New artistic director values bold creativity
Calgary Opera announces replacements for outgoing CEO and general manager
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.
Anne-Marie MacIntosh and Adam Luther played the principal roles in Calgary Opera’s production of Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette.