Music·Point of View

How independent companies are saving opera

As Michael Zarathus-Cook writes, little companies with big ideas show a future where opera is more relevant, diverse in representation, and uninhibited in expression.
A scene from Opéra Outside the Box's presentation of Opéra, reviens-moi at the 2019 Montreal St-Ambroise Fringe Festival. (Kathy Slamen)

Written by Michael Zarathus-Cook, chief editor of smART Magazine and Blue Riband, and pre-med student at the University of Toronto. He is a former employee of Against the Grain Theatre and Fawn Chamber Creative.

With decreasing audience sizes and a steady decline in the creation of new works, there's no doubt that the opera industry is in need of saving. However, salvation won't come by way of the next blockbuster Ring Cycle at some mainstage operation. It's going to come via the scrambling efforts of the little companies with big ideas — freelance opera-lifers working 30-hour weeks for nearly nothing during the pandemic, in hopes of being able to pay artists who have hitherto been "volunteering" their talents.

Across Canada, indie opera companies are making the art form cool again; daring and provocative again. Pre-pandemic, the collective mass of these companies was on the verge of something truly special: making opera mainstream, something to be wafted over a crowded pub, or poured out freely in church basements and makeshift venues coast to coast. Insert how the pandemic ruined everything here. Indeed it did. But the eventual return of these companies to live performances will also be a return to realizing a future for opera that is relevant, diverse in representation, and uninhibited in expression. 

The opera revolution that is upon us now has been brewing for over a decade. Emerging from the minds of artistic directors and all-around tinkerers, to be realized in the voices of the next generation of artists who are swapping out the old for the new. If only the government grants flowed as freely as these directors' imagination, then Canadian opera would enjoy a more robust share of mainstream entertainment. So here's a friendly reminder to private donors, big and small, to keep in mind the long-struggling companies in your local communities, which lack the fundraising visibility of the larger ones. For it is in their hands that the awesome power of this art form will be passed on to the next generation of opera-goers.

This cross-country community wants nothing to do with the old image of opera as a narrow outlet for the wealthy and out of touch.- Michael Zarathus-Cook

Independent companies do everything the big houses do, except on a smaller scale and often without the plush cushion of operating grants. Indie, in this sense, runs the gamut from the seven-month-old Lucky Penny Opera in Vancouver, to the little behemoths of Ontario such as Against the Grain Theatre (AtG) and Tapestry Opera who, despite the security afforded by operating grants, maintain an edgy intimacy with the times. Whatever the size of an indie company, the unifying feature is a commitment to bringing opera to a community otherwise overlooked.

An excerpt from a Zoom rehearsal for Tapestry Opera's production of Rocking Horse Winner.

While the tremendous success stories of Toronto companies like AtG and Amplified Opera are well deserving of the praise they've received, innovations in opera are also happening outside of the Ontario bubble. One of the things I've learned in recent conversations with opera creatives across Canada is how remarkably tight-knit the community is. As an immigrant to this country, I often interpret the term "tight-knit" as a red flag for exclusivity — but this cross-country community wants nothing to do with the old image of opera as a narrow outlet for the wealthy and out of touch. The ecosystem that has emerged around this industry is capable of a uniquely Canadian solution to opera's "white-washed" problem, a solution that is perhaps still out of reach for opera industries in Europe for example. So with just a little funding help from local and provincial granting bodies, along with enthusiastic support from friendly neighbourhood private donors, indie companies are poised to lead opera into a post-pandemic future in the following three ways: 

1. Independent companies are diversifying opera

Vancouver's re:Naissance Opera understands the necessity of diversity. Led by the tireless effort of artistic director Debbie Wong — a cohesive force in Vancouver's opera scene — the company's mission is a focus on equity and intersectionality in opera. Its 2017 production of Handel's Acis and Galatea, for example, rebranded 18th-century sensibilities into a modernized "gender liberation opera" that celebrates queer love — a great example of a bold trend of opera companies expanding the genre's demographic by re-imagining age-old archetypes in contemporary and local flavours. 

I've always been particularly encouraged by AtG's determination to engage BIPOC communities as artists and staff members. Throughout February, they took to social media with a series of appreciation posts highlighting the Black artists they've worked with over the years — and the fact that they could fill a whole month is evidence of their commitment to raising this demographic's visibility in opera.

Then there's AtG's recent collaboration with the Toronto Symphony, Messiah Complex. It's the same old Messiah, but reinvented in six languages (two of which are Indigenous). A larger company might have seen in such a concept a risk not worth the sentiment, but the AtG production was instead a pan-Canadian success story on the power of combining the uniform old with the diverse new.

This is a point echoed in a recent conversation I had with Dr. Michael Hutcheon — a retired respirologist and lifelong writer on opera — who brings attention to the financial hurdles that make it more difficult for large companies to take such well-intended risks, noting that they "are tied to a 19th-century business model that is difficult to sustain. The size of the operation has not changed for a century and a half but the fixed costs continue to rise." Thus it seems even if the spirit is willing, the box office might not be.

2. Indie companies are producing new Canadian operas

Independent companies are also at the forefront of mobilizing composers and librettists in the creation of original Canadian content. Operas inspired by current events, for contemporary sensibilities, will always be the genre's lifeline toward relevance and accessibility.

Perhaps no other company has been more dedicated to this mission than Toronto's Tapestry Opera. Throughout its 40-year existence, and under the leadership of a particularly adept artistic director in Michael Mori, Tapestry's mandate on new Canadian stories has yielded unparalleled results. Mori summarizes this mission via a comparison: "Whereas companies like AtG are great at doing old operas in new ways, our goal is doing new operas in new ways." Here, one should also tip the hat to the genius of companies like Opera Atelier that seem never to run out of ideas on finding new ways to do old operas the old way.

Adanya Dunn (the Messenger) and Alex Dobson (Hermas) perform in Fawn Chamber Creative's production of L'Homme et le ciel at the Music Gallery in Toronto. (Josh Chong Photography)

Elsewhere in Toronto there are companies like Fawn Chamber Creative that are pushing the limits of opera, bringing new people in with genre-bending productions wherein dancers and drum sets are commonly sighted. For artistic director Amanda Smith, there's an extra benefit in breaking free of the confines of the European model of devising operas, noting that "new experimental Canadian operas can also solve the diversity problem with a purposeful and organic approach, by telling today's stories in a way that forces you to redefine the boundaries of what opera is."

Things are just as exciting in Manitoba and Vancouver. Companies like Ne. Sans, Manitoba Underground Opera and Little Opera Company are championing 21st-century Canadian works. Idan Cohen (founder of Ne. Sans in Vancouver) reminds me of Mori in his passion for the art form's future and the audiences yet untapped. His company is currently developing a project called Orpheus Now, for which four Canadian composers have been commissioned. As a choreographer from Israel, he brings an immigrant's perspective to the value of producing new works from diverse perspectives, saying, "It matters to me because I didn't grow up here, I want to see something different from what my European-Middle Eastern ancestry affords." 

A taste of Ne. Sans' Trionfi Amore, inspired by Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice.

For Manitoba Underground Opera's Brendan McKeen, creating new operas also circumvents the genre's problematic past. "I would never stage Aida, or Turandot — aside from being a mostly white leadership team — there are other stories out there," he says, "and in order to tell those stories, the question shouldn't be: Why can't we talk about that stuff? It should be: Why don't we have the people on our team to talk about that?"

Paul Winkelmans (Leporello) and Dawn Bruch (Donna Elvira) perform in Manitoba Underground Opera's 2018 production of Mozart's Don Giovanni at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. (Paul McKeen)

This is also precisely the area where Little Opera Company (Winnipeg) thrives, led by Spencer Duncanson, one of the country's few Black artistic directors in opera. For Duncanson, whose company is currently devising a song cycle written by Canadian composer John Greer, the problem of diversity in old or new opera is solved by "casting based on the voice and the ability of the individual, not their racial or ethnic background."

Back East, the Québécois iteration of this sentiment can be found in Montreal's Ópera Outside the Box, whose mandate to "democratize" opera is expressed in new works presented in "alternative settings." The unanimous sentiment among independent opera leaders is that new Canadian works will be the rising tide that lifts and unites all Canadian voices. 

3. Indie opera companies are fostering rising stars

Sarah Pelzer and Caitlin Fysh, co-founders of the aforementioned Lucky Penny Opera in Vancouver, are especially keen on the role of companies like theirs in fostering growing talents and new faces in opera. In terms of what a company can do for emerging artists, for Pelzer, "it's better to have space than to have scale," as in space for artists to try new roles, take risks, and discover their true voices. Fysh expands on this logic with the observation that, when it comes to how a company can help emerging artists make their landing in the industry, "it is better to be a foot wide and an inch deep than a foot deep and an inch wide." Indeed, the rise of some of Canada's top emerging opera talents can be attributed to the local companies that try to make up for a shallow depth of funding with the reach of their community-level investments.

Métis–Canadian mezzo-soprano Rebecca Cuddy performs 'The Devil's Language,' poetry by Marilyn Dumont set to music by Ian Cusson. (Leemarc Lao)

Within these top talents we'll also find an encouraging degree of diversity, which is perhaps the necessary precursor to seeing that same level of diversity among audiences in the future. (That, along with more accessible ticket prices.) Take the Sri-Lankan-born tenor Asitha Tennekoon for example, who's made a name for himself as a performer while simultaneously lifting administrative weight as one of Amplified Opera's co-founders. Then there's Cecilia Livingston, a female composer holding space in a male-dominated field, with original works produced by companies like Loose Tea Music Theatre (which, by the way, has a great development program for BIPOC composers). Vibrant Indigenous voices are likewise being represented by the talents of artists like Rebecca Cuddy, who's worked with companies from Pacific Opera Victoria to St. John's Opera on the Avalon. Then there are the rising Black voices like that of Toronto soprano Jonelle Sills (who recently performed in the Nathaniel Dett Chorale's Harriet Tubman) and baritone Andrew Adridge (an AtG regular and key cog in the incredible cross-country Opera InReach initiative).

It is in these very capable, albeit independent, hands that the most exciting aspects of the future of Canadian opera will be realized.

Further reading: Indie Opera: Canada's Key Indie Players