette that has been the Gounod opera of choice. In the past quar­ter cen­tury there have been ma­jor pro­duc­tions in France and at Lon­don’s Covent Gar­den, but also at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera in New York and in Mon­treal. To a cer­tain ex­tent, the pro­duc­tion cur­rently play­ing at the South­ern Al­berta Ju­bilee Au­di­to­rium is a trans­plant of the re­cent Mon­treal ver­sion, with some singers com­mon to both pro­duc­tions.

The sets and costumes by Claude Gi­rard are those used in pro­duc­tions all over North Amer­ica in the past 20 years, in­clud­ing (if mem­ory serves) the pre­vi­ous Cal­gary pro­duc­tion in 2003. What is new — strik­ingly so — is the stage di­rec­tion by Jean Grand-Maitre, which re­stores at least some of the bal­let se­quences that were part of the pro­duc­tion when the opera was “up­graded” and en­tered the reper­toire of the Paris Opera. The live­li­ness of the stage ac­tion to­gether with the fight­ing and bal­let se­quences give this pro­duc­tion a zip this opera some­times lacks.

As a point of de­par­ture, the pro­duc­tion strives to re­cap­ture the style and man­ner of the 19th­cen­tury French per­for­mances of the opera. While it is cus­tom­ary in the English-speak­ing world to think of Romeo and Juliet as a se­ri­ous Shake­spearean tragedy, in its trans­for­ma­tion into French lyric opera the fo­cus is largely upon the emo­tions of the two young lovers. The opera is some­times de­scribed as con­sist­ing of four love duets and a waltz song — a bit harsh, per­haps, but with a grain of truth.

The dra­matic bits, mostly in­volv­ing the con­flict be­tween the two fam­i­lies — the duel se­quences and the grief at the deaths of Ty­balt, Mer­cu­tio and (seem­ingly) Juliet — are pre­sented in strongly etched cho­ral scenes. But these el­e­ments take a back seat to ex­pres­sions of love, largely through the four love duets that form the core of the mu­si­cal score.

For mod­ernists, Gounod’s mu­sic score can sound very old-fash­ioned and heav­ily laced with (older) Catholic over­tones.

In­deed, Gounod lived long enough to see his two most fa­mous works — Faust and Romeo et Juli­ette — be­come sym­bols of an in­creas­ingly out­moded past and to wit­ness him­self as a liv­ing fos­sil. Gounod’s sweet, melo­di­ous style sounded to au­di­ences, even in his life­time, as hav­ing a high sugar con­tent (mu­si­cally speak­ing) and lack­ing the fi­bre and ex­cite­ment needed for the re­al­is­tic pre­sen­ta­tion of con­flict on the stage.

But times and tastes change, and once again it is the por­trayal of in­ti­macy that is of con­tem­po­rary in­ter­est, and the mu­sic of Gounod, while hardly the stuff of Game of Thrones or Star Wars, of­fers a wel­come an­ti­dote to the harsh­ness of many el­e­ments in mod­ern life.

French opera has al­ways done well in Cal­gary, and so it was on open­ing night. The per­for­mance and the per­form­ers were roundly cheered, with spe­cial praise for con­duc­tor Gor­don Ger­rard, the orches­tra and the cho­rus, as well as di­rec­tor and chore­og­ra­pher Grand-Maitre. And, as is often the case, the au­di­ence was right: these were the best el­e­ments in the per­for­mance.

The prin­ci­pal roles were given to two young Cana­dian singers, Adam Luther and Anne-Marie Macin­tosh. Luther has re­cently made the tran­si­tion from a com­pri­mario tenor to a lead tenor, and he now reg­u­larly sings the big lyric roles in Ital­ian and French opera. Singing with a strong, tech­ni­cally se­cure voice, he gave a fine ac­count of the part, his phys­i­cal bear­ing very much suited to his lead role. Not the most sub­tle of singers, he tended to rely on a sin­gle mode of singing, some­what re­gard­less of the mu­sic at hand. But over the course of the evening, his singing steadily im­proved, and he was ex­cep­tion­ally fine in the last part of the opera in the all-im­por­tant scene in the crypt. This is a dif­fi­cult role for any tenor, and one would have to search widely to fine a Romeo sig­nif­i­cantly bet­ter that what was heard here.

