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Kim Gaynor’s mission to modernize Vancouver Opera

Daniel Okulitch performs in Dead Man Walking, one of the productions that will be featured for Vancouver Opera’s inaugural 16-day festival.

If you've ever doubted the long-term benefits of student work programs, consider Kim Gaynor. Gaynor could be the poster child for those government-sponsored initiatives – with a path that began with zero interest in a career in the arts, wound through Canada and Europe, and has deposited her at Vancouver Opera. She took over the position of general director this summer. This at a time when there has been much hand-wringing over the dearth of Canadians in top administrative arts positions in this country – with a number of recent high-profile positions at organizations including the Royal Ontario Museum, the Shaw Festival and Luminato going to non-Canadians.

On Thursday, VO opens its first opera under Gaynor's watch – a new, family-friendly production of Hansel and Gretel, abridged to accommodate younger audiences, with a reduced orchestration commissioned by VO for the intimate venue (the Vancouver Playhouse) and with puppets, from the Old Trout Puppet workshop.

"I've always been searching for the Nutcracker of the opera world," says Gaynor, in her office at VO, her dog Kozak thumping his tail under her desk. "Ballet companies live because of their Nutcrackers and it would be wonderful if we could find some equivalent in the opera world."

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Gaynor, 54, was born in Hamilton, and grew up in nearby Burlington. She was an undergrad at the University of Toronto in Canadian Studies when, as part of a government-sponsored work program, she landed an interview for a summer job at DanceWorks.

"I had never seen a dance studio before," Gaynor says. Yet there she was in a dance studio being interviewed for the job – an experience which involved holding her interviewer's (dance curator Mimi Beck) baby while Beck left the studio to confer about whether to hire Gaynor. She got the job, her first of several summer positions in the arts. For an essay she was writing, she met with the marketing director for the National Ballet of Canada.

"I had a light-bulb moment," Gaynor says. "I thought, I could do this. I could not have to go and work in a bank or sell shoes. I could actually work in the arts, but as a real professional. From there, it was completely out of the question that I work anywhere else and I never have worked anywhere else."

Call it fate or good fortune, but Gaynor's determination has also been a crucial factor in her career. When she was one credit away from completing her MBA at York University, she was offered a plum job at the Canada Council – touring officer. She figured it all out: She would take the job, do that final course at the University of Ottawa and get her MBA. But when she presented her plan to York, the university turned her down, she says. She still took the job. And Gaynor flew from Ottawa to Toronto and back again every Wednesday to take that one evening course at York. She missed only one class, she says. And she got her MBA (and later, an alumni award, where she told that story in her speech).

After three years at the Canada Council, Gaynor, who is bilingual, went to Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal, where she was administrative director, then to the National Arts Centre Orchestra, where she was marketing director. Then, Europe. She followed a boyfriend to London, where she got a job at the Royal Opera House as head of marketing administration. It was a dream job – a more senior position than the one she interviewed for, in fact – but after 18 months, the venue shut down for renovations and laid off a large number of staff. She was one of them.

It turned out to be a blessing. As a freelancer, she got a contract to run the Yehudi Menuhin International Violin Competition, her first experience in event management. After four festivals, she returned to Canada to become managing director of L'Opéra de Montréal.

That ended unexpectedly when the search committee for a new music director made a recommendation to the board that was overturned. "I said to the board: This is a vote of no-confidence in me," she says. "I can't accept that." She went back to Europe, to Vienna, where she was introduced to operetta. In Austria, she co-founded the Festival Retz, a chamber music and chamber opera festival in a wine-growing region outside Vienna.

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A move to Switzerland led to her next opportunity, and it was the one that really stuck; for more than a decade, she ran the Verbier Festival, an annual 17-day event in the Alps involving some 65 classical concerts and more than 20 daily activities – lectures, social events.

Gaynor loves Switzerland, but when the opening at Vancouver Opera arose, she saw an opportunity – to move back to Canada, to be closer to her aging mother, but mostly to use her experience to transform the organization from a traditional season to a festival-based company.

"I love a challenge," she says. "And the challenge was, how do we modernize the way the company works in order for it to continue to be successful? Because many of the tried-and-true practices of performing arts organizations are seriously under threat."

The inaugural Vancouver Opera Festival will be staged next spring. The 16-day event will feature three new productions – Otello, Dead Man Walking and The Marriage of Figaro. There is a long list of other activities and events – including performances by Tanya Tagaq and German singer Ute Lemper.

Gaynor is careful to say that the company will present a season and a festival. "I don't want to abandon our presence throughout the year. The festival I really believe in because a festival allows you to do things you can't do in a regular season," she says. "But at the same time, we must maintain our traditional audience until they die or they go to Florida or Mexico to retire. We must do that because those audiences still are the lifeblood of the organization."

VO's announcement last year that it would move to a festival format was met with some significant disappointment and outcry. Change-resistance is expected, Gaynor says, but response to the change can't be ignored.

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"We must listen to what our audiences are telling us. And we must respond. Because otherwise we would just be flying in the face of anything that's reasonable," Gaynor says. "I have faith in my audiences. They will guide me, for sure."

Hansel and Gretel is at the Vancouver Playhouse from Nov. 24 to Dec. 11.

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