Thursday, July 17, 2014

Thoughts on Opera Camp

I am so proud of the fourteen young people who participated in Vancouver Opera's first Summer Opera Camp over the past two weeks. Along with three teaching staff members and coming from neighborhoods across Vancouver, they gathered for eight days at The O'Brian Centre for Vancouver Opera and explored the various facets of opera - and how to create their own opera. On the eighth day the group presented the world premiere of Memories, with original words and music written by the students. The story is based on Lois Lowry's classic dystopian novel, The Giver.

There was abundant talent on display among all fourteen young people:  singing, writing, orchestra playing, scenery design and building, and - most importantly - abundant creativity and collaboration:  all of which is required to produce an opera!

50 parents, family-members, friends and opera fans gathered on July 11 for the performance.

Our spacious home in The O'Brian Centre allows Vancouver Opera to expand its educational and community programs.  We are very excited to be presenting this first Summer Opera Camp and have plans to expand it next summer.  We are also pleased that we have been asked to partner with and learn from summer camps at The Italian Cultural Centre and The Sarah McLachlan School of Music.

Opera Camp benefited from three outstanding teaching artists:  Rory Cowal, Katrin Pőmmeri, and Jonny Michel.  Their involvement was critical to the Camp's success!

New projects such as this require extra support to carry-out.  I am very grateful for support from all four levels of government, two local foundations, a regional arts organization, and four individuals.

- Jim Wright
General Director, Vancouver Opera

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Opera Camp Finale

My name is Ellie Siden and I’m working at VO as the Education and Community Engagement Intern for the summer.

I don’t know about you, but when I was in elementary school, I sure wasn’t performing- let alone composing- operas! And yet, with the help of our amazing Teaching Artists Rory and Katrin, that is exactly what the 15 kids attending our Opera Camp have managed to do.

If you’re in need of a good reminder about how sky-high goals and hard work can pay off in the fullest, come check out our Opera Camp’s performance of their opera Memories this Friday at 2pm at the O’Brian Centre.To find out more, call 604-683-0222.

The kids have written, composed, and designed their own 20 minute opera from the bottom up- every rhyming couplet, every climactic cadence, and every inch of set has been thought-up and worked over by them. And they have the 15 page score to prove it!

Carolyn Forward (9), Sophie Taylor (11), Dixie Worland (10),
and Kendra Baldwin (12) rehearse the opening number of their opera.

Dasha Kalyuk-Klyuchrova (13) sings her
heart out as Luka, one of the antagonists of the opera.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Summer Camp Day 2

My name is Ellie Siden and I’m working at VO as the Education and Community Engagement Intern for the summer.
With the beautiful, hot weather of the new month, we have another hot, new topic: Opera Camp! This is the first time that VO has produced a summer camp. The 8 day program has 15 participants ranging in age from 9 to 15, all self-declared arts (and opera?) lovers.

Rory shows how a piece of scrap metal
might be used as an instrument.
Working with these dynamic youth we have two professional teaching artists and musicians, Rory and Katrin, both of whom worked this year with VO’s Project Opera, as well as Jonny, a recent grad from UBC’s distinguished opera program.

The kids are all smiles as
they compose their overture.
It’s only the second day of camp, and already the kids are hard at work writing their opera, which will be loosely based on the novel The Giver by Lois Lowry.

After a full morning of working on plot development, in the afternoon the kids came up with ideas for their overture. They decided that it would be played on scrap metal, to illustrate the idea of a society without knowledge of music.

We can’t wait to discover tomorrow’s creativity!



Thursday, July 3, 2014

VO's New Intern

Hi, my name is Ellie Siden, and I have been interning here at Vancouver Opera for a grand total of a week and a half.

I’m working as Education and Community Engagement Intern for the summer under the expert directorship of Colleen Maybin, who is Manager of Education and Community Engagement at VO. I feel very official because my emails now include a foot-long signature, and I have an ultra-personalized Vancouver Opera email address which denotes me as “VO intern 1”. It’s a good thing I have an intern number, so I can distinguish myself from all the other interns (there are none). At least they didn’t decide to give me the “intern 7” email, just to see me squirm.

In my grand plan about how I was going to write this entry, I had this idea that I would start off by comparing the beginning of my internship with an overture. What a beautiful metaphor! (the public would exclaim). And how fitting, given that she is interning with the opera! And I would continue by referencing the overture to The Marriage of Figaro, which is tense and excited at the beginning, and gathers confidence and melody as it arcs gracefully along, albeit with some rather large surprises along the way. And there we have it: A rhetorical device perfectly linking music and life, providing illumination and provoking thought along the way.

If am hesitant to endorse the above metaphor, it is less because I don’t believe the metaphor applies, and more because that I think that metaphors should be reciprocal. My week in no way does justice to Mozart. I stumbled along awkwardly (as usual), getting used to working in an office, meeting friendly people, learning a little, and absorbing a lot. I don’t think there is anything in Mozart’s overture about your legs losing feeling from sitting so much, but there is also nothing in Mozart about pinching yourself because you cannot believe you are working with such cool people on such amazing projects. As I am discovering, it takes a lot more than a turn of the hand to bring music and real life into a meaningful and working relationship. But it might just be worth it.

