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Great Canadian Opera, no matter where it lurks, doesn't stand a chance any more

By John Terauds on April 11, 2012

How lucky that Jacques Offenbach was able to half complete the big, silly mess that is The Tales of Hoffmann, die, have his students and assistants finish the work, get it produced and, with the help of countless fixes, substitutions and additions, have the work enter the repertoire as one of people’s favourite operas.

Given that the Canadian Opera Company has been assailed recently by people who say it should be producing more Canadian opera, seeing Hoffmann on its stage last night made me realise that the situation here is so dire, that Hoffmann would probably not make it into production if Offenbach were Canadian and had died in October 2011, instead of October, 1880.

Great Canadian opera, whichever imaginations it may be lurking in at this very moment, doesn’t stand a chance.

To illustrate, a little fictional dramatization:

The scene is today, in the cool, brick-and-beam loft Toronto boardroom of Canadian Opera Works (COW), the country’s premier presenter. On the polished wood table sit piles of typsescripts and scores bound in blue, red and yellow cover stock.

Seated in a ring around the paperwork is the company’s artistic brain trust: general director St. John “Singe” Nave, music director Henri Béton, music administrator Frances Lysenko and artistic administrator Nagy Vakund.

Toronto new music advocates, catalyzed by Nicholas Noh, have been picketing the Novotel Centre for a month, demanding to Canadian opera on its mainstage. The foursome is looking to see what Canadian work the company could put on its mainstage for the 2013-14 season.

Béton picks up an orchestral score and waves it at the group. “This one, Tales of Hoffmann, has the most amazing score. I bet  audiences would hum their way home every night.”

“What’s the plot?” asks Nave.

“It about a Romantic poet who gets drunk, gets in an argument with his muse and revisits three imaginary girlfriends. His current girlfriend could be imaginary, too. It’s an interesting idea, but I’m not sure we should have so much drinking on stage, it sets a bad example for our patrons who drive home after the show.”

“Sounds out of focus to me,” says Lysenko as she grabs the score from Béton. “Sorry, guys, we can’t do this — it calls for a full symphony orchestra in the pit. We can’t afford to spend that on an unknown new opera.”

“Perhaps we could cut the drinking and make it a dream sequence. Henri, do you think you could reorchestrate it down to a dozen instruments?” Nave interjects.

“The whole thing has to be shorter,” says Vakund, as he thumbs through the libretto. “There’s a Prologue, an Epilogue as well as three full acts. This is more than three hours of opera, and the cast is huge. I’m counting — wow! — 22 characters. Plus chorus. This is insane!”

“I realise that, but this music is fabulous,” Béton exclaims. “This is something every opera lover in the world is going to want to hear.”

Nave jumps in, “Frances, can we get the composer and librettist in for a consultation, see how we could get this down to four characters, two acts and, say 90 minutes total running time?”

Lysenko jabs at her her phone. “Karen, can you get the composer-librettist team from Tales of Hoffmann — uh, Jacques Offenbach and Jules Barbier — in here for a development meeting?”

There’s a pause. Lysenko grimaces. “Ok, forget it. Thanks.”

Lysenko turns to the team, deadpan: “Offenbach died in October.”

“There’s no way we can go asking for production sponsorship for a three-hour, probably $2 million dollar opera by a composer who just died,” says Vakund.

Nave: “Ok, let’s move on. What else do we have here.”

Lysenko holds up a dog-eared libretto. “There’s this thing called The Scarlet Princess. It’s inspired by kabuki, which means it could conceivably be cheap to produce. The Asian-myth side of it could appeal to a wide audience in Toronto…”

“Who wrote the libretto?” asks Nave.

“David Henry Hwang, the guy who wrote M. Butterfly,” Vakund replies.

“Really? I loved the movie when I was growing up,” says Béton, as he rummages for the orchestral score. “The composer is Alexina Louie. She a New Yorker?”

“No, she’s Toronto. Really experienced. She’s had a couple of comic-opera successes over the past decade, but we’re not sure she’s right for serious opera,” adds Lysenko.

Nave has picked up the typescript and is reading something on the cover. “Setting the tone for the entire opera is the opening, a storm scene in which a monk and his male acolyte vow their undying love for each other before committing suicide by leaping off a cliff.” He stops and raises his eyebrows. “However, the monk loses his courage, and as the boy, Shiragiju falls, he sings a death aria and curses the monk, Seigen. The opera is the sensuous and erotic tale of reincarnation, obsessive love, demonic possession, revenge, murder and redemption. It is populated by a colourful cast of imperial figures, nuns, monks, villagers, outcasts, prostitutes, johns, ghosts and demons.”

Nave fans himself with the typescript.

Vakund shakes his head, turning bright red. “No, no, no. NO BIG CAST. There’s no money.”

“Next,” says Nave.

John Terauds

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