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Vancouver Opera sings a different tune

The organization has hit some bumps since a drastic change two years ago, but more changes are under way for 2018 – starting with a scaled-back festival

Kim Gaynor, the Vancouver Opera’s general director, says it became evident early in her tenure that a festival alone was not going to satisfy the city’s audiences.

Vancouver Opera presents dramatic works onstage, but there has been some drama offstage as the company shifts from a traditional season to festival model – and back again, sort of. Two years ago, as it struggled with the same issue many opera companies deal with – aging audiences and declining ticket sales – VO announced a bold move: to scrap its season and mount a festival instead.

At the 2015 news conference announcing the change, VO board chair Pascal Spothelfer called it "the most important and probably also the most innovative change at Vancouver Opera since it was founded."

But the transition has had some bumps. The inaugural festival, held last spring, fell short of box-office expectations – so from lessons learned, changes are happening. As it works to balance the books, VO is targeting expenses, affecting staff and performers. In another significant change, it will lose its long-time music director at the end of the season.

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For 2018, VO is planning a scaled-back event. The next festival will be shorter, with fewer productions and performances, and its supplementary programming will not venture as far outside the opera or classical realm.

At the same time, VO is beefing up its non-festival season offerings. It's presenting something that's closer to a traditional season, anchored by a festival.

"It's an ongoing process to find the right model that is the most sustainable and produces the best and the most happiest numbers of opera-goers in Vancouver and surrounding areas," says Kim Gaynor, VO's general director.

Boosting attendance – not simply cutting costs – was behind VO's 2015 decision to scrap its full season and become a festival. The move, announced by then-general director James Wright, took effect in 2016-17, after Wright's retirement. Gaynor, who is Canadian, was hired from Switzerland's Verbier Festival to replace him.

Gaynor says it became evident early in her tenure that a festival alone was not going to satisfy Vancouver audiences; subscriptions for 2016-17 were down by about 25 per cent.

"There was clearly a portion of the audience who like to have their opera spread out during the season and not necessarily all at the same time," she says. She proposed a modification of the initial strategy to a more balanced approach between festival and season. "When you propose a new idea and you see that things don't go as intended, I think it would be foolish to stick doggedly to your idea without making adjustments."

Kim Gaynor, right, with Michael Mann, left, digital communications manger, in the wardrobe department of the Vancouver Opera facility.

At the inaugural festival this past spring, the two operas programmed at the main venue, the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, failed to hit box-office targets. Despite good reviews, sales were disappointing for both Verdi's Otello and Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking. Ticket sales were considerably healthier for Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, which ran in the smaller Vancouver Playhouse venue next door.

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When asked whether the inaugural festival lost money, Gaynor responded: "Everything in opera loses money, right? … We did not meet our budgeted expectations. But we did finish the year with a smaller deficit than budgeted."

The company found a pattern in attendance: People came to one or two operas, "but not necessarily three," Gaynor says. "If the expectation was that everyone who normally came to operas throughout the year would just migrate into three operas over two weeks, that isn't what happened."

So the condensed 2018 festival – shorter by a week – will feature two main-stage operas instead of three, one at the Queen Elizabeth and one at the Playhouse.

"I believe we can sell considerably more tickets than we sold last year. Bunching the program together, some subscribers didn't like that, so they stayed away. And they will be coming back this year. You know, these transitions are not easy," says Spothelfer, who promises a better-prepared on-site box office, and "more sophisticated" marketing for the next festival.

He also says that having only one opera at the Queen Elizabeth will solve the tricky problem of set design in a venue with limited storage capacity.

"The way Kim has laid out this season is probably smarter than what we did in the first year," says Spothelfer, who stands by the decision to bring in the festival. "A mixed approach is probably smarter. But the key reason why we wanted the festival is to have a platform by which we can engage with a broader segment of our community. Because this opera company exists for the community, it doesn't exist for the management and the board."

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With that first festival, VO discovered that while complementary festival events such as concerts by Ute Lemper and Tanya Tagaq were successful, they didn't help sell tickets to the main-stage operas.

"They were popular but they were a completely different audience. In other words, the people who bought tickets for them … largely were people who didn't come to other activities in the festival," Gaynor says. "So if the objective is to kind of build an audience for what we're doing in the festival, they didn't contribute except for a kind of public relations/visibility point of view."

So next year, there will be on-theme programming with more chamber music and partnerships with similar organizations, including Early Music Vancouver.

"I've decided to keep the programming slightly closer to our world," Gaynor says, "with the idea being that we can build a more coherent target audience."

This year's season – the first Gaynor has programmed for VO – launches in October with Puccini's Turandot, a large-scale production with a 52-member local chorus and 64-piece Vancouver Opera Orchestra; American soprano Amber Wagner will make her role debut as Turandot.

The Atlanta Opera performs Turandot.

This will be followed by Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore in January. A Russian-themed festival next spring will include three performances of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre (last year, each QET opera had four performances) and 10 performances of The Overcoat – a musical tailoring, an operatic reinterpretation by Morris Panych of his and Wendy Gorling's 1998 play The Overcoat.

Gaynor hopes to announce further festival programming at the season launch in October.

At the end of the festival, Jonathan Darlington, who has been music director at VO since 2002, will leave his position. This is the last year of his contract and Gaynor says, "at the moment we're not in discussion for a formal extension of that contract."

Both Gaynor and Spothelfer anticipate Darlington will return as a guest conductor.

"I love Jonathan and his work and so does our orchestra and our audience," Gaynor says. "What I do want to do, however, is to bring some conductors to Vancouver who have not conducted here before. There's some fantastic young Canadian conductors, for example, who I would love to invite to give that experience not only to our orchestra, but also to our audiences here and to generate some excitement from the pit."

Despite its financial situation, Gaynor says VO "definitely has a role in premiering new operas" such as The Overcoat (a co-production with Toronto's Canadian Stage Company and Tapestry Opera). However, plans to stage the Canadian premiere of Huang Ruo's Mandarin opera Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, which VO announced in 2013, have been shelved. "We've decided that the production is too expensive for us to do at the moment," Gaynor says.

With an annual budget of $9.6-million, the company is operating on a deficit – but is working to rein in expenses; it finished the year 7 per cent under its projected expense budget, Gaynor says.

The 2016-17 fiscal results are being audited with a planned release at the October AGM. At the end of fiscal 2015-16, VO had an operating surplus of $134,663 on a $9.75-million budget, reducing its accumulated operating deficit to $657,266, which it called "manageable" in its annual report.

A Minnesota Opera production of Turandot, which the VO will perform Oct. 13, 15, 19 and 21 at the Queen Elizabeth theatre.

As The Globe and Mail reported in June, VO asked staff and contractors to agree to pay rollbacks of 2 per cent. Staff were given various options in an online poll; some signed a letter of protest to senior management in response.

Staff members aren't the only ones affected by the cost-cutting. The Vancouver Musicians' Association has agreed to concessions that include a 2-per-cent cut through a pension reduction for two years and a cut in the number of performances for musicians (albeit at a higher rate).

"It was the best possible scenario for how to meet the immediate needs of the organization but also be in a place to, if things improve, be able to very quickly rectify it," says David Brown, president of the Vancouver Musicians' Association. "We're all hopeful that the opera's going to weather this transition and get back to a place of strength."

In a three-year deal with VO, the Canadian Actors' Equity Association agreed to a 2-per-cent decrease in the first year, followed by a freeze and then a 2-per-cent increase.

In a statement to The Globe, executive director Arden Ryshpan said Equity recognizes that these are "challenging times" for VO. "It is our hope that Vancouver Opera will return to financial health by the end of the 2020 season, which is their plan."

Vancouver Opera's Turandot is at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre Oct. 13, 15, 19 and 21.

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