Monday, June 23, 2014

OPERA America Conference: Day 3

I'm enjoying the OPERA America conference, now concluding its third day.

I have especially enjoyed working with the group of new general directors/general managers, eight of them, who have been in the leadership for one year or less. They are a bright, committed group of varying ages - and include two women, which is encouraging in a field long dominated by white men in top positions - who have come to their new roles in various ways. Some have been promoted from within, others head-hunted. Predominant issues include building a constructive relationship with their board of directors, learning their new donor rosters quickly, and in the case of internal promotion, shedding old roles and helping the rest of the company including volunteers recognize their new responsibilities are not their old ones!

Informal roundtable sessions with colleague general directors of the twenty or so largest North America companies are always interesting. I believe the level of collegiality, transparency and willingness to share successes and challenges has increased in recent years, as every company is finding it necessary to examine traditional business models and assumptions. It is especially rewarding that the head of a $70M company shares his challenges openly and is also willing to learn from a $5M company.

It has been a joy to work with members of the VO Board of Directors and VO Foundation Trustees, six of whom are in attendance, as well as several staff members. The joint learning opportunities and combined information gathered among us will be invaluable in the months ahead.

For Vancouverites' eyes only:  many attendees have remarked to me how wonderful it is to be in San Francisco, but still think our city is more beautiful!!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

More on the OPERA America Conference this weekend in San Francisco

On June 20 I fly to San Francisco a day before the OPERA America annual conference begins, for an OPERA America board meeting. It's a bittersweet event. I always enjoy participating in the board meetings, sharing best practices with respected colleagues from around the continent, and helping to guide our organization in its work. This will be my final board meeting after my second six-year term. (I served my first term in the 1990s). I will miss the work, the people, and the "buzz" of being in a room with twenty like-minded folks: administrators, designers and directors, and singers -  many of whom are or have been at the pinnacle of their careers.

As I noted in an earlier piece, I am thrilled that so many directors and foundation trustees are attending the conference along with staff members.  Here are two examples of the many sessions we will attend: 

Opera PR 2.0: Building a Relationship with Today's Media
Are you looking to strengthen your relationship with traditional or new media journalists in your market? Would you like tips for successfully pitching to your local media? Join journalists from a variety of outlets for this engaging discussion of opera and the press in the modern media landscape and gain practical advice to help you increase and improve your media coverage.

Diversity and Inclusion: Behind the CurtainThe dimensions of diversity are numerous, ranging from age and ethnicity to gender, professional specialty and other delineations. Increasing diversity and inclusion on stage, backstage and in the audience are the goals of every opera company, but engaging new and different people with the art form, especially in leadership roles has proven difficult. Shariq Yosufzai, Vice President, Global Diversity for Chevron Corporation, will lead a presentation and discussion about barriers to success and strategies that can focus and advance your company’s efforts toward greater diversity and inclusion.

An added bonus for me:  I have been asked to moderate three days of a "New General Directors Roundtable", which is a peer learning group consisting of recent appointees to their first general director/chief staff officer positions at companies with budgets between $1 million and $5 million. Through facilitated discussion and formal presentations, the Roundtable will, I hope, respond to the needs articulated by participants, including strategy formulation, staff management, board relations and work/life balance. General directors are invited to bring their management challenges to the table for our group's analysis and discussion.  I'm sure that I will learn as much from these talented, younger men and women as they might glean from me!

- James Wright
General Director, Vancouver Opera

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Vancouver Opera's Plans for the Future

Bleak headlines have recently appeared about the health of opera in North America. Some of these stories are blown out of proportion, some are based on an individual company's inexplicable decision-making, and at least one - quoting the Metropolitan Opera's General Manager about the company's potential bankruptcy - comes in the midst of acrimonious labour negotiations between the Met's management and one of its unions.

There is no denying there are challenges in our discipline and that opera companies, including Vancouver Opera, are concerned about sales trends over the past decade. I will delve into reasons for that in a future posting.

But now I want to share what Vancouver Opera is doing to respond to these challenges and how we are proactively shaping our future.

First of all, though sobered by the "macro" and the "micro" facts, we are not discouraged! In fact, we think this is an historic opportunity – a kind that arises perhaps every couple of generations or so – to remake our organization and to greatly influence the consumption of culture in our region.

VO`s Board of Directors and management have been involved in intense strategic planning for the past two-and-a-half years, putting forth strategies that are reshaping our organization. Some are relatively minor but some are quite significant.

Let's begin with the complete reshaping of our mission:

To be the destination performing arts organization that entertains, stimulates and enriches British Columbians – driven by programming that redefines “opera” and revolutionizes its accessibility and community value.

The use of “redefines opera” and “revolutionizes accessibility” is quite intentional. While very difficult to achieve, these ideas are cornerstones of our new direction.

For some, the definition of opera is pretty narrow: the traditional works from Mozart through Puccini; from the 1880s to the 1910s (okay,1926 with Puccini's Turandot). But this fixation on the "centre of the continuum" does not work for many others, particularly those younger than most of our traditional ticket buyers and many people from non-Eurocentric backgrounds. We must make room for these folks in the opera family. At the same time we wish to protect the core of the operatic canon for future generations of British Columbians to enjoy. 

So, to address the challenges of  attracting new audiences of all ages, continuing to be relevant to our community, and maintaining a high level of quality and community value, we are planning creatively and boldly for future seasons. Here are some highlights:

There will be fewer traditional operas in the years' mix, and more musical theatre and new operas. 

Next season we are presenting the world premiere of a commissioned opera Stickboy, with music by Neil Weisensel and words by Shane Koyczan. We will also produce Stephen Sondheim's darkly comedic Sweeney Todd, featuring world-renowned bass Greer Grimsley and conducted by VO`s Music Director Jonathan Darlington.

In 2016 we will produce the Canadian premiere and second North American production of Huang Ruo's Dr. Sun Yat-sen, in a co-production with the prestigious Santa Fe Opera. Telling the personal and political story of the famous reformer, the work, while "traditional" opera in most ways, will be sung entirely in Mandarin. Future plans call for producing a chamber opera, Dark Sisters, by the young and talented New York composer Nico Muhly, honing in on the "faith and fear of polygamy" (quoting the Opera Philadelphia program).

Of course, we will continue to produce traditional core operatic repertoire, and are planning exciting productions of such favourites as Rigoletto, Turandot, La Cenerentola (Cinderella), Otello, La traviata, and Madama Butterfly.

We are also considering Silent Night, by Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell, which debuted in 2011 in St. Paul, Minnesota. The libretto is based on the multilingual screenplay by Christian Carion, for the 2005 film Joyeux Noël, about the short-lived spontaneous Christmas truce between enemy combatants in World War I. According to characters and situations, the libretto is mostly sung in English, French and German, but also some Italian and Latin.

These are some of our programming plans for the next few years. In a future posting I will share our plans for deepening the engagement with our community, extending our activities south of the Fraser River, and fulfilling some of our plans for our Education programs.

- James Wright
General Director, Vancouver Opera

Friday, June 6, 2014

Join VO at Italian Day 2014

Join VO at Italian Day on the Drive this Sunday! Tenor Martin Sadd and baritone Aaron Durand will be performing a selection of favourite Italian opera hits, accompanied by pianist Candy Siu.

We'll be on the Grant Stage at the corner of Grant and Commercial at 4:45pm (followed by the Pasta Eating Contest and then Grape Stomping Contest). Come down for a fun time!

VO at Opera America

The annual OPERA America conference, held last May in Vancouver, will be June 20-23 in San Francisco, another wonderful west coast city!

Several Vancouver Opera staff and board members will be attending. Performances offered by San Francisco Opera during the conference are La traviata, Madama Butterfly and Showboat; I will be seeing a performance of Anya17, a new work by British composer Adam Gorb to a libretto written by Ben Kaye. Anya17 was written specifically to raise awareness of the secret world of sex trafficking, where up to 800,000 young women and children are trafficked into the EU every year; the opera is being produced by a smaller Bay Area company, Opera Parallèle.

Some of the sessions at the conference are:

Change is Good:  Artistic and Organizational Planning for Bold Programming
There is a first time for everything: an edgy contemporary take on a warhorse, a world premiere, an opera in English. You may be ready, but have you prepared everyone in the company to appreciate and advocate for your vision? Discover the strategies for building internal and external support for new artistic directions.

From Aida to Zorn:  Finding Your Audience's Blueprints
Opera companies have the opportunity to serve multiple audiences—some that move easily between traditional and new work, and others preferring specific musical styles. Learn how organizations have changed their season structures and approached artistic planning to include a broader repertoire while responding to audience preferences.
Optimizing the Role of the Board
A covenant between board and management enables artistic planning and fiscal stability....  (presenters)  will describe a five-year strategic initiative undertaken to set clear expectations for board members, as well as the tools they developed to inspire and engage each other to meet their mission of ensuring the continuing viability of San Francisco Opera  as a world-class company.

Trends in Philanthropy
As typical opera donors age, companies must better understand the motivations and generational differences among high-wealth individuals—especially as they are increasingly motivated by worthy humanitarian causes and influenced by global perspectives.

And this is just some of what's happening on Day 1! Obviously, lots to learn, to share, and to bring home as we continue to explore the vast range of operatic repertoire and company practices, and VO's expanding role in our community. I will post more about the conference previous to attending and while in San Francisco.

- James Wright
General Director, Vancouver Opera