Anne-Marie Macin­tosh is a younger singer, and this is, for all prac­ti­cal pur­pose, her first ma­jor out­ing after be­ing re­mark­ably suc­cess­ful lo­cally in smaller parts. Her voice is cer­tainly the right type for the role: high, fun­da­men­tally lyri­cal, and with a no­tice­able bril­liance in the top reg­is­ter. Her flit­ting around the stage pro­jected the el­e­ments that Juliet needs to show, and vo­cally she man­aged the fa­mous waltz aria in the first act with French charme.

For my taste, she didn’t need to push quite as hard as she some­times did, with the re­sult that there was some­times an in­tru­sive vi­brato/tremolo that en­tered her singing, es­pe­cially in the big mo­ments. Her nat­u­ral vo­cal weight and clar­ity of tone make her per­fectly equal to the role, and she could ease up a tri­fle in the louder pas­sages. But, in all, this was a highly com­mend­able per­for­mance, her por­trayal of Juliet girl­ish and grace­ful, but also con­tain­ing in­ner fire.

The opera has a large cast and it is not pos­si­ble to men­tion ev­ery­one in­di­vid­u­ally here. But men­tion must be made of the elo­quent singing of the two basses, Alain Coulombe as Friar Lau­rence and Ewe Dam­bruch as the Duke of Verona. Both have at­trac­tive voices of au­thor­ity and heft. Friar Lawrence is a some­what com­pli­cated char­ac­ter to play, hav­ing both a pri­estly and a par­tially comic el­e­ment, both of which he han­dled very well in­deed. Dam­bruch had all the needed pres­ence, vo­cally and dra­mat­i­cally, for the cameo role of the Duke.

Peter Bar­rett as Mer­cu­tio sang a very fine Queen Mab aria in the first act and was gen­er­ally strong through­out, as was Alexan­dre Sylvestre, whose in­vi­ta­tion aria was im­pres­sive. Jan Van der Hooft as Ty­balt was suit­ably fiery, as the role de­mands, even though vo­cally the part needs a tenor with a nat­u­rally big­ger voice. Stephanie Tritchew as Stephano brought all the nec­es­sary play­ful com­edy and vo­cal elan needed for her solo, a mem­o­rable spot in the pro­duc­tion.

The cho­rus has much to do in this opera, and the big lament­ing scenes and the com­plex­ity of the open­ing ball scene were well han­dled both vo­cally and as part of the in­te­grated dra­matic ac­tion. Ger­rard showed his affin­ity for this opera, cap­tur­ing the char­ac­ter of the in­di­vid­ual num­bers taste­fully and with re­fine­ment. The com­plex tran­si­tions within the scenes were han­dled with smooth­ness and good mu­si­cal judg­ment.

The bal­let el­e­ment is new in this pro­duc­tion, and given the taste­ful­ness with which it was in­tro­duced, it con­trib­uted sub­stan­tially to the dis­tinc­tive feel of the pro­duc­tion. But it must be said that one needs a very French ap­proach to the un­der­stand­ing of opera to find it cred­i­ble that after Juliet has drunk her vial of Friar Lau­rence’s po­tion that there should be a dance. Ev­i­dently, the dance was there to rep­re­sent her com­plex thoughts on the thresh­old of en­ter­ing upon her deep sleep. Con­sid­ered that way, and given the ex­cel­lence of the danc­ing it­self, this ad­di­tion was un­der­stand­able. There was an­other bal­let se­quence in the first act, as well.

This is a strong pro­duc­tion, with good — if not ex­cep­tional — singing, a pro­duc­tion that will en­ter­tain any­one drawn to an op­er­atic telling of Shake­speare’s time­less tale.

Bramwell Tovey


Anne-Marie MacIn­tosh and Adam Luther played the prin­ci­pal roles in Cal­gary Opera’s pro­duc­tion of Gounod’s Romeo et Juli­ette.

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