Opera In Good Health In Southwestern Ontario

In today’s Toronto Star (squeeee!)

KITCHENER&She fought tuberculosis heroically for nearly three hours but, in the end, a last-minute rally was not enough. At 5:38 p.m. on Feb. 15, Violetta collapsed onto a chaise and drew her last breath. As the orchestra cadenced furiously, her lover Alfredo was left to contemplate life without his beloved…in Kitchener.

The final moments of Verdi’s La Traviata comprise one of opera’s most dramatic moments, a death scene that has played out regularly in top opera houses around the world: Milan’s La Scala, New York’s Metropolitan Opera House and Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre.

But these prominent venues aren’t the only places where quality opera is thriving. Indeed, a wide range of smaller companies across the GTA and southern Ontario & such as Hamilton, London and Kitchener & are drawing audiences to fully staged shows sung by Canadian singers. And, with the most expensive season ticket for Opera Hamilton coming in at $255 & a fraction of the cost of a comparable package at the Four Seasons Centre & a night at the opera doesn’t have to spawn recession guilt.

The newest player on the scene is Opera Kitchener, run by Emilio Fina and his wife Jennifer. The company, created to step in where the Opera Ontario left off, staged its first show last month. (Opera Ontario produced shows in Kitchener and Hamilton until the end of the 2006/07 season, drawing near-capacity audiences to the Centre In The Square. Even so, a lack of municipal and donor funding, among other factors, forced the company into bankruptcy.)

The Finas have been running the Brampton Lyric Opera since 2005 and, when the opportunity to create another company in Kitchener came up, they grabbed it.

“We moved to Kitchener because of the potential here,” Emilio says.

The business model for Opera Kitchener is unusual because the company is for-profit and relies wholly on ticket sales for revenue. Performing arts organizations in Ontario typically garner 40 per cent of revenue from the box office, with the rest coming from donors and government grants. Rather than waiting to arrange third-party support, the Finas jumped right in.

This “Little Opera Company That Could” approach is charming & and it seems to be working.

An important part of Opera Kitchener’s plan is to give local talent a chance to sing on stage. This is a win-win, keeping operating costs down for the company and creating an opportunity for aspiring singers.

Private music teacher Sandra Tucker played Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro. For her, having an opera company in town is an unexpected luxury.

“I was ecstatic when I heard,” the soprano says. “It’s really nice to work in your own backyard.”

Opera Hamilton, meanwhile, has jettisoned the financial baggage it accumulated as Opera Ontario and is looking like an organization that’s in it for the long haul. It has paid down most of its debt, which means it can now apply for additional grant money.

General director David Speers is determined to get the company on solid financial footing.

“We’re all going to have to be more careful. I’m glad we had our problems a year earlier than this (global economic) mess. We’ve become lean and mean and ready to face the future.”

Like Opera Kitchener, Opera Hamilton considers itself to be a launching pad for young Canadian singers. But with a 56-piece orchestra, full sets, costumes and lighting, it has a significantly higher operating budget.

For singers, Opera Hamilton is the next rung on the ladder to an international career. Canadian stars Russell Braun, Richard Margison and Isabel Bayrakdarian cut their teeth on the Hamilton Place stage.

Opera in London, meanwhile, is also alive and well thanks to Timothy Vernon, the artistic director of B.C.’s Pacific Opera Victoria and the music director of Orchestra London.

“Between Pacific Opera, The Grand Theatre and Orchestra London, we were able to put together a kind of opera cartel that would bring ready-made productions right into town,” Vernon explains.

“The economies involved meant that one could retain the cast. And, of course, Canadian singers are delighted to have opportunity to sing major roles.”

Usually, an opera company hires the orchestra but, in this case, it’s the other way round, making it the only orchestra in Canada that produces its own opera. The shows have proved wildly popular over the past five years, with a run of four last spring drawing sellout crowds to the city’s Grand Theatre.

Given their smaller budgets and shorter seasons, the three companies have chosen favourites for upcoming productions. Opera Hamilton (www.operahamilton.com) stages Puccini’s Madame Butterfly April 2 and 3; Opera Kitchener (operakitchener.com) offers Rossini’s Cinderella on April 5; and Orchestra London (orchestralondon.ca) has Mozart’s The Magic Flute on May 30 and June 2, 4 and 6.

These proven winners, Vernon says, “take the audience by the hand and develop trust, so that they’ll believe that what you’re doing has calibre. When you do that, the actual repertoire becomes less important and they find adventure in discovery.”